1999 was gonna be Prince’s year. After all, he claimed ownership over the eve of the changing millennium seventeen years prior with his iconic single. As the year approached, anticipation mounted when news hit that Prince had signed a deal with Clive Davis and Arista Records to distribute his new album and provide a real promotional push, something that had been lacking with Prince’s recent output. Unfortunately Rave Un2The Joy Fantastic wasn’t the huge comeback fans, and no doubt Prince himself, had craved. There are a handful of tracks that stand out as among Prince’s best of the ‘90s — two of them beautiful and bitter ballads: “Man o’ War” and “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore.” Rarely, if ever, has Prince sounded so vulnerable and genuinely hurt as he does here. There are also a couple terrific and commercial guitar rockers – the upbeat “Baby Knows” and the duet with Gwen Stefani, “So Far, So Pleased.” Unfortunately Prince (or Arista) chose one of the weaker tracks as lead single: the soulless, plastic “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold.” The album is further marred by an ill-advised cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Every day is a Winding Road,” and by throwaways like “Silly Game” and “Hot Wit U.” It’s also burdened with an unwieldy title and a cover with Prince in a bizarre skin-tight shiny blue get-up that looks like something out of The Fifth Element… not a combination designed to propel him back into the upper reaches of the pop charts. It was a missed opportunity. The material was there — trim some of the fat, release the right singles (“Baby Knows” followed by “So Far, So Pleased” and “Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do” or “The Sun, The Moon and Stars”) and try another direction with the cover and title and it might have been the hit Prince obviously so desperately wanted. ‘Twas not to be, but there’s a truly strong Prince album in there somewhere. (Oh, and speaking of 1999, we’re all going to pretend that the “1999 – The New Master” single never happened, right? It’s just better that way. Some things are too painful to revisit.)
Tim Burton’s Batman, starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger, was the perfect project for Prince to regain his momentum after Lovesexy’s disappointing chart performance. From a commercial standpoint, it was the right move. Prince’s Batman, comprised of songs featured in or inspired by the film, shot straight to #1 and spent six weeks at the top over the summer of 1989. It was buoyed by first single “Batdance,” an electro-funk suite featuring bits and pieces of dialogue and snippets from other tracks on the album. “Batdance” became Prince’s fourth #1 single in the U.S. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is hit-and-miss. The second single “Partyman,” which was featured during a key scene in which the Joker and his henchman deface priceless artwork, is a fun and funky slice of pop. “The Arms of Orion,” a duet with Sheena Easton, is a pretty if slightly saccharine ballad. There are some problems, though. The production sounds more dated than most of Prince’s output, and there are a couple weak points — most notably “Lemon Crush” which features this unforgivable couplet: “If I’m working’ at my jobba, I’m the victim, you’re the robba.” Yeah… That one should have stayed in The Vault. Also problematic is the big falsetto ballad, “Scandalous” — it’s overlong, and Prince’s screechy vocal performance is like nails on a chalkboard. Batman has its moments, but ultimately it doesn’t approach Prince’s best work of the decade and even though it returned him to the top of the charts it’s his weakest ‘80s album by a wide margin.
Prince’s 2007 album Planet Earth is much like Musicology in that it’s a diverse collection that hits on just about all of the styles for which he is known. Planet Earth begins with the dramatic title track, a grandiose piece with real drama and power. First single “Guitar” is a fairly standard rocker, similar to “Fury” from the superior 3121. There are a couple nice ballads, particularly “Somewhere Here on Earth.” “The One U Wanna C” is a likable pop-rocker in a similar vein as “Cinnamon Girl” or “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” “All the Midnights in the World,” sounds like it should have come out during the Parade era, and the funk workout “Chelsea Rodgers” is the highlight of the album’s second half. Wendy & Lisa provide backing vocals on “Lion of Judah,” and it’s great to hear them on a Prince record again. A couple tracks have some cringe-worthy lyrics, particularly “Resolution” and “Mr. Goodnight,” but really there isn’t anything too awful on Planet Earth. There is also nothing that really pushes the envelope of Prince’s genius. Planet Earth is Prince on auto-pilot, and while that might result in an album better than what most artists could hope to produce, it’s not the kind of album likely to get Prince’s fans too revved up. There’s nothing here he hasn’t done before, and better.
Prince’s big commercial comeback, Musicology hit with a splash in 2004. It was the 20th anniversary of Purple Rain. He’d changed his name back to Prince from that bizarre symbol a few years prior, and he was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, surprising no one. During the show’s jam session, he delivered a blistering guitar solo on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that reminded everybody just how fucking great he actually is. It had been years since Prince was a real presence nationally, but Musicology and the tour that supported it changed that. The album climbed all the way to #3 on the Billboard Top 200, his highest placement since Diamonds and Pearls thirteen years earlier. If only the album had been stronger he might have been able to really amp things up, but in the end it’s only an average Prince album (which means it’s better than 90% of anything else out there, but still…) There’s nothing average about the title track, a funky tribute to old-school soul that is a classic Prince single — it should have performed much better on the charts. The rich soul ballad “Call My Name” earned him a Grammy for best Male R&B Performance. The sweetly nostalgic “Reflection” ends the album with real grace and feeling. There’s only one real miscalculation, the vapid “Life ‘O’ The Party”, but much of Musicology is in that good-but-not-great zone in which Prince has too often inhabited since his ‘80s peak.