The mysterious downfall of a Prince

Prince’s generally dreadful — but copious — recent output is one of the enduring pop culture disappointments of the past 15 years. His “comeback” performances at the 2004 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and last year’s Super Bowl notwithstanding, Prince’s creative decline falls somewhere between post-accident Stephen King and post-sanity Michael Jackson.

My friend Eric reminds us of better Prince times in this post, where he provides links to Prince’s aborted Camille and Dream Factory projects. They’re both definitely worth downloading and listening to, and they’ve inspired me to do a more thorough re-examination of what the heck happened to Prince (short answer: ego and a misunderstanding of hip-hop). This will require a bit of listening and a rereading of the fascinating biography Possessed.

But to get the conversation started, here’s a review of the 2004 album Musicology that was supposed to run in the St. Pete Times a few years back but got lost in the shuffle. It was an attempt to counter the CW at the time (which has since been revised, I think) that Musicology was vintage Prince and a real comeback. I saw Prince live for the first time on the Musicology tour, and he was great. But the album was just as boring and lame as The Rainbow Children, Emancipation, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, etc.

So two views of latter-day Prince: His jaw-dropping (literally — watch Dhani Harrison) RnR Hall of Fame performance (Prince solo starts around the 3:20 mark) …

And a contemporaneous review of Musicology:

Prince is right: Don’t call Musicology a comeback.

Just because The Artist Formerly Known as [insert joke here] is on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and packing in arenas doesn’t mean he’s been gone.

But be careful what you wish for, Prince. A return to form would have been something to cheer. Instead, his new CD is just the latest in a string of hookless, melody-challenged bores that he’s released while out of the public eye.

With the academic-sounding title and old-school backing band, Musicology is presented as a throwback lesson, a reminder of “the feeling music gave ya back in tha day,” as Prince puts it on the title track. The snaky, minimalist funk of “Musicology” and “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” comes reasonably close, but Prince blunts their referential appeal by playing all the instruments himself. He wastes legendary sax player Maceo Parker and the band’s other horn players, failing to capture the Live at the Apollo excitement of their current tour.

Musicology is otherwise full of meandering slow and mid-tempo jams and ersatz rockers that neither recall a bygone era nor herald any kind of musical future. Soaked in synthesized acoustic guitar and flute, “Reflection” is one of the most innocuous songs Prince has ever recorded. “The Marrying Kind” aspires to the same minor-chord operatic grandeur of “3 Chains O’ Gold,” from 1991’s Love Symbol album, but falls short of even Meatloaf.

In the 1980s, Prince’s genius was twofold. First, he combined disparate threads of music’s past into an electric present that seemingly had no boundaries. Second, and perhaps more important, he successfully fused the chill of electronics and calculated pop with the warmth of human artistry and idiosyncrasy.

“When Doves Cry” has one of the most memorable synth hooks of the MTV era, but Prince’s desiccated-cello moan, the weird snare that sounds like a drum/jews harp hybrid played backwards, and eerie lines like “animals strike curious poses, they feel the heat, the heat between me and you” give that one song more depth than Madonna’s entire catalog.

But as hip-hop and rap started to ascend in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Prince seemed to lose confidence. He picked up rap’s worst habits, turning to basic, boring beats and easy couplets; he began to adopt already dated slang; he relied more on treacly synthesizers than instruments.

These tendencies became more prevalent over Prince’s last few albums, and belie his professorial aspirations on Musicology. “A Million Days” is filled with fake harpsichords, glockenspiels and wah-wah effects, and forgettable lines like “It’s only been an hour since you left me, but if feels like a million days.” The ostensibly funky “Life O’ The Party” is driven by a plodding, muffled bass beat and an annoying, monotone piano key — it’s almost a parody of the Neptunes, who themselves have made millions giving Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z second-rate Prince hooks.

On “If Eye Was The Man In Your Life,” Prince proves that he’s down with Kriss Kross’ 1991 lingo: “You gettin’ played girl and you better get your mack on.” And “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” name-checks Cristal — the preferred gangsta beverage of 1998.

There’s no reason for such insecurity. As his concerts and recent Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony have shown, Prince is still the most ungodly talented performer around. And hip-hop — driven by the Neptunes’ production and Outkast’s exploration — is circling back toward the musical space he discovered 20 years ago.

Prince doesn’t need to recreate “Little Red Corvette,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Purple Rain.” But he needs to recapture the trust in himself that let those disparate songs emerge. He has to find the trust in the studio that lets him claim the mantles of both James Brown and Jimi Hendrix every time he steps on stage.

And now that people are paying attention again, maybe Prince will care enough to put the ego and eccentricities aside and accept that a real comeback is exactly what he and we need.

One response to “The mysterious downfall of a Prince

  1. I can’t get over how much Dhani Harrison looks like his father circa 1965. It’s crazy.