Prince Crosses the Bridge to Glory
By Paul Evans
RIGHT BEFORE THE TECHNO-THUNDERCLAP that introduces Graffiti Bridge, Prince, trembling, breathes: "Dear Dad -- things didn't turn out quite like I wanted them 2/Sometimes I feel like I'm gonna explode." Urgent and yearning, the confession serves as a mission statement for a seventeen-song tour de force that reclaims Prince's rare stature as a pop Picasso -- an experimentalist with enough mass appeal to make his experiments matter.
Titanic ambition, obsessive vision, furious virtuosity, Prince's gifts have seemed uncanny -- Mephistophelean, profligate. But squandered on the offhand dance formula of last year's Batman -- a tactical slip, because, dunked in the movie's mainstream splash, His Royal Badness disappeared -- those gifts have not glistened of late. Graffiti Bridge, the soundtrack of Prince's upcoming movie, revives our gasp of wonder at Prince by making more emphatic than ever the power of his tense persona, a persona strung tight on the wire of his daring coupling of funk and rock, black and white, male and female, flesh and spirit.
In its first four songs, Graffiti Bridge covers more musical waterfront than some bands do in an entire career. "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," a fizzy, elegant rocker fueled by trebly guitar and cheesy keyboard, brings on the funk anthem "New Power Generation." Then comes the drum blitz of "Release It," a James Brownish workout as fierce as "Housequake" (from Sign o' the Times) or "Tamborine" (from Around the World in a Day), followed by the bluesy hauteur of "The Question of U." What makes this opening flourish more than a mere flexing of skill is a fresh militancy in the lyrics. Prince tough-talks like an embattled champ -- "Try 2 tell me how to paint my palace/That ain't where it's at"; "The only thing that's in our way is U"; "Whose crib is this -- my crib!/Whose wine U drinkin' -- mine!" And the existential media fret of "The Question of U" ("Must I become naked?/No image at all?"), he mines a tormented realism and self-doubt that fight the coy narcissism of some of his earlier work.
A sharper focus and harder groove raise Graffiti Bridge above the feckless genre dabbling that often enlivened but sometimes undercut Parade, Around the World in a Day and Lovesexy. Having long proved that he can credibly emit any sound, from orchestral lush to Beatlemaniac cute, Prince forgoes his outré style tinkering to fix on rock and funk, pumping the latter with neat guest spots by George Clinton on "We Can Funk" and by Prince's resurrected R&B protégés in the Time on "Shake!" Gospel veteran Mavis Staples shines on the strutting "Melody Cool," but most of the album is Prince solo -- his guitar soaring from crunchy Steve Cropper-isms to baroque Hendrix frenzy, his studio smarts peppering tracks with enough hand claps, keyboard peals and artful noise to keep the listener, in this day of texture-happy production, consistently surprised and intrigued.
All through the album, Prince reprises his trademark themes of love sexy and love divine: "Lick it like U like it," he pants on "Love Machine," and, on "Elephants and Flowers," he promises that "There will be peace 4 those who love God a lot." So sure and catchy, though, are the tunes and so cleareyed (for Prince) the words that his omnivorous mysticism is newly convincing, but still startling, sensual and freeing.
Along with the sinuous "Thieves in the Temple" and its air of dread, "Graffiti Bridge" is a standout, a "Purple Rain"-like electric hymn, a call for transcendence, a moving quest for "A bridge that leads to a better land than real." Built up from an album's worth of nervy, confident material characterized by a new maturity -- though only as mature, happily, as we'd want Prince to be -- the song's cry for salvation hardly seems escapist or fantastic. Prince -- among other things, one of rock's greatest actors -- comes off as desperately real.
Appearing, since Dirty Mind, able to master anything, Prince's willful, almost perverse bravery (like David Bowie's or Bob Dylan's) has meant skirting the obvious -- eluding the platinum ozone of Madonna or Michael Jackson, where sheer size rules and significance falls sadly beside the point. Rather, he has mustered a subversive triumph, making records half-brilliant, half-quirky, managing the Minneapolis scene with the ghost hand of a funky Gatsby, deploying an army-harem of disciples and flashing a dazzle of guises uniform in their harlequin outrageousness. By the very promiscuity of these bold strategies, he has inseminated the whole of pop. With Graffiti Bridge and its firm coalescence of his styles and concerns, Prince reasserts his originality -- and does it with the ease of a conqueror.
ROLLING STONE, AUGUST 23RD, 1990
September 17, 1990
GRAFFITI BRIDGE Prince - Since this is a soundtrack, we're into one of those good news-bad news situations. On the plus side there's the fact that Prince doesn't seem to recognize that he's supposed to fill such works with incidental throwaway music. From Purple Rain to Batman, he has displayed an inclination to create film scores that are stronger and fuller than most artists' masterworks. The drawback is that this also means there's another movie out there that Prince directed and stars in.
However the film turns out, we know at least that many of the songs are excellent. There's the springy, insouciant twirl of "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," the upside-your-head funk of "New Power Generation," the deeper shade of blues in "The Question of U" and the sumo jam of "We Can Funk," on which Prince teams with the original Mr. Funkadelic, George Clinton.
One chronic problem surfaces: Prince can't leave well enough alone. He keeps fracturing the flow with odd vocal overlays and melodic red herrings. That tinkering gives the album a rather scattered feel. So what if he floats off into the ether sometimes? Experimentation is to be expected from a true musical visionary like Prince. And sometimes it pays off, as on the mysterious jazzy mood of "Joy in Repetition."
With this record, Prince is raising the stakes on the Top 40 crowd (as he is wont to do with each release). The bass and drum sounds on Graffiti Bridge are absolutely engulfing. Musicians and producers are likely to pore over this record, scratching their heads and wondering how he does it.
This isn't a solo flight for the purple dauphin. There are jacked-up jollies from the Time ("Release It," "Love Machine" and "Shake!") and showcases for singers Tevin Campbell and Mavis Staples.
All in all, Graffiti Bridge is a groovable feast of an album (17 songs), loaded with exotic dishes, not all of them suitable to all palates (avoid the operatic title track), but it sure is filling. If the movie turns out to be bad, you can always close your eyes and just dig the sounds. (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.) -- David Hiltbrand
Review by Greg Sandow
Pop music isn't kind to its geniuses. They have their moment -- think, among many others, of Frank Sinatra in the '50s, or Aretha Franklin in the '60s -- when they seem to speak for their age. But then time moves on, and new voices arise. Yesterday's pop geniuses hang on, often for years, sometimes with their power undiminished. But their music isn't as urgent as it was. It doesn't seem to matter.
Something like that seemed to be happening to Prince. He reached his popular peak in 1984 with Purple Rain (both the film and record). But his most consistent work since then is probably his so-called Black Album, recorded in 1988 but never released (it circulates widely on bootlegs). That year's official effort, Lovesexy, was fascinating in an introverted way, but didn't sell very well. His 1989 Batman songs sounded watery.
But now he's back with a double album that seems like a masterpiece. The soundtrack of his upcoming movie (also called Graffiti Bridge) may or may not reestablish him as the rough but compelling cinematic force he was in Purple Rain, but it's clear from the very start that Prince has done something both impressive and essential: He's recaptured his ease.
The opening song, "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," rocks along, every note- even the lightest tingle on an acoustic guitar-infected with irresistible bounce. Prince then moves on to an effortless meld of funk and R&B ("New Power Generation"), followed by blistering hip-hop ("Release It") that's just as unforced. By that time he's covered more stylistic ground than most musicians manage in a lifetime.
The fourth cut, "359," is a probing ballad, in which a snaky melody uncoils over low, implacable drums. But the song won't take any common shape. It poses questions -- the lyrics ask "What shall I do? Which way do I turn?" -- and then ebbs into purely instrumental explorations, which themselves soon fade away. The opening queries are left unanswered. "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got" is unusual, too. Midway through it interrupts its own easy flow and, after a few darting surprises, simply dissolves; like "359," it's shaped more like a question than a statement.
Eventually -- as Graffiti Bridge tells its story -- the questions are answered. "Love can save us all," sings Prince, which, if not exactly a new thought, still registers as the answer to a heartfelt prayer when the album reaches its climax in "Still Would Stand All Time." This is a deep, profoundly original song of shivery musical explorations sung in a simple, direct gospel style.
From there the album winds down with partly joyous, partly thoughtful celebration, and closes with the gradually vanishing sound of running water. But there's much else -- including a collaboration with funk king George Clinton, and (of course) Prince's characteristic down-in-the-ooze sexuality, which has never seemed shyer, more breathless, or more spiritual.
One strange note: A few songs are performed not by Prince, but by his recently reconstituted former proteges the Time, the hit Minnesota R&B group that appears in Graffiti Bridge and Purple Rain. Still, this is Prince's album through and through. In the '60s, rock musicians began to write and produce their own music; in 1990, Prince shows that it's the concept that counts. He can create a world so overpowering that a song sung by someone else can still be his. A+
New York Times
August 19, 1990
Prince has his head in the clouds, his hands on half a dozen instruments, his feet on the dance floor and his pelvis ready for all sorts of action. Verbally, he's no deep thinker; when he's not singing about sex, his messages tend to be benevolent and banal. His new album, ''Graffiti Bridge'' (Paisley Park/Warner Bros. 27493; all three formats), sloganizes with ''Everybody's lookin' 4 love,'' ''Makin' love and music's the only things worth fighting 4'' and, on the utopian side, ''There will be peace 4 those who love God a lot.''
But his music says far more than his lyrics. Talent and ambition and nonstop syncopation allow Prince to vault over the dualities - mind/body, sacred/profane, black/white, male/female, funny/serious - that so much other Western art worries over. He knocks together the funk and rock that were separate genres before he came along in the late 1970's; he follows a lascivious come-on with a declaration of faith, both equally heartfelt. While Prince is obsessed with carnal and communal connections, he often works alone, turning himself into a one-man band through studio multitracking. Yet he may well be pop's most sought-after collaborator, having supplied songs or produced sessions for, among others, Madonna, the Time, the Bangles, Sinead O'Connor, Sheena Easton and Sheila E. ''Graffiti Bridge'' is the soundtrack album for a movie due this fall that has been billed as the sequel to ''Purple Rain,'' the 1984 film in which Prince played a Prince-like musician seeking reconciliation with his family as he ascended to fame. The movie transformed Prince from hitmaker to star, and the album sold 10 million copies. (One of its songs, ''Darling Nikki,'' which mentions masturbation, was an early stimulus for the Parents' Music Resource Center, the group that raised an uproar over what it called ''porn-rock.'' Prince has been annoying bluenoses ever since by refusing to separate lust from love - and ''Graffiti Bridge'' is true to form.) After ''Purple Rain,'' Prince cooled off his career, apparently deliberately, with albums like ''Around the World in a Day'' and ''Parade,'' which traded anthemic rock for post-psychedelic orchestration and whimsy. ''Graffiti Bridge'' plays things both ways, putting simple pop tunes alongside some of Prince's most radical music. The songs pull together and then push ahead with both the stripped-down funk of Prince's 1987 ''Sign o' the Times'' and unreleased 1988 ''Black Album'' and the ethereal experiments of 1988's ''Lovesexy.'' Prince's last soundtrack album, for ''Batman'' in 1989, had a lot of filler; ''Graffiti Bridge'' has virtually none.
Few pop innovators can stay ahead of their inevitable emulators, and Prince has garnered sincere flattery, verging on plagiarism, from Phil Collins, George Michaels, Bobby Brown and many others. But 12 years after he emerged from Minneapolis, he refuses to act like a pop elder. ''New Power Generation,'' a party anthem that shows up in two parts on ''Graffiti Bridge,'' squares off against the status quo, declaring ''The only thing that's in our way is U/ Your old-fashioned music and your old ideas.''
''Graffiti Bridge'' updates Prince's usual sexual overtures, dance manifestoes, introspections and hymns. Now and then, it adds the sentiments of a feisty underdog, as in ''Can't Stop This Feeling I Got,'' which begins, ''Everybody wanna see U down 4 the count, but that ain't what being a real man's about.'' Meanwhile, the album folds musical experiments in with the beat. Since the mid-1980's, Prince has been toying with harmony and texture, seeing how many eccentric add-ons he can get away with. Songs sometimes grew too wispy and cute in the process, but now he has found a balance.
Prince delegates most of the come-ons to the Time, the seven-man Minneapolis band that he sponsored in the early 1980's and that recently reunited. The Time revs up its funk vamps on the conceited rap ''Release It,'' on the ''Wooly Bully'' tribute ''Shake!'' and on the computer-driven ''Love Machine'' (with Elisa Fiorillo answering the Time's Morris Day innuendo for innuendo). Prince and the Time share ''The Latest Fashion,'' about betrayal; over the Time's James Brown funk, Prince adds saxophones and vocals in a different key from the rest of the song, destabilizing it.
While the Time provides the sound of a working band for the album, Prince's solo efforts move into sonic abstraction. Parts of ''Graffiti Bridge'' recall earlier Prince songs, but he has once again revamped his arranging style. At first, hip-hop caught Prince off guard; now he has added rap's split-second electronic collages to his arsenal of techniques. The arrangements are more volatile and detailed, full of electronic zaps.
A hard-edged drum-machine beat paces ''New Power Generation'' (Part 2 includes a rap) and ''Elephants and Flowers'' (a song about finding faith), while short, percussive sound-samples ricochet through ''Tick, Tick, Bang!,'' about sexual frustration, and the wistful ''Round and Round,'' sung and rapped by the choirboy-voiced Tevin Campbell, which might be too sweet without its deep, lurching drumbeat and guitar riff. Prince isn't copying hip-hop - he doesn't try to outtalk or outstomp rappers - but he has clearly paid attention to it.
Prince still knows his way through conventional song forms. ''Graffiti Bridge'' is an anthemic ballad, while ''Thieves in the Temple'' - a modernized, altered blues - makes desperation catchy in a musical sequel to ''When Doves Cry.'' For Mavis Staples, the supremely breathy gospel-pop singer, Prince wrote ''Melody Cool,'' a soul song with a touch of apocalypse. ''Still Would Stand All Time'' is a pop-gospel hymn; partway through, though, Prince can't resist melting its harmonies into chromatic ambiguity. Yet hip-hop has been crumbling song forms, and so has Prince, who was already stretching time with James Brown-style vamps. ''Joy in Repetition,'' about a surreal love match in club land, revolves around a moody vamp, but the arrangement evolves cinematically, with instruments and sounds floating in and out like wisps of smoke.
Prince has also forged an alliance with George Clinton, whose Parliament-Funkadelic came up with the most far-reaching experiments in black pop in the 1970's, layering styles along with rhythms and vocal lines. He and Mr. Clinton are equally omnivorous, and when they work together in ''We Can Funk,'' they push each other, with a lyric that turns drug testing into a sexual metaphor and an arrangement that piles on voices and horns and rhythms in a polymorphous swirl.
Prince is far less conventional now than in 1984, and ''Graffiti Bridge'' takes chances that didn't even exist for him with ''Purple Rain.'' It will take a good movie, or at least a lovable one, to turn it into a blockbuster. But Prince prefers a musical challenge to a commercial sure thing, and with ''Graffiti Bridge'' he may have both.
-- Jon Pareles
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
Sunday, August 5, 1990
'BRIDGE' SPANS ALL THE GENRES
With the assurance of a master, Prince has reasserted his reputation as one of pop's most brilliant innovators with his new album, "Graffiti Bridge."
Utopian, defiant, expressing a newly determined commitment to social change and grappling anew with the dichotomy between earthly desires and spirituality, Prince covers impressive thematic ground in addition to seriously partying down (often with his pals in the resurrected Time). And all the while, he delves from his trademark tight, funk-rock groove deeply into black musical roots.
In short, the 17-cut soundtrack - scheduled to be released Aug. 21 - from Prince's forthcoming movie (not due until fall) is an artistic triumph that also has the look of a commercial smash.
There are killer dance tracks ("Shake!"), cosmic funk (Prince teamed with master funkateer George Clinton on "We Can Funk"), glorious funk-rock anthems ("New Power Generation"), first-rate soul (Mavis Staples and the Steeles on "Melody Cool") and plenty of grist for serious thought ("Thieves in the Temple," the first single.)
Since his career began, Prince's ability to bridge musical genres - from the pop psychedelia of "Around the World in a Day" to James Brown funk and scorching rock 'n' roll - has been no secret.
But only recently, most notably at the Rupert's warm-up gig for his current European tour, has Prince so blatantly and affectionately tapped into rhythm and blues, gospel and blues, at the same time incorporating bits of rap and hip-hop.
"The Question of U," for instance, is a slow blues given a technological, contemporary sheen, featuring Prince's blues rock guitar solos and harpsichordlike keyboard work. "Melody Cool" is a marvelous soul-drenched vehicle for gospel veteran Staples. On the ballad "Still Would Stand All Time," meanwhile, Prince contributes some of the sweatiest R&B/gospel vocals he's ever mustered, while the Steeles back him up with luscious gospel-choir work. And "Shake!," written by Prince and performed by the Time, incorporates a melange of classic '60s, shreds of soul, R&B, garage rock and even a little Texas punk-soul.
In addition, as always, there's plenty of energetic funk-rock, which, along with tight, multitextured arrangements and Prince's production finesse, ties it all together so that the seemingly disparate elements coalesce into an explosion of peculiarly purple passion.
The film reportedly will pick up where "Purple Rain" left off, with Prince and Morris Day and the Time still competing over musical supremacy in Minneapolis. But the soundtrack hangs together as a conceptual piece, even without accompanying celluloid.
The most extraordinary part of "Graffiti Bridge" is Prince's outspokenness, both in rejecting a purely hedonistic existence and striving to reconcile what some may regard as the paramount paradox in Prince: his simultaneous embrace of the carnal and the spiritual.
Rather than cower far away from reality in the party-hearty philosophy that ruled the Reagan era, Prince is suddenly assertive, declaring, "Only we can change the world" in the opening song, an overwhelmingly positive bit of pop called "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got."
In the funk anthem that follows, "New Power Generation," he calls on the powers that be to "Lay down your funky weapon/Come join us on the floor/Makin' love and music's the only things worth fightin' 4," essentially declaring love and music elements of a faith that seeks to rewrite corrupt rules.
At the same time, Prince uses "New Power Generation" to confront his critics: "I can't help that what's cool 2 us might be strange 2 U... Pardon me 4 thinkin', but there's something under my hair."
Prince reserves his fiercest and most ominous attack for "Thieves in the Temple," in which his multitracked vocals rage and howl at one another while he declares, "I feel like they're lookin' 4 my soul."
Although there's no question of Prince's soul in a musical sense, in a spiritual one, he has remained something of an enigma, even to himself.
It's a subject he's tackled before, most notably on "Lovesexy" and that subsequent tour, in which he symbolically rose above the ways of the flesh to a more spiritual plane.
But Prince's abundant faith reserves a prominent role for sex as an expression of spiritual fulfillment. Increasingly, he blurs the line between earthly and spiritual love.
On "Elephants & Flowers," he talks about finding "a crowd of naked bodies stripped down 2 their very souls." And when he says, "Boy is lonely on a burning hot summer night/He's looking for an angel to hold 'til morning light," the ambiguity in "angel" seems intentional.
Later, in "Joy in Repetition," he says, "I guess holding someone is truly believing."
Throughout "Grafitti Bridge," Prince reaffirms both ends of that belief, from the explosively sexual "Love Machine" and "Tick, Tick Bang," to "Still Would Stand All Time," which insists "We're not alone, people/Tell me, can U see the light?"
Like his merger of sensuality and spirituality, Prince accomplishes a similar stretch between artistry and commercialism. At least half the songs on "Graffiti Bridge" could make it as singles, yet virtually every one stretches conventional ideas about contemporary music, part of Prince's unique ability to drag the pop world forward despite its sedentary inclinations.
Mostly he does it all on his own - writing, arranging, producing and playing virtually everything himself. The Time performs three tunes and shares one with Prince. And Staples and Prince protege Tevin Campbell get shots on lead vocals on a couple of others. But its Prince's genius and astonishingly far-reaching talent that hold it all together.
And it all coalesces under "Graffiti Bridge," for Prince a kind of Holy Grail inscribed with the word. As the Beatles said long ago, the word is love.
-- RICK MASON
DETROIT FREE PRESS
Published: Monday, August 20, 1990
Rock: Prince shows why he's pop royalty
GRAFFITI BRIDGE -- Prince (Paisley Park): This is the Prince album we've been awaiting the past six years, while he's whiled through the always fascinating but elusive experiments of "Around the World in a Day," "Parade," "Lovesexy" and "Sign o' the Times." With 17 uniformly outstanding songs, "Graffiti Bridge" -- which doubles as the soundtrack to Prince's next film, due out in the fall -- is the Minneapolis pop artiste's most focused and consistent effort since his dazzling early '80s peak that culminated in 1984's "Purple Rain." Like those albums, "Graffiti Bridge" revels in Prince's ability to mix rock and R&B into a seamless, distinctive sound that blends the room-shaking whomp of house-style drums with bright melodies and edgy, Hendrix-inflected guitar solos. The record also celebrates Prince's work as a producer and songwriter for others, flaunting four solid songs by the Time, plus pieces sung by Mavis Staples ("Melody Cool"), nouveau soul sensation Tevin Campbell ("Round and Round") and Detroit funkmeister and Prince forebear George Clinton ("We Can Funk"). "Graffiti Bridge," according to the title song, is "a reason to believe that there's a heaven above." With its choral harmony and spiritual underpinnings, the album bears a similarity to the tribal feel of the '60s musical "Hair," but "Graffiti Bridge" is neither winsome nor easily dated. Rather, it's a creative and commercially accessible master stroke for Prince, a seminal work that should be a pop reference point well into the '90s.
-- GARY GRAFF
The Graffiti Bridge of the title being Prince's scheduled-for-August-but-yet-to-be-finished feature film. The film, apparently, is a return to Purple Rain territory, but the album is definitely a return to form for the former wunderkind. Rather than start at a point where genius is taken as read and proceed to somewhere beyond self-indulgence, this double album assumes accessibility to be a virtue. And it's from this platform of straightforward funk/rock (with occasional dabblings in hip-hop, blues and rock 'n' roll) that Prince reasserts his absolute understanding of that thing they call The Groove.
By keeping rhythms solid and simple he allows enough space to weave in the flourishes that'll make the tunes special, but recognises the point at which such embellishments become distracting and pulls up exactly on the line. We knew he could do this. What is surprising is that he can maintain it across 17 tracks-even the dumb doodling of Round & Round (vocals by 12-year-old Tevin Campbell) and the hip-hop (with doo-wop references) of Tick Tick Bang achieve a clarity most bands would kill for.
The current single, Thieves In The Temple, illustrates the overall approach perfectly, though it's actually one of the softest examples. More typical would be the slamming street funk of Elephants & Flowers or New Power Generation, the greasy guitar ballad Joy In Repetition or the eerily distorted blues The Question Of U. Each represents an earthiness of black style-albeit drenched in Prince-isms-that he's always been most comfortable with.
And it's probably the most generous album he's ever released. The Time take three tracks-Love Machine, Shake (a funked up rock 'n' roll riff, recalling Sam The Sham & the Pharoahs's Woolly Bully) and Release It-all impossibly tight, call-and-response roistering. Mavis Staples's gospel style is set on the spare, clattering backing of Melody Cool and New Power Generation Pt 2, and she handles the crooning title track with suitably restrained power. We Can Funk is the fruition of the theoretically perfect George Clinton/ Prince marriage. George Clintonesque in construction and tempo-layered voices and built on a slow, gut-churning riff-and Princely in execution; it's too disciplined to succumb to the former's trademark sprawl and just as the shared lead vocal gets the best out of both parties, so does the exchange of ideas.
At slightly less than an hour, it's a bit on the short side for a double album, but it's practically impossible to choose anything that doesn't deserve to be there. How long is it since that can honestly be said about a Prince album?
PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
Tuesday, August 21, 1990
PRINCE FUNKS ALONG NEW BRIDGES
By Jim Farber, New York Daily News
Ignore the opening line of Prince's new double album, "Graffiti Bridge" (in stores today). It's a snatch of dialogue from the upcoming "Graffiti Bridge" movie - the sequel to 1984's "Purple Rain" - in which Prince's character, the Kid, tells his suicidal, wife-beating dad he's disillusioned and ready to explode.
What that line promises - that is, a shrink session's worth of complaints rehashing the broadest melodramas of the "Purple Rain" movie - is nothing like what follows in the music.
Instead, the 17-song album is a nonstop party, creating the world's first funk musical. Coming after the disappointment of last year's "Batman" soundtrack and the inconsistent "Lovesexy," this one is almost 2 good 2 be true.
It even fulfills the main lesson of "Purple Rain," that is, the importance of giving up control and letting others into your life.
On "Graffiti Bridge," Prince wrote nearly all the material himself, but there are prominent guest appearances by the Time, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Tevin Campbell and others. The effect extends what Prince captured with his splashy concert film, "Sign 'o' the Times," transforming the musicians into a full community, bound by sound.
Of course, Prince himself plays and sings everything on more than half the tracks.
As rich an inner life as the guy presents in his music, his lyrics still remain stuck at the dotting-the-I's-with-hearts stage. He still has a thing for infantile titles such as "Elephants and Flowers."
Likewise, the high-flown philosophy of this entire project can be boiled down to essentially one line: "Since we're all searching for love, the world's problems would instantly vanish if we would just get down and funk."
So the guy is no Nietzsche. He's still an Aristotle of arrangements, a Hegel of the hook. While the breadth of his ambition may have sometimes undone him in the past (anyone for another trip "Around the World in a Day"?), his latest piece combines the Prince we respect with the Prince we love.
There is one bum number: the title track, which sounds like a car commercial or, worse, the finale to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
But the rest swings seamlessly from rock 'n' roll to deep funk to '60s garage music to the kind of blues that can even work in flute and harpsichord arrangements ("The Question of U").
That kind of innovation gives Prince's music a range all its own. One so wide, in fact, that even on his 12th release in as many years, Prince is still sending a pointed message to all other mainstream musicians: U can't touch this.
Sunday, August 19, 1990
PRINCE IS DOING IT AGAIN - HIS WAY
By Tom Moon, Inquirer Popular-Music Critic
"U know the Kama Sutra?" Prince asks in "We Can Funk," one of the 17 selections on Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park), the motion-picture soundtrack album to be released Tuesday. "I could rewrite it. With half as many words."
An outlandish boast, even for pop's gush-hounds. But not for the form's current master of efficiency. The extraordinarily gifted singer-songwriter- producer is cranking out some of the most elemental music of his career, and with it, expanding the shopworn ideas that stultify popular music.
After spending the last two albums bringing his music to fussy, choreographed perfection, Prince, 32, now moves in the opposite direction. As long as the groove is covered, anything is possible.
It doesn't even matter who's out front. Only nine of the songs on this collection - which accompanies the Prince film of the same name scheduled for fall release - feature Prince lead vocals. The rest showcase the Time, George Clinton, Mavis Staples and Tevin Campbell as singers and, often, co-writers.
Prince's new, powerful, minimalist approach reduces his past innovations to passing (but often pivotal) references, trashes the notion that a song must address only one subject and obliterates barriers between musical styles. Selections seem innocent, playful, at times downright joyous. Yet they are also refreshingly complex and - for those sick of the pablum that now passes for pop songcraft - deliciously subversive.
Using this stylistic shorthand, Prince almost does rewrite the fourth- century Hindu love manual. In "Love Machine," he stretches one seduction scene into an epic whose every breath signifies something. He sings a campy blues, "Tick Tick Bang," about premature orgasm. He turns the corny yearning-for-love lyrics of the title song ("Everybody's trying to find Graffiti Bridge, something to believe in, a reason to believe that there's a heaven above") into a triumphant processional whose closest point of reference is - yes, believe it - Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Combining the spontaneity of live drumming, the unyielding crunch of the beat box and occasional African tribal percussion, he creates a trance- inducing rhythm that endures through much of the album. He finds juicy, polyrhythmic variations on the hip-hop beat, then delights in changing them ever so slightly, instilling a feeling of elasticity and surprise.
Over this syncopated churn are Graffiti Bridge's vocals, which may praise the Lord, serenade a woman, bemoan a harsh world or merely celebrate the groove. Sometimes, as on "We Can Funk," Prince pursues all of these goals at once. Using hip-hop's deconstructionist principle, he holds an anything-goes forum unbound by stylistic allegiances and notions of traditional narrative.
"We Can Funk" starts with a dance-floor come-on whispered by George Clinton. But after a few jaunty, inconsequential verses, the texture changes and female voices begin to coo a sophisticated descending harmony.
Enter Prince, delivering a mewling, sanctified ad-lib on redemption that is still funky, but no longer merely about funk.
Whether or not you like Prince, you've got to admire his refusal to pander with Graffiti Bridge. Even in dance music so single-minded it approaches baby talk, he takes on the big-picture issues (motivation, free expression, the importance of critical thinking).
Nothing is hammered home or dwelt upon. Like the music supporting them, the themes are subtle, often swirled together. The skimpiest song structures and most understated musical tools give Prince's ideas a drama and tension more often associated with opera. None of the songs can be dismissed with a once- over, literal interpretation. The God/sex analogy that confounded critics on Lovesexy is still in effect, and is best employed on "Elephants and Flowers," which chronicles a search for self and is punctuated by the pronouncement: "There will be peace for those who love God a lot."
Ever since 1999, Prince has attempted the big statement, some grand summation. But rather than make it in ornate surroundings - as Lovesexy and, to a lesser degree, the slick Batman did - Graffiti Bridge finds the composer using basic street materials: drum machine, live rhythm section, spare synthesizers, a touch of saxophone (no traditional horn section, though a synthesizer assumes that function from time to time), and plenty of spiky, jaunty guitar.
He resists the temptation to dress his new songs in top-shelf finery, and as a result the music feels breezy, almost carefree.
Some tracks are deliberately muddy, at times sloppily mixed and gloriously underdeveloped. The result is a leaner, less didactic assault. The unkempt sound of hip-hop was obviously one model, though Prince gives it his own progressive spin. Some of Graffiti Bridge is built around the drum-machine programs favored by rappers, but winds up miles more musical. Vocals often include flurries of call-and-response in which gospel sermonizing is given a rap cadence.
Rethinking his "rap is not music" stance of years past, Prince proves that - with some retooling - rap and its offshoots can be musically provocative without resorting to nasty-language provocation.
On "New Power Generation," "Release It" and "The Latest Fashion," he transforms the primitive musical vocabulary of rap, creating wholly new pulses that rattle with accessory percussion, clatter under the crunch of peak- distortion guitars, and at times embrace the dizzyingly colorful chord voicings that are his trademark.
"The Latest Fashion" ends with a rap by Prince in a voice that is heavily processed to sound like a synthesizer; its closing line proclaims, "I'm the cure for any disease, cause nobody's funky like me."
That's truer than ever. Because these tracks are so rudimentary, they depend on Prince's interpretive intensity for their luster - even when he's just singing background vocals. His smooth, Sarah Vaughan falsetto is crucial to the highly harmonized "Tick Tick Bang." He does a perfectly apt, growling evocation of Stevie Wonder that underscores the anger of "New Power Generation." And on "Round and Round," his unusual harmonies supporting 13- year-old lead vocalist Tevin Campbell electrify an infectiously psychedelic song that sounds like a hit.
Another tool that Prince uses to reinforce his melodies is the guitar. On Graffiti Bridge, even the staccato, pecking parts that most producers treat as background are soloistic. From the cinematic grandeur of the moody "The Question of You" to the moaning sound that defines "Thieves in the Temple," Prince gets to the meat of the music with his guitar. Throughout, he turns in the kind of unpredictable solos you'd expect from someone who executes substantial portions of his songs in two keys simultaneously.
One example of such sustained polytonality is "Still Would Stand All Time," the gospel ballad that appears near the album's conclusion. Here Prince sermonizes with the fine Steele family gospel singers, challenging them with a melody that comes straight from gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey's hymnbook, and a harmonization of that melody that might have been inspired by Frank Zappa.
The result is a clash of sounds much more unsettling than the typical Saturday night versus Sunday morning tussle that fuels most rhythm-and-blues. With raw power and a divine fire in his throat, Prince floats above these surroundings and delivers his testimony - a gripping, uncontrived meditation on eternity that might have served as a terrific summation to the album.
But, as if to reiterate that he writes his own rules, Prince ends Graffiti Bridge with another jolt. He switches to a bright major key for the chirpy title track, then launches an effective reprise of "New Power Generation," designed, no doubt, to leave even casual Prince fans wanting more.