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Given that The Rainbow Children was recorded shortly after Prince’s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, and he’s always been notoriously anti-drug, he likely wouldn’t approve of a room full of people sitting around, getting high and blasting his 2001 opus, but it is indeed a great loopy funk album perfect for that purpose (or so I’d imagine). The Rainbow Children is heavily influenced by his new religion — and yet, it’s a trippy album that veers from jazz to R&B to funk to pop with a spirit of experimentation and freedom that infuses all of Prince’s best work. Prince narrates the album in a deep, digitally manipulated voice that sounds like a prophet from the top of some sacred mountain. Yeah, some of the lyrics are kooky, but when hasn’t that been true on a Prince record? The Rainbow Children features some of his most fascinating and experimental work, especially on the lengthy title song that opens the album. “She Loves Me 4 Me” is a gorgeous, breezy ballad that should have been a hit single. “1+1+1=3” is a slice of sizzling funk that can’t help but get your ass moving. “The Last December” is a spiritual epic that closes the album with extraordinary beauty. There are the long funk workouts “The Everlasting Now” and “Family Name” that are both prime, classic Prince tunes. The Rainbow Children is completely unique in the vast catalog that Prince has created, and if there is any justice will only grow in stature as the years go by. It doesn’t really make much sense, but in the right frame of mind, it doesn’t need to.
Come is the moody, misunderstood sibling of The Gold Experience. Both albums are derived of material from the about same time period, but while The Gold Experience is boisterous, bright and loud, Come is darker, lower-key and at times unsettling. It opens with the long, smooth title track which is nice enough but it should have been substantially edited (and the slurping noises really need to go). Then it gets into some classic Prince. “Space” is easily one of his best tracks of the’90s. It’s gorgeously produced with shimmering layers of keyboards and beautiful harmony vocals. The sexually obsessed “Pheromone” is a fantastic twisted dance track in which a voyeur watches a couple at play in a dangerous sexual fantasy. “Loose!” is a wild techno freak-out and “Papa” is a troubling piece about child-abuse. “Dark” is a heartbroken ballad, one of his best of the era. The slick “Letitgo,” the album’s first single, has a soulful, very melodic vibe. The chilling “Solo” features one of the most unhinged vocals Prince has ever delivered. Come is supposed to be an album of contract-filler, but it’s loaded with top-notch material that hangs together very well as a coherent album. Come didn’t make a significant chart impact upon its release, with only “Letitgo” reaching the Top 40 (a paltry #31). It’s arguably the most underrated album of his career.
Prince’s follow-up to the successful Diamonds and Pearls doubles-down on that album’s hip-hop flavor, but overall the material is much stronger and the production work is stellar. The audacious “My Name is Prince” and “Sexy M.F.” open the album with a strong one-two punch. “The Morning Papers,” which boasts some white-hot guitar, is an essential Prince single. Prince’s vocals are particularly exquisite on the shimmering ballad “And God Created Woman”; it’s a hidden gem that should have been a single. The big hit from the album, “7,” is notable for its massive wall of vocals. The epic “3 Chains o’ Gold” is overwrought and melodramatic, but it’s impressive nonetheless, with absolutely breathtaking vocals and guitar heroics. The lightweight reggae “Blue Light” is a fun and sexy little tune, another one that should have received strong consideration to be a single. Also strong are the sizzling funk/rocker “The Continental” and the elegant ballad “Damn U,” featuring Prince in his sweetest falsetto. Unfortunately the album is burdened by a dumb conceptual framework that includes segues featuring news reports and telephone calls between Prince and Kirstie Alley (it’s as bizarre as it sounds), and there are a couple blots on the album that should have been left as B-sides — particularly “The Max” and the rap number “The Flow.” It could have been better had the fat been trimmed, but O(+> is an essential portrait of the early-90’s version of Prince.Although it was a moderate hit, it didn’t sell as well as Diamonds & Pearls, which is a shame because there are several potential singles that were left on the table, and are now known mostly by the die-hard fans when they should be on his greatest hits collections.
It’s difficult to fathom that by 2006 there were still chart accomplishments that Prince hadn’t yet managed, but he did something with 3121 that was a first: debut at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart. It was also his first #1 album in 17 years, since Batman. Musicology brought at least some degree of mainstream attention for the first time in years, and Prince was able to take advantage with 3121, a first-rate collection of well-produced pop and R&B. The first single was “Te Amo Corazón,” a beautiful bossa nova ballad with an exquisite acoustic guitar solo. It was followed with “Black Sweat,” a stripped down electronic-funk jam that is sorta a modern take on the “Kiss” formula. The scorching rocker “Fury” was another great single. 3121 is all over the place stylistically, and everything he tries on it works. For example, the old-school soul ballad “Satisfied,” or the electrifying dance/funk of “Love” and “Lolita.” The elegant “Incense and Candles,” featuring some terrific harmonies, is one of Prince’s sexiest tracks in ages. “The Dance” is a haunting ballad with whirring strings on which Prince delivers a stunning vocal. The final track is long, infectious funk workout with blistering horns and a joyous vibe. There are no weak tracks on 3121. Starting with Musicology, Prince had returned to a more concise album-length compared to his ‘90s works which often stretched the CD to its limit, and that move pays off on 3121 — it’s a compact 12 songs that are all worthy additions to Prince’s musical galaxy. The title song asks the question –“Don’t you wanna come, 3121?” The answer is a resounding YES. With 3121, Prince not only returned to #1, but he did it with an album that shows beyond all doubt that the man can still release a tightly focused album with terrific songwriting and production.
Since his ‘80s heyday, Prince’s output, while prolific, has been hit-and-miss. He’s released some tremendous records like 3121 and The Gold Experience, but too often his albums almost seem like afterthoughts. On tour he plays his hits and long extended jams, and the new albums are generally neglected. As it’s been years since he’s been tied to a major label, he’s comes up with creative ways to get his music to the fans. For his 2009 release Lotusflow3r he also included a second disc of Prince material called MPLSound and a disc with vocals by his protégé of the moment, Bria Valente, called Elixer. The 3-disc package was only available Target or via Prince’s costly website (which ended up being a fiasco). The main disc is by far the best of the three, and easily one of the Top Three albums Prince has released since the ‘80s. Lotusflow3r is primarily a rock album, featuring blues-rockers “Colonized Mind” and “Dreamer.” “Wall of Berlin” is classic Prince, an air-tight, sizzling rocker. “Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful” is old-school funk, and the catchy “$” should have been Prince’s biggest single in years. Lotusflow3r did debut at #2, but it fell rapidly after die-hard fans picked up the album, and none of the tracks ever really made an impact nationally — a shame. There is a lot to love about Lotusflow3r, and it’s good to know that Prince can still bring it when he wants to.
Prince’s follow-up to his debut For You is a huge leap forward in all respects. Prince is a slick collection of pop/rock/R&B with some amazing songwriting for a man who was only 21 at the time of its release. Prince wrote, produced, and performed every instrument, and his growth in confidence as a musician, songwriter and vocalist since his debut is obvious. His first big hit came with the disco-kissed “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” topping the Billboard R&B Singles chart and crossing over to the pop chart, where it hit #11. Subsequent singles, the pop/rocker “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and the smooth soul ballad “Still Waiting,” failed to match that success, but it hardly mattered. It was obvious by this point to anybody paying attention that Prince was a talent to be reckoned with. The album was more daring than his debut by leaps and bounds, especially with the sexually charged rocker “Bambi” and the kinetic funk of “Sexy Dancer.” Prince also includes the sterling pop track “I Feel for You,” which of course later became a huge smash for Chaka Khan and begs the question why Prince didn’t choose to release it himself, as it is easily the most commercial track on the album after “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Prince is a gleaming hybrid of influences that not only points the way forward to future greatness, but stands as a classic album in its own right.
Prince amps up the new wave elements on his follow-up to Dirty Mind, 1981’s Controversy. The lead single, built on pulsing synths over a strong backbeat and a funky guitar riff, is one of Prince’s all-time greats. The album version is 7 minutes and 16 seconds of Prince at his purest, in its vibe, lyrics, and attitude. The rest of the album is strong, but while it expands on Dirty Mind stylistically, it doesn’t have the razor sharp focus and cohesion. A couple of tracks are a bit throwaway, especially the curiously perverse “Jack U Off.” Clearly the most commercial track on the album, “Private Joy” was never released by Prince as a single — perhaps because he realized that radio programmers might have balked at the perturbing misogyny it portrays. The high points on Controversy far outweigh any negatives, though. “Annie Christian” is a foreboding new waver with some wicked guitar licks, and a strong argument could be made that “Let’s Work” is the greatest pure funk track of Prince’s career — that bassline just melts the brain. Controversy also contains the first of Prince’s classic ballads, the languidly erotic “Do Me, Baby,” notable for its long pillow-talk ending that becomes fully orgasmic. Controversy is another step on the ladder for Prince. His songwriting is getting more varied and adventurous, and his confidence is soaring. The next album would be one of his masterpieces.