In one of the most improbable reunions of the last few decades, Prince is back with the label that he claims done him so wrong in the '90s that he was compelled to scrawl the word "slave" on his face. No one does drama like the multi-purpose entertainer from Minneapolis, though, and he's back with two albums on the same day for nemesis-turned-benefactor Warner Brothers.
The two albums couldn't be more opposite. "PlectrumElectrum," with his new rock quartet 3rdEyeGirl, is basically an excuse for Prince to go nuts on his guitar. "Art Official Age" is an opportunity for the solo Prince to go nuts as a studio innovator playing with his toys and personas.
Hardcore Prince guitar-freaks — those who yearn for an entire album of six-string slash-and-burn in the mold of Jimi Hendrix, Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel and Prince himself on "Purple Rain" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" — will find much to love on "PlectrumElectrum."
Prince is an appreciator as much as an innovator, and he compresses about 50 years of guitar history into 12 tracks: the screaming punctuations on the feedback-saturated "Ain'tTurnin'Round" and "AnotherLove," the Curtis Mayfield-style lyricism of "Whitecaps," the punky urgency of "Marz." But though the 3rdEyeGirl rhythm section of Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford Welton and Ida Nielsen provides a solid foundation, and shares some lead vocals, the songs feel slight, a touch predictable.
It's not meant to be a particularly heavy album lyrically or conceptually, more of a blow-out. If there's an underlying theme, it revolves around the 56-year-old elder statesman dispensing tips to the younger artists who have emerged in his wake, many of them in his debt: Frank Ocean, Miguel, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, OutKast, Maxwell, Lianne de Havas (who sings backing vocals on "Art Official Age"). On "FixUrLifeUp," he counsels, "Don't worry about what the crowd does, just be good at what you love." And what Prince loves on this album is clear: guitar, guitar and more guitar.
The emphasis shifts on "Art Official Age," a more substantial and stranger album. After about a dozen listens, I still found myself discovering new twists and surprises in the dense, sometimes downright exotic arrangements (the same can't be said for "PlectrumElectrum").
It's a concept album of sorts, a tour through the wilderness of Prince's imagination, a maze of sound effects and funk set 45 years in the future after the groggy narrator emerges from a period of "suspended animation," as a female narrator with a British accent informs him. Prince slides back into the Afro-futuristic tradition of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic. Space is the place where humans can roam free of petty earthly preoccupations such as celebrity worship, social media and material possessions (presumably including swimming pools, trophy wives and one-sided record-company deals).
The freedom the narrator craves is evident in many of the arrangements. "FunkNRoll," also the title of a track on "PlectrumElectrum" (where it's a fairly conventional funk-rock track), opens with guitar fanfare, dives into the shadows beneath percussion that sounds like a dripping faucet, slows down and then speeds up behind gothic keyboards. "Art Official Cage" zigs and zooms across time, with its booming EDM-style rhythm track and funk rhythm guitar flowing across dance-music history as if to one-up the concept on Daft Punk's Grammy-winning 2013 album, "Random Access Memories." The distant percussion in "Way Back Home" sounds like sheet metal flapping in a strong wind amid a matrix of sci-fi effects, and there's the illusion of clinking cutlery on "Time," which closes with a voracious bass line. The guitar is more sparing on this album, certainly less of a focal point, but its presence is crucial, particularly in the deft fills on "This Could Be Us" and the finger-snapping seduction of "Breakfast Can Wait."
It's an erotic and weird album, heavy on ballads that twist in unexpected directions. In an era when innovative artists such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are redefining the form and feel of R&B seduction ballads, Prince sounds not just relevant, but renewed. As Prince declared on his 1982 classic "D.M.S.R., "I … try my best to never get bored." He sounds like he's staying true to his word.