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The artist again known as a genius

It is all about the funk, his stellar musicianship that inspires so many and, at times, leaves us spellbound. Prince's talent knows no limits. When he appeared on the pop scene in the late '70s, he was (and still is) like no other. And because he is such a genius, because he tirelessly challenges our notion of black or pop music, we have allowed him to be as eccentric and as nasty as he wants to be.

Back in the day, before Purple Rain, the dude performed in black bikini underwear, heels and leg warmers. His sexually charged lyrics ("Darling Nikki," "Let's Pretend We're Married," "Head") left little to ponder. And ambiguous gay connotations peppered his albums and concerts. Yet, hood rats and starry-eyed girls fawned over Prince: a short, lean man whose makeup and heavily styled hair rivaled that of any Fashion Fair model in Ebony magazine.

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These days, the Purple One, who plays the MCI Center on two sold-out nights Thursday and Friday, has changed. In a way. At 46, he's still pretty, the hair and makeup as flawless as ever. He still rocks the three- to four-inch heels, dancing across the stage in them. But like Madonna, that other pop limit pusher, Prince has mellowed a bit and found some inner peace by way of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Unlike the former Material Girl, who practices Kabbalism, the Minnesota-based singer-songwriter-musician-and-all-round-funky-fella hasn't exploited his new spiritual calmness in recent concerts or in interviews. After spending the bulk of his 25-year career nearly a recluse, Prince is going to let us get only so close.

Back to the music

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What is so refreshing about the platinum-selling Musicology, his latest and tightest album in years, is that the Artist Formerly Known As Prince and Is Prince Again remembered us: the discerning music lovers who have excused his puzzling personal style and erratic behavior over the years for his innovative, penetrating grooves. After nearly a decade of convoluted, self-indulgent albums that only Prince fanatics cared about, the artist has given us a CD that, as they say in the black Baptist church, "makes it plain." The feel is free and spirited throughout. The title track and first single, a slick, James Brown-inspired workout, is for the "true funk soldiers," Prince proclaims. It rides a spare, rubbery bass line and the singer, for the first time in a while, sounds as if he's having some fun.

Acclaimed everywhere it stops, his tour is one big party fueled by Prince and his energetic nine-piece band. He revisits his greatest hits -- "Little Red Corvette," "Take Me With You," "Kiss" and others -- but he's not touching the songs of his former racier self. He doesn't cuss anymore and won't go near any alcohol. Twenty years ago, a Prince show was definitely not a family affair. Now, mothers, grandmas, kids, teens are welcome to get out of their seat and move to Prince's beat.

"I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage," the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee told Rolling Stone magazine in May. "I'm way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen. That's one of the reasons we're doing these shows in the round: The music is at the center of everything."

Although he keeps his private life, well, private, Prince has let some of his spiritual leanings leak out here and there. At the Hall of Fame induction this year, he opened his remarks with "all praise and thanks to the most high Jehovah." I remember seeing Prince on American Bandstand when his first smash, "I Wanna Be Your Lover," was all over radio; during the interview, the ever-lovable Dick Clark could barely get a word out of the guy. Never one to get all moralistic on us before, Prince told Rolling Stone that "[pop] culture is in big trouble. All you see on television are debased images."

Now, this is Prince talking -- the same guy who, years ago, wore seatless pants during a live MTV performance. The same guy whose 1981 Controversy album came with a poster of the performer standing in a shower, clad in skimpy leather briefs with a gold chain around his waist. The same guy who wore absolutely nothing on the cover of 1988's Lovesexy. Prince, it seemed, was never afraid to be naked in front of us.

Nudity and music

There was a point to this -- though it was certainly overdone and rubbed some the wrong way. Back then, in the early '80s, Prince's nudity reflected the stripped approach to his music. The artist usually played all the instruments on his records. And unlike the full, orchestrated funk and disco that preceded his superstar ascent, Prince's music ushered in a bare, electro-funk style in which the beats were nervy, rigid and mechanical. Punk and new-wave accents also blazed through the tunes on Dirty Mind (1980) and 1999 (1983).

By 1984's Purple Rain -- the megaselling soundtrack and the blockbuster movie -- Prince was the only other person besides Michael Jackson who mattered in pop: His illuminating fusion of Hendrix-style rock, infectious pop lyricism and driving rhythms lifted his sound to another stratosphere. Sign o' the Times, his masterpiece from 1987, cemented his peerless musical status.

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In the '90s, however, Prince focused much of his energy on fighting for his artistic freedom at Warner Bros. Records. During the nasty feud, he was often seen in public with the word "slave" across his cheek. He temporarily changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. As a result of his artistic and business frustrations, Prince's music suffered. He rehashed some ideas and overcooked others. He put out several albums on his own -- Emancipation, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and The Rainbow Children among them -- but none captured the fervor and mastery of his past work. Finally, with Musicology and its tour, Prince is back to making simply genius music.

He hasn't been this accessible in years. His performance on the Grammys last February -- which, in a way, set this whole "comeback" in motion -- was freewheeling, fun, brilliant. No, Musicology isn't exactly up there with Sign o' the Times or Purple Rain. But at this point, Prince has nothing to prove musically. He's a seemingly happy man with a gorgeous, 27-year-old wife, Manuela. And apparently, the once lust-obsessed artist has found a solid spiritual foundation. He smiles in press shots, accepts flowers from adoring fans and sings melodic love songs about monogamy.

Prince may not be nasty anymore, but the funk underneath his new, less provocative lyrics certainly is. And the man still looks so pretty laying it down.


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