BY ANTHONY DECURTIS
Starting somewhere in the early Nineties, he seemed to disappear into his own bizarre obsessions -- the muddled jazz-fusion spirituality of The Rainbow Children (2001) and the instrumental meanderings of N.E.W.S. (2003) being only the most recent excesses. But then, late last year, his election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made you remember just how potent, irresistible and groundbreaking a force he once was. Then, his commanding performance with Beyonce to open the Grammys proved that he could still thrill in such a high-pressure spot. And that solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony? Devastating.
Now comes Musicology, as appealing, focused and straight-up satisfying an album as Prince has made since who can remember when. It's open, easygoing and inclusive, the sort of album anyone might like. Most notably, Musicology restores a refreshing sense of songcraft to Prince's writing. Rather than seeming like mere sketches, as so much of his recent work has, each track on the album is distinct, coherent and rigorously uncluttered -- whether it's a bluesy lament such as "On the Couch," a lovelorn meditation like "A Million Days" or a stop-time jam such as "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life." And the singer makes it clear that he has learned that rigor from the masters. "Wish I had a dollar for every time you say/'Don't you miss the feeling music gave you back in the day?' " he sings over an insinuating bass line on the title track. Then, like Arthur Conley calling out to the R&B pantheon in his 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music," Prince names names: " 'Let's Groove,' 'September' -- Earth, Wind and Fire/'Hot Pants,' by James/Sly's gonna take you higher."
Now forty-five, Prince realizes -- and repeatedly declares -- that his tastes are "old-school." On "Reflection," one of several ballads that float by on a sweet musical breeze reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, memory sweeps Prince away: "Remember all the way back in the day/When we would compare whose Afro was the roundest?" Moments like this rescue Prince from his eccentricities and make him recognizable again. On the sizzling funk track "Life 'O' the Party," he wryly mimics his old rival Michael Jackson ("My voice is getting higher/I ain't never had my nose done"), as if to emphasize his distance from the only pop-culture figure perceived as weirder than he is.
Its relative clarity aside, Musicology is still a Prince album, so it hardly lacks bold ideas. "Cinnamon Girl" borrows a title from Neil Young and a deft hook from the mid-Eighties to explore racial and ethnic differences in a post-9/11 world. Other songs sprinkle offhand references to the Iraq war, the Fourteenth Amendment, the Bible, numerology and the corrupting power of greed. Prince -- who is now a Jehovah's Witness -- has dialed his trademark sexual explicitness way down. But that restraint works, too. With its sinuous grooves and effortless swing -- not to mention Prince's seductive vocals -- Musicology simmers with a submerged erotic tension.
Finally, of all things, the album is a hymn to marriage -- not the frisky fantasy stuff of "Let's Pretend We're Married" but the real domestic deal. "Did we remember to water the plants today?" the singer asks on "Reflection," Musicology's closing song, finding the secret life of love in a quotidian detail. That's an example of how Prince, who claimed that Musicology would take everyone back to school, is really the one who has understood an essential lesson: Less can be so much more.
(RS 947, April 29, 2004)
During his '80s heyday, Prince set a high creative bar for himself, and in retrospect, it's astonishing how he vaulted over it album after album. But after 15 years of self-indulgent and justly forgotten records, that bar has fallen so low that it's tempting to hear the fat-free, melodic Musicology as a beacon of hope. Its skeletal funk never grows too knotty for its own good, and there are no overtly Christian themes, no meandering fusion instrumentals, and, thankfully, no rapping.
On his current tour of the same name, Prince unabashedly vies for his fans' old love by playing a hits-heavy set. ''Musicology'' is a suitable companion to the tour: Most of the songs, while new, sound old. ''A Million Days'' and ''Call My Name'' are exquisite slow-jam cream puffs, but they're basically variations on ballads he's written before. Similarly, calls to the dance floor like the title track and ''Life 'O' the Party'' are spry but rote, and his shout-outs to Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott only point out how dated Prince's funk has become.
Proving he can still delight and surprise, Prince ponders the fate of an ethnic woman in the U.S. during wartime in the poppin' fresh ''Cinnamon Girl,'' demonstrates he can keep up with modern R&B in ''What Do U Want Me 2 Do?'' and works himself up into righteous anticorporate indignation in ''Dear Mr. Man.'' But following a decade in which he strove to avoid becoming a nostalgia item, the retro-leaning ''Musicology'' (and its accompanying tour) sounds as if Prince is less interested in fighting Mr. Man than in giving in to him. Grade: B-
Prince regains his R&B throne on 'Musicology'
Prince, Musicology (* * *1⁄2 out of four) After years of scattershot releases, moniker confusion, industry battles and a retreat into his self-contained Internet kingdom, Prince can again be formally known as relevant. Musicology is a potent reminder of his undiminished skills as a soul crooner, rock guitarist and pop songsmith. Rehabilitating the vintage-vibed funk/rock of his heyday, Prince is focused and ferocious in a dozen concisely drawn tunes that summon his feverish impulses but never lapse into shapeless jams. Newfound religious faith has curtailed his randy nature, yet a sensual humidity permeates every space, from the blistering funk in Life 'o' the Party to the warmth of ballad Reflection to the snaking blues of On the Couch. In the title track's heady swirl of old-school rhythms, Prince pays homage to yesteryear's brotherhood of R&B greats while re-establishing his role as the fraternity's president. —Edna Gundersen
Prince is an artist that people desperately want to be good. Someone,
somewhere will always suggest that his latest offering is a return to
mid-80s form, even if, as in recent years, his latest offering is a jazz
about the Jehovah's Witnesses. This time, however, even Prince
seems convinced he is back in shape. The opening track ends with snippets
his old hits,
while titles such as Life O' The Party offer bullish echoes
of his glory years.
Prince spent the 1990s on a musical journey that he found his fanbase was unwilling to undertake with him, encompassing as it did ridiculous name changes and fairly abominable records. It was a lesson in how to waste talent from arguably the most talented US pop star in decades. It's a lesson that still may not yet be over; as, according to reports, the one-time Sexy MF is now simply the Infuriating MF, spending his spare time going door to door in his native Minneapolis handing out pamphlets for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
And so the battle lines are drawn for 'Musicology', Prince's first major-label album in almost a decade, and the long-rumoured return to 'proper' pop music - you know, no symbols, no pulpit preaching, no triple-CD musical odysseys, that sort of thing. And on that level, 'Musicology' works perfectly well. It's a welcome return to the music that made him a superstar, and it's not just wishful thinking to say that 'Musicology''s better moments are worthy of a place on era-defining classics like 'Purple Rain' or 'Sign O' The Times'. Sadly, it is just wishful thinking to harbour hope that 'Musicology' could be Prince's first wholly satisfying album since his '80s heyday.
It starts off well. The James Brown-fuelled funk of the title track and the cinematic sweep of 'A Million Days' are the best things he's done in ages - the latter in particular seeming certain to yield his first actual hit in years. Bookending the dirty jamming of the brilliantly-titled 'Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance', as an opening salvo it's sexy, sassy and funky - sexier, sassier and funkier than any album by a hardline Jehovah's Witness has any right to be - and the funk-rock-soul amalgam that made him so exciting in the first place has rarely sounded so potent.
Sadly, it can't last. Though untroubled by the pretentiousness that has marred his recent releases, too often on 'Musicology' Prince reverts to formula as opposed to inverting it - the schmaltzy identikit R&B of 'Call My Name' sounds like a Boyz II Men B-side written to order by Lionel Richie. It's honestly that shit. 'Dear Mr Man''s hamfisted social commentary not only feels laboured, it's spectacularly out of sync with an album that's completely unconcerned with its themes.
Yet there's real genius at work here - from 'If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life''s inspired bling-bling piano lines, to the slow-burning, seductive 'On The Couch' (sample lyric: "I wanna go down south, baby") which serves to remind us that while there are Pygmy tribes in Africa who have a sly snigger at his height, he remains a giant of sex, with come-to-bed falsettos and the original superstar booty.
Ultimately, 'Musicology' is a kind of
flawed redemption, neither inspired enough to be a true classic,
nor insipid enough to make
of your attention. There are moments on here, however fleeting,
Rogers Nelson will never lose the ability to surprise and astonish,
and there are moments that likewise suggest he'll never lose the
ability to frustrate
and confound his audience. Nevertheless, at least one of the class
'58's most prodigal of sons has finally returned to something like
Prince Returns, Trading Rebellion for Gentle Jams
Over the last few months he has changed course again, making a series of public appearances to build anticipation for "Musicology," his return to the world of big-money pop. The album will be released tomorrow on Prince's own NPG label, but it is being manufactured and distributed by Columbia Records.
It is Prince's good or bad fortune to be making his comeback at a time when pretenders are everywhere. André 3000, Pharrell Williams and D'Angelo have invented their own versions of the Prince persona; Missy Elliott and Erykah Badu have chased his spirit across different genres and eras; producers like Felix da Housecat, Daft Punk and Brooks have updated his synthetic thwack for the dance floor.
What's most disappointing about "Musicology," then, is the way Prince reacts to all this sincere flattery: he doesn't. The CD is a casual exhibition of Princeliness, stocked with a handful of old tricks but no new ones. As usual, the songs are "produced, arranged, composed and per4med by Prince," with a few exceptions, and it sounds like the work of a formerly insatiable star who has figured out how to satisfy his own musical ambitions.
The album's first song is the title track, a dose of anorexic funk in which Prince adds nostalgic chatter to a gristly bass line. And there's a winsome, wispy ballad, "Call My Name," in which vague political commentary (transcribed, as usual, according to the same orthographical rules that prevail at your local middle school) melts into bedroom talk: "What's the matter with the world 2day? Land of the free? Somebody lied!/They can bug my phone, peep around my home, they'd only c u and me makin' love inside."
Mainly, though, "Musicology" is given over to gentle jams that never really get going. Prince sounds comfortable and contented throughout, which might be part of the problem. In 2001 he released a much better CD, "The Rainbow Children" (NPG), which used expansive and unpredictable jazz-funk tracks to tell the tale of a rebellious (and, not coincidentally, funky) tribe fighting against the bland and oppressive rulers of the Digital Garden. The new album could use a bit of that fighting spirit.