You can't say Prince's new name, but you can buy his old hits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What's in a name?

Not much, if we're to believe Shakespeare. As his Juliet put it, "That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." Meaning, of course, that naming or renaming things in no way changes their essential nature.

So what, then, are we to make of Prince Roger Nelson? As most people know by now, he used to be known as Prince but proclaimed late last year that he should thereafter be referred to by some unpronounceable symbol of his own devising. (Although those of us whose computer keyboards lack that annoying little symbol will continue to call him Prince).

Assuming Shakespeare is right about this naming business, it would be safe to also assume that, deep down, Prince is still the same musician, regardless of how he bills himself. But even if his essential nature hasn't changed, the nature of his music has -- and in that sense at least, the release of "The Hits 1" (Paisley Park 45431), "The Hits 2" (Paisley Park 45435) and "The Hits/The B-Sides" (Paisley Park 45440), all arriving in record stores today, truly marks the end of an era.

How so? Because as he announced a few months ago, Prince (or whatever) has retired from recording. Read his lips: no new singles. As he tells it, all that we'll see in record stores from here on out will be leftovers, the detritus of unfinished albums and late-night recording sessions. From now on, it's strictly concert work for (reader, insert symbol here).

This being Prince, though, he's decided to go out with a bang, not a whimper. Hence, the triple-headed hits approach. "The Hits 1" presents the (mostly) clean side of this pop dynamo, collecting such funk/rock classics as "1999," "When You Were Mine" and "Diamonds and Pearls." By contrast, "The Hits 2" presents Prince's naughtier nature, focusing on salacious sex songs like "Dirty Mind," "Delirious" and "Sexy MF." (Needless to say, this one carries the Parental Advisory sticker).

Both albums are included in "The Hits/The B-Sides," a three-CD/three-cassette set that also contains an assortment of B-sides and rarities, which range from the frankly funky ("Erotic City") to the downright bizarre ("God"). A few of the B-sides are deservedly obscure, like "I Love U in Me" with its bizarre "When she's making love it's like surgery" chorus. But others, like the rollicking "200 Balloons," deserve more exposure than they originally got (in that case, on the B-side of the "Batdance" single).

Altogether, there are 56 songs assembled here, six of which (three per disc) are previously unreleased -- quite an elaborate good-bye, all told.

Even so, these "Hits" make for a rather misleading career overview. For starters, these aren't all the hits; "Batdance," his last No. 1, is not included here, nor are his other "Batman" singles, "Partyman" and "The Arms of Orion." Also missing are "Mountains" (from the deservedly forgotten "Under the Cherry Moon") and "My Name Is Prince," though that omission is understandable under the circumstances.

Instead, he offers such highly unlikely substitutes as "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and "Adore," choices guaranteed to puzzle even Prince's most devoted fans. An accurate mirror of his singles success this isn't.

Nor does it give any real sense of what his later albums were like. "Alphabet City" may have been included on "Lovesexy," but representing that album with a single seems spectacularly inappropriate, given that the CD version lists only one track, as if the songs were really a single, 45-minute composition. And though "Adore" is nowhere near as catchy as Prince's Top-10 hits, it's still fairly tame when compared to the rest of "Sign 'o' the Times," one of Prince's most dense and conceptually demanding albums.

There are no concepts here, though -- no sweeping themes, no hidden messages, no home-grown cosmology. What you get with "The Hits" is just that: hits.

And as such, there are probably Prince fans out there who will feel outraged at the very notion of a hits super-package. Because to their minds, it's a waste of talent for Prince to spend time on simple pop tunes like "Let's Go Crazy" or "Kiss" when he could be churning out complicated and adventurous stuff like "Anna Stasia" (from "Lovesexy") or "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" (from "Sign 'o' the Times").

Nonsense, you say? Good for you. After all, there's plenty to be proud of in these hits, from the lithe, guitar-driven melody of "When You Were Mine" to the densely arranged swirl of "U Got the Look." And it's hard to imagine how anyone interested in aural adventure could find fault with the exquisitely tuneful "When Doves Cry," a single so sonically audacious that it still sounds like nothing else on the radio.

Funny thing is, though, Prince apparently agrees with the anti-hits crowd. Reading between the lines, his no-more-recordings policy is at least in part a reaction against the artistic limitations the record industry has forced upon him. No one in the biz would even think of releasing an album by a heavy-hitter like Prince if there wasn't some sort of sure-fire single there, and that means (funny little squiggle) has to consider each new project in terms of its sales potential rather than its artistic merit.

So he split his musical personality. Under this current setup, his old persona, Prince, can satisfy the accountants at Time/Warner by releasing the "Hits" collections, a three-pronged attack that ought to reel in every sector of his unusually wide audience. Meanwhile, (don't-call-me-Victor) can hit the road with his current mega-concept, a retelling of "The Odyssey" dubbed "Glam Slam Ulysses," and play to audiences genuinely interested in his less-commercial stuff.

So has he lost interest in the pop charts? Not likely. In fact, his inclusion of "Nothing Compares 2 U" -- a song he wrote for The Family -- suggests that he's still a little irked that Sinead O'Connor took the song to No. 1. But Prince's version, recorded live as a duet with Rosie Gaines of the New Power Generation, hardly compares to O'Connor's. His is all gospel exuberance and bluesy exaggeration, and as such overwhelms the lyrics with vocal overstatement; hers, by contrast, was quaver-voiced and full of anxiety, and as such cut to the heart of the song's romantic despair.

Maybe there's a lesson there. Could it be that the more Prince tried for commercial success, the further away his efforts left him? Let's hope so. Because if that is indeed the case, then it's possible that his no-recording policy may lead him to some of his most inventive and accessible music yet.

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