(NPG; 2009)

By Dom Sinacola & Calum Marsh | 15 April 2009

As hard as he tries, Prince will never again be the man he was. No, instead he’s doomed to replicate approximations of the men he once thought he was, unable anymore to glue those disparate parts together into some cohesive persona, something to believe in. Before he wasn’t just inhabiting Camille or the Kid or even his Sign, he was branding androgyny and youth and forbidden lust as new archetypes: sex deity, incestual star, world-traveling guru. Now there are just pieces and prolificacy left to sustain the Purple One—calling him “washed up” lacks respect, but Prince is undeniably missing something intrinsic to that ineffable force that held old Prince together as a real sign of the times back in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s. Let’s call him out of touch and stick to that; it’s an idea expressed in so many ways before on this site, especially concerning the flimsy, world-fucking Planet Earth (2007), but, with this new release, it’s time to revisit some old conceits and continue gawking at this fascinating little man.

Left to pasture, as far as this review tells it, is Elixir, the debut album from Prince’s latest “protégé” Bria Valente, packaged exclusively as an exclusive third disc with Prince’s exclusive kinda-double-disc, sold exclusively through Target and his website. This is, as he states in “Dreamer,” “peanut butter logic”: the cover art alone is enough to not give a shit about physical copies, and the release—pitched as both a return to form and a psychotropic rehash of what makes Prince Prince—reeks with a stubborn reluctance toward introspection and a misunderstanding of the zeitgeist. Exclusivity, instead of making all this new music seem vital or special, simply limits accessibility, a detriment for consumers already comfortable with getting what they want and when. In turn, Prince appears less and less relevant, more and more apt to milk the verve and immediacy of an impression two decades old while stubbornly insisting that things were, in fact, better back then.

Every time a Prince record comes out we want to believe that, yeah, maybe they were. Enter MPLSound—Princespeak for “Minneapolis Sound”—and its inevitable return to Prince’s mid-‘80s glory days with the Revolution. A conspicuous but self-aware appropriation of the stylistic conventions Purple Rain (1984) and Sign O’ The Times (1987) defined and popularized, MPLSound appeals to nostalgia both implicitly (a reminder of the reasons for our adoration) and explicitly (the album sounds good because it sounds like Sign O’ The Times). As simulacra it’s entertaining but a little depressing: nostalgia only works for things dead and gone. In short, it’s regressive, a far cry from the artistic step forward we’d very much like to see Prince take at this point in his (long-since fading) career and an even louder admission that Prince Rogers Nelson refuses to live down his past.

Take “Ol Skool Company,” a seven minute Camille jam condemning current affairs both political (recession, bailouts, and, uh, the plight of the poor) and musical (how bad music is today). When Prince says something like “Songs we used to sing, they used to mean something / Now they’re just bland,” it’s difficult to tell how sincerely we’re meant to swallow that. We’re talking about a musician who hasn’t had a particularly captivating album in nearly two decades, whose recent output has been repeatedly criticized for watery production and tepid songwriting, and whose every PR move in the last, say, five years (motherfucking Target) has been baffling in only the most boring ways. Uh, Prince: what the fuck?

Near the end of “Company,” Prince name-drops long-lost classics to remind us of what we’re missing now, like Minneapolis ex-pats Mint Condition and Morris Day and the Time. “And sometimes me”? Wait wait wait: is this just reasonable acknowledgment of Prince’s reputation, well-earned and fair enough, or is it pure hubris? And should we delight in his wide-eyed naivety and juvenile sense of grandeur, or should we roll our eyes and feel bad? There’s a sense in which a romanticized, self-aggrandizing tribute record feels more indicative of Prince’s contemporary irrelevance than do his other recent forays into different, though considerably more vapid, aesthetic territory. And yet: MPLSound just sounds so good. New Prince doing Old Prince is for the most part as much fun as listening to Old Prince, and if you can get past its regressive attitude and lines like “To all the haters on the internet / Nobody’s looking at you,” this record mostly works.

Opener “They’ll Never B (Another Like Me)” is giddy and delightful, its sing-along chorus infectious and its overall sentiment—that Prince = really cool and Prince’s life = one enormous party all the time—never fails to put a smile on my (Calum; Dom never smiles) face, because, y’know what? Prince is really cool. And, importantly, endearingly cool: “I can get you what you want / All you have to say is please” doesn’t smack of pretension because we know that it’s probably just the truth; throw in mundane exposition like “Then I check my email / See where the party be” and you’ve got a portrait of a guy who’s filthy rich, overtly sexualized, and surprisingly dorky. As “They’ll Never B” is followed by “Chocolate Box,” an absolute banger featuring none other than Q-Tip (!), and the moderately-less-exciting-but-still-pretty-fun “Dance 4 Me,” MPLSound provides the best consecutive sixteen minutes of new Prince music since Parade. The level of quality dips on slowjam “U’Re Gonna See Me” and doesn’t quite pick up again until “Ol Skool Company,” but even the best Prince records (Purple Rain notwithstanding) had valleys. In general, how much you enjoy this record depends greatly on your tolerance for reiteration; there’s certainly negotiation between the product and its pedigree, between the record-as-listening-experience-in-and-of-itself and the context from which it was borne, but I suspect fans yearn for not-shitty Prince material strongly enough that MPLSound will satisfy the majority. “Tell your friends,” Prince shouts on “Old Skool Company,” “Prince and the Minneapolis sound—we can’t be beat, suckas!” Fair enough.

But also: there was (and still is) always something so aware about Purple Rain or Sign O’ the Times or Dirty Mind (1980), as if all the contradictory, even vulgar, shards of his persona—all the putrid sex commingling with notions of purity and freedom; technology staring down the barrel of some very fleshy desires—joined to make Prince and make him impenetrable, reflecting the gross society he saw around him with powerfully gross music. Today he is just flabbergasting, and since we be won’t addressing Elixir—simply acknowledging it and disdaining it for time that could have been utilized strengthening Prince’s albums proper—the blame must fall squarely on LOtUSFLOW3R (hereon: LotusFlow3r). Because MPLSound is actually pretty good, but also because in comparison, set parallel against a retro-fried deluge of Revolution funk and space jams that first crowned Prince heir, LotusFlow3r sucks even harder.

LotusFlow3r is almost-average but mostly bad for all the reasons we have been ripping on Prince about above. As he champions his heroes he mangles most of what defined him: the first and last tracks channel Carlos Santana in unbridled wankiness, “Dreamer” dumps a load on Hendrix, and “The Morning After” allows the Beatles to fucking glisten. Prince is taking to emulating his influences like his fans once did for him—at least up until recently. So LotusFlow3r achieves nothing so much as reliving the glory and joy of emulation, which is saddened by the image of Prince nudging our shoulders, urging us to relive with him.

This sadness pervades these records at their worst, and time maunders by, and Prince gets older, and each year we must ask, again, if Prince, still ever-famous and given pretty much a free pass on life, is worth our attention, if after dipping our snouts in his latest trough we’ll still be more pleased than disappointed, more invigorated than confused. These are tough times, folks, and the last thing we need is Prince telling us that from his Purple Tower, projecting old movies of happier decades into the clouds while we toil in the mud below. There is no better time to write 1,400 words about a marginal Prince album. There is no better time to taunt him as we secretly want to be him. There is no better time for pancakes.