A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 16, 2006
Here’s the deal on Prince: I’ve liked just about every Prince album I’ve ever heard. (I confess, I’ve heard very little from the decade or so between Emancipation and Musicology.)
But I haven’t loved a Prince album since his Batman soundtrack back in 1989. I’ll argue that that’s his most unjustly underrated work, and I’m surprised that more artists haven’t sampled Jack Nicholson, as The Joker, proclaiming, “This town needs an enema!”
As for Prince’s latest, 3121, I can’t say I love it. But I do like it, and I like it a little more with each listening. Like Musicology, which immediately preceded it, 3121 is a fine showcase of everything that makes Prince the Prince he is: wild funk workouts, sultry soul ballads, unbridled weirdness, unabashed self-indulgence and sly, self-effacing humor.
The title song starts off like some twisted, midperiod Talking Heads groove. Prince, aided by a chorus of altered funk-Munchkin voices (his own, of course), sings about a place that’s magically hedonistic. “Take your pick from the Japanese robes and sandals/Drink champagne from a glass with chocolate handles/Don’t you wanna come? 3121.”
So what exactly is 3121? Don’t ask me. It sounds like an address, but knowing Prince, there’s probably some esoteric numerology going on here. My favorite guess is one I found on a Prince fan site that quotes the New Living Translation of the Bible’s Psalm 31:21. “Praise the Lord, for he has shown me his unfailing love. He kept me safe when my city was under attack.” But someone else there guesses it’s a PIN for an ATM.
The next song is downright hilarious. “Lolita” deals with the ever-present rock ’n’ roll danger of jail bait. But here Prince takes the moral high ground, refusing Lolita’s advances, surprising himself in the process. “Cool together, yes I must admit/Long time ago, we’d be the shhh ... uh oh.” The funniest part is the call-and-response section, when Prince asks the “fellas” just “How bad is this girl?” Then he asks Lolita herself: “Then what you wanna do?/(Anything you want?)/Then come on, let’s dance/(Dance?!)” The girl (actually Prince, again in altered voice) is dismayed.
So this is the same guy who inspired Tipper Gore’s children’s crusade against raunch in rock 20 years ago? Don’t worry; he hasn’t become a complete prude. He gets downright prurient in “Black Sweat,” bragging, “You’ll be screaming like a white lady when I count to three.” And in the next song, he’s seducing a woman in “a room of incense and candles.”
The final cut, “Get on the Boat,” is nothing short of irresistible. It sounds almost like salsa, but it’s got gospel overtones — an old-fashioned joyful call for loving one another and unity: “Get on the boat now/We got room for a hundred more,” Prince sings. Instead of sounding corny, the song is so high-energy it’s exhilarating.
And it’s an impressive little band Prince has assembled. James Brown’s sax man Maceo Parker blows here, as does Dutch sax princess Candy Dulfer. Longtime Prince cohort Sheila E. does her trademark Latin percussion assault. And Prince’s own piano solo sounds like he’s auditioning for the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Unfortunately not all the songs reach this level. There are too many slow ones, like the MOR religious statement called “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed.” And then there’s “Te Amo Corazón,” which sounds like Prince is trying to get a foothold in the “romantico” Latin radio format.
But don’t be too quick with the skip button. Prince is still capable of surprising his listeners and rescuing a weak song. For instance, “The Dance” starts out like an overblown, mediocre ballad. But by the end, the singer works himself into an inspired emotional tizzy, alternately pleading with and threatening his lover, and the monologue melts into delicious self-parody: “Oh baby, I can find another just like you anywhere/Oh baby, they might not have your hips girl/Or all that pretty hair/But at least they won’t spend all day in the mirror.”
I don’t know what boat Prince is on, but it’s great to see he’s still afloat.
* Different Strokes by Different Folks by Sly & The Family Stone (and different folks). When I first played this CD, I thought it was a tribute album. There are all these different singers and rappers doing Sly songs — though you keep hearing familiar voices and instrumentals by Sly and his old band.
But no, it’s not a tribute album in the usual sense of the word. These are actually “14 Sly and the Family Stone classics reimagined by today’s hottest stars.” In other words, those great old songs like “Dance to the Music,”“I Want to Take You Higher,” and “Family Affair” have been remixed and regurgitated.
For years I’ve had a bizarre fantasy of “reimagining” the song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” adding my voice to those of Willie and Julio, as if I were one of their pals.
Actually, the idea’s not new. Years ago a character who called himself “Orion,” with the help of producer/con man Shelby Singleton, “reimagined” hits by Elvis and other Sun Records giants. Then there were those musical séances in which Hank Williams Jr. and Natalie Cole performed “duets” with their long-dead fathers.
In the case of Different Strokes, however, Sly himself produced this tampering with his landmark recordings. And I’m surprised I like them as much as I do. How could you not like a team-up of Public Enemy’s Chuck D with soul demiurge Isaac Hayes (and younger singer D’Angelo) on “Sing a Simple Song”?
While rappers and contemporary R & B artists dominate this project, there are exceptions. “I Want to Take You Higher” features Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and sacred-steel jam-bander Robert Randolph, both of whom do the tune justice. And “You Can Make It If You Try” has bluesman Buddy Guy and John Mayer turning the song into a snazzy little guitar pull.
No, these new versions never will take the place of the old Sly hits. But most of them are a lot of fun.