Prince's 3121 hits stores this week and, whoa, it's actually good. Really though -- it's his most consistently enjoyable (and wildly erratic) disc since 1992's . Maybe that's like saying, "This case of gonorrhea is the best I've had in over 13 years," but whatever -- take purple majesty when you can find it.
What I love most about 3121 is that it's sort of Prince's homecoming to the world of electronic music (at least, in part). In a conversation, Bill derisively called the second single "Black Sweat," "Prince doing the Neptunes doing Prince." I couldn't agree with that more, except I think it's a great thing. There's something excitingly comfortable (in a retro-futuristic way) about the reclaiming of voice via machines.
It's easy (and fun!) to mock Prince's post-'80s output, but looking back, I followed it really closely maybe for much too long (I bought Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic at the Virgin Megastore at the stroke of midnight of its release date). But that's the fun of remaining loyal to Prince (and, presumably, any artist passed his or her prime who isn't a total embarrassment -- Bowie, for example). Being a Prince fan is like being a horror movie fan -- wading through copious garbage for the odd gem is your duty that becomes your sport. Yeah, it's a little frustrating, but whatever. I have time.
So much time in fact, that I went back through his post- material to find four tracks worthy of his legacy (unsurprisingly, other conversations with Bill gave me the idea for this -- we talk about Prince a lot). And by "went back," I mean jogged my memory and looked at song titles. You really think I'm gonna sit through Emancipation again?
"Acknowledge Me" (1995) - Many argue that Prince's artistic unraveling started when he began closely adhering to increasingly popular musical genres (rap, house, etc.) instead of messing with and/or blending them. Still, new jack swing was everywhere during the first half of the '90s and you can't really fault him for attempting to show 'em how it was really done. "Acknowledge Me" is my favorite of Prince's swing offerings -- it originated in the Come/Gold Experience era (it was bumped off the latter to accomodate titty-bar smash "Pussy Control," and eventually turned up on '98's Crystal Ball rarities comp). While the melody is sturdy (especially the dizzying pre-chorus bridge), the lyrics are his usual I-want-you fluff and the production is just weird enough to avoid new-jack anonymity (that keyboard sounds like a 303 converted into a laser gun). A sample from The Black Album's "Down On It" is looped throughout -- that track made fun of gangsta hip-hop, while this one sort of aspires to it. Irony? Maybe. Prince's rap (all 40 bars of it) is the type of crap I'd usually say the song would be better without (and then take matters into my own hands -- see "The Sun, the Moon and Stars" below), but shit, "titties swingin' like a door" is great and that he means it as a compliment is even better. I miss his dirty mind.
"I Hate U" (1995) - Speaking of: there's that kinda nasty and then there's just plain nasty. A usual Prince sex-jam tempo and arrangement are subverted on this first single from The Gold Experience (unless you count "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and, uh, please don't), via lyrics that make hate, not love. Exploring the thin line between the two is trite. Turning a song that does that into a court deposition that then shifts into a bondage session is not. It's as though he's so messed up from bouncing between love and the hate ("I hate u / Because I love u," he predictably reveals during the mini-suite's third act) that he can only manage this stream-of-consciousness ramble. He doesn't even hit his melodic peak until the fourth minute (those gorgeous ascending "be"s). It's like it took him the whole song to realize that melody, but it's such a payoff that the long road to it doesn't even matter. It should be noted that the actual title of the song uses an eye icon instead of an "I" ("(Eye) Hate U," you could say -- I think this originated with Lovesexy's "(Eye) No"). It was another one of those Prince-isms (like his "2"s, "4"s or, as you see elsewhere in the title, "U"), but Christ, a drawing instead of an "I" does not constitute shorthand. It just makes things harder for everyone. Eye hate that.
"Don't Play Me" (1998) - One of the few gifts that a long tenure in youth-obsessed pop culture yields is that of public self-reflection. The greatness of "Don't Play Me," from the largely acoustic album The Truth, lies in self-conscious examination that can only follow a rich past ("I put my ass away," he reveals, no doubt a reference to his infamous 1991 MTV Video Music Awards performance of "Gett Off"). He's as captivating as ever, stripped down to just a guitar and a few effects, as he riffs on the song's title (the best couplet is enough to make anyone want to be rock star just so they can claim the same thing: "Don't play me / I already do in my car"). Even more amazingly: for someone as eccentric and spacey, he seems keenly aware of his position on the pop landscape. "My only competition is, well, me in the past," he reveals. Who really thought he had that in him?
"The Sun, the Moon and Stars (Rich's Edit)" (1999) - This was of the few bright spots of Prince's mess of a one-off Arista release, the guest-stuffed (thus, Santana-esque) Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. The Timbaland-lite drum programming combined with the dreamy, romantic lyrics and delivery makes for a setup akin to "I Would Die 4 U" (though that earlier track is darker and admittedly cooler) -- he returns to the hyper-ballad template he created (sorry, Björk). This is really so lovely that the gushing, cinematic strings and dippy cosmic imagery don't even bug me. His ragga-lite toasting, however, does and so I edited it out (you can hear him start it up at the 2:40 point -- "Do ya like I do!" -- before I cut him off). Believe me, it only gets worse from there and destroys the song. If all it takes for him to stay on point is a snip here or there then, believe me, I'm glad to help out.