In the beginning, Prince teased his audience with hope — “May u live 2 see the dawn,” he wished us, repeatedly and cryptically, in album and film credits. The dawn finally appeared in 1995 with The Gold Experience (released under Prince’s temporary unpronounceable symbol of a name), which opened with an announcement: “Hello, welcome 2 the dawn.” We had arrived, it seems. And oh, what a long, boring day it’s been ever since.
The pre-dawn segment of Prince’s career — his commercial and artistic peak — remains a monument in pop music. No one has ever gotten away with being so weird on such a huge scale and for so long. Mystical, profane, virtuosic, challenging, gender-playful, and occasionally sans bass line, Prince spoke to the masses with such a bizarre flair it was as though he was inventing his own language and everyone else was learning it as he went. Simply put, he was ahead of his time. That’s trite, but if any human is a living embodiment of the cliché, surely it is Prince Rogers Nelson.
Prince’s music has been so crucial for so long that the first half of his career is enough to forgive what’s come since. Still, it’s harrowing to watch a straight-up genius turn out album after album of this funky soup that’s reminiscent of his early work but increasingly watery, like he’s been using the same ham hock for the past 20 years. His spiritual awakening as a devout Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s may have something to do with it, but really it just seems like the guy ran out of ideas — especially of the sonic and melodic sort. And if a genius like Prince, whose creativity once seemed limitless and is the stuff of legends (like that one about the vault of unheard material that’s 500 songs deep), can peak and fall off, we all can. Be afraid.
At his best, Prince was such a force that he made the lyrics to Purple Rain’s “I Would Die 4 U” seem almost plausible: “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand.” That vision is over and now the best thing that can be said about his R&B-oriented new album, ART OFFICIAL AGE, is that it defines its creator without pretension. On this album, Prince is boldly declaring, “I am an old man.” The 56-year-old grouses repeatedly about modern conventions like self-broadcasting and cell phones (“Put your phone down now and get your party on” in “FUNKNROLL”). He complains about lewdness (“We know what y’all been thinking/ Nude is the brand new young/ Everybody’s just drinkin’/ Inhibitions just gone” in “THE GOLD STANDARD”) and laments his former hard-partying ways (“Give me back the time, you can keep the memories”). It’s irritating being lectured on hypersexualization by a guy who once sang about a woman masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby, and not just for the apparent hypocrisy: There’s also a willful ignorance of his own past at work. If he didn’t do all kinds of lascivious stuff as a provocateur in the ’80s, it’s unlikely he’d have the platform that he does now to denounce it. Prince’s past glory is a big part of what keeps him even mildly relevant (though his continued slayage as a live performer certainly plays a role, too).
That is to say that if you are infected with the Prince bug that makes you still care about his creative output in 2014, the experience is much like being a fan of horror movies — you have to troll through a lot of crap to get to anything that could vaguely be considered a diamond in the rough. So slog through his too-clean electrofunk revivalism (“THE GOLD STANDARD” sounds like Midnight Star’s “Freak-A-Zoid,” hold the freak), his full-circle biting of Timbaland and Pharell Williams (who would be far different artists without Prince’s influence), EDM with a mincing Paisley guitar groove (“ART OFFICIAL CAGE”), his repeated invocation of “The Beautiful Ones” in various slow jams, the album’s Eastern-influenced “affirmations” (sample: “You are actually everything and anything that you can think of/ All of it is you”), and you’ll find an okay track or two. “WAY BACK HOME,” a bitter ballad with drums so epically forlorn that you’d think Ryan Tedder had some hand in it, is the best of the bunch, and “What It Feels Like” reminds us how shockingly intense Prince’s minimalism can feel.
Describing ART OFFICIAL AGE to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Prince said, “I’ve finally got something that is a cohesive statement.” It sure sounds that way, and for that reason, this is his best album in years — not that that’s saying much. It plays well on a superficial level, but once the novelty fades we will be left with yet another mediocre Prince album. It’s ironic that as he’s gotten more prudish, Prince’s albums have gotten more like flings or one-night stands for diehards who’ll listen intensely at first and then forget them.
Even less memorable is his rock album with his current touring band 3rdeyegirl, PLECTRUMELECTRUM. Prince does lead vocals on most of its songs, but the album is mostly a showcase for his diabolical guitar work — Prince can make a guitar sing more sweetly than any protégé. To that point, 3rdeyegirl’s Hannah Ford tries really hard to be seductive and powerful but just…isn’t (it doesn’t help that her lead vocals are featured most prominently on MOR treacle like “WHITECAPS” and “TICTACTOE,” which sound like something Mokey Fraggle would have come up with). There’s some fun to be had here: “BOYTROUBLE” has the looseness of Vanity 6, the brattiness of Apollonia, and the adorably misguided hip-hop prowess of Carmen Electra. “ANOTHERLOVE” is ferocious, a towering rock ballad that starts out sounding like The Gold Experience‘s Eye Hate U and then explodes mid-song. It’s the best thing on either of these two releases…and it’s also a cover of an Alice Smith song from 2013. That it’s the undeniable highlight tells you everything you need to know about the current state of Prince’s creativity.