(Universal; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 30 November 2007

That’s “Thirty-one, Twenty-one,” not an individual naming of each numeral, and besides referring to the $70,000/month pad the Purple One is renting from Carlos Boozer — and supposedly being sued for some prohibited, and positively dreadful, redecorating — no one but the Artist himself knows what the fuck it means. Oh, right, that’s probably Camille trading verse duties with Prince in the titular opening track, or Camille sharing with between alien guitars and Maceo Parker’s processed horns, whatever, which leads us to believe what we were intended to believe with Musicology (2004): the all-inclusive genius is welcoming us Back through welcoming back every chassis of Prince Rogers Nelson.

Is any of this mythical kindling worth mentioning? His unending and, at his best, ineffable puree of funk, R&B, soul, dance, rock, electronica, and hip-hop has saturated Prince with the exigencies of Artist As Channel/Artist As Amorphous Paroxysm Of Household Sound for as long as most of us can remember. In other words, 3121 is not a fantastic return to Golden Prince, to Purple Rain (1984) or to Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), or even to Sexy MF and the glee in watching the NPG finally come together. This, his 25th(?) LP, is an airy return; pleasant and stultified, 3121 is Prince goddamned comfortable in his megatacky L.A. condo, sipping champagne with his hermaphroditic alter-ego and cupping his hot wife’s chin.

I’ll quote a better author than me to set the point. In Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, protagonist and Tourettic wouldbe-detective Lionel Essrog describes his affinity for Prince, remembering the first time he heard 1986’s “Kiss,” “To that point in my life I might have once or twice heard music that toyed with feelings of claustrophobic discomfort and expulsive release, and which in so doing passingly charmed my Tourette’s…but here was a song that lived entirely in that territory, guitar and voice twitching and throbbing within obsessively delineated bounds, alternately silent and plosive… The way he worried forty-five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition.”

3121 is too much a product of “obsessively delineated bounds” than of the gutterluvin’, sleazy experimentation indelible to every great album Prince has made. Now we have a shell that moonlights as a “return,” channeling “modern” pop tropes, already channeled through Prince’s 28-yr career, into something slightly refreshing. And then Prince calls his new album an homage, of sorts, to those that influenced him, like Sly and the Family Stone or Al Green. There’s a law of diminishing returns at play here, the layers of influence and amalgamation so blatantly obvious and bloated that rules, followed, not broken, are what really matter this year.

For example, second single “Black Sweat,” a corrosive and irresistible dance track in its own right, exploits a recent tendency in mainstream pop for spare, resounding drums, straight out of Pharrel William’s minimalist wet dream. Williams could be said to be a disciple of, say, I dunno, Wu-Tang or Dr. Dre at easiest, and then we could wander mercilessly down the studded Glory Hole of jazz and funk, finding Prince again, but “Sweat” also resembles “Housequake” or “It” from Times, carries a similar whine and lusty, inchoate falsetto, and from there the tail flaps uninhibited into the past. Ostensibly erotic, “Black Sweat” is as calculated as the Simpsons Movie, an artifact for which we’ve all been hoping, but inevitably not much more than an expensive parody of better days. Same with “Love,” damn suspicious song, whose intro invites Little John tics and Jeff Chang’s dream of Timbaland behind the boards: unanimously lousy lyrics aside, Maceo Parker’s potential aside, 3121’s guests are boring, the production rudimentary, and the love ballads (of which Side B seems almost entirely composed) register as little more than a long graft of harmless, grey Seal skin.

So. “Te Amo Corazon,” swept in bassoon and conga, promises that Prince can still assimilate disparate parts into a familiar whole, but the melody is lost to conventional structure and thin percussion. (Also, Selma Hayak sucks at directing music videos.) “Fury,” Prince’s favorite concert addition along with mindless Tamar vehicle “Beautiful, Loved & Blessed,” returns a shot of adrenaline to 3121’s middle, glorifying the synth monkeying of “When You Were Mine” or “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” but draining the standards of all surprise. “Get On The Boat” breathes formula, every horn blat in meticulous place, every snare crisply on every third beat, and Prince even verbally announces the bridge, then verbally announces “Maceo” before an unimaginative solo. Yes, Prince raps and it’s terrible. Yes, his guitar is as pliant as ever. Yep, there’s a silt of Latin influence coating the electro-sterility. Yes, his lyrics aren’t as overtly graphic as he’s proven himself to be. Yes, faith simmers unsettlingly with puns on Prince’s “candle.” So?

Prince is still That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice, but he’s never accepted this as passively as he has now. Instead of wrenching free of every single confinement that’s ever been placed around his tiny waist, like he’s pretty much always done, Prince is settling into 3121, accepting the decades of his career as what he should be content in emulating. Content with what he should be content in contending he contended for two decades already. The subcutaneous pulse Lethem describes is here somewhere — U can sense it — but buried beneath the layers of institutional genius. 3121, then, may be the best thing the guy’s done since Love Symbol (1992), and he’s still the staggering Prince, but the result is a toned, pretty exercise in absolutely everything that’s come before. Pun intended.