Wednesday, April 08, 2009

215 - 217. Prince: Lotusflow3r (2009)

In 1996 Prince famously divorced from Warner Bros. records, the company that had been his home since his 1978 debut album. His main issue was the publishing rights of his songs, but he cast the fight in the more general light of artistic freedom.

Unfortunately, artistic freedom for Prince hasn't exactly equaled artistic achievement. In fact, of the 9 or so official albums he's released since 1996, none could objectively be considered essential. These albums have contained plenty of good songs, but none have connected on the level of his earlier classics. This brings up a larger question of what connects us to an artist's work, and at what point the general public stops wanting new material from them, but in the interest of space, time, and clarity I won't get into that.

Even casual Prince fans know the man is all about control, so it's ironic that many of his latter day failures are a direct result of a lack of self-control; the absence of someone to help him reign in his musical impulses. Starting in 2004, he actually seemed to have figured this out himself. That's when he began an intelligent, focused effort to rehab his musical image. He did big television appearances, toured, and put out Musicology, his best album since 1995's The Gold Experience. This continued, to a lesser degree, with 2006's 3121 and 2007's Planet Earth.

Unfortunately, it seems the success and rediscovered adoration have already gone to Prince's head, leading him right back to the self-destructive sense of entitlement that brought him low in the first place. The first sign of this came in late 2007 when he began to take issue with the use of his likeness and music on the web and made litigious overtures toward several fan sites, as well as eBay and YouTube. Then, late last year he made comments to the New Yorker that indicated he doesn't support gay marriage, nevermind the fact that he promoted and practiced promiscuity for many many years or that he himself has failed at marriage twice. Incidents like these two test a fan's patience.

Now come two new albums Lotusflow3r and Mplsound, plus one from his newest protege, Bria Valente. Unfortunately, the discs confirm that Prince's good judgment is once again in question. None of these songs are likely to a) recruit any new fans or b) win back disgruntled ones. The albums roundly fail to match up to any of Prince's best work, and indeed even to top any of his last three albums. Let's take a look at each album:

215. Lotusflow3r, the centerpiece of the collection, reminds me a lot of Eric Johnson, the new age jazz guitar prodigy (best known for the 1986 instrumental hit Cliffs of Dover). If you like hearing Prince show off his axe skills on dreamy songs, then this is the record for you. You'll love trifles like Boom, 4Ever, Love Like Jazz, and the cover of Crimson and Clover (which is actually an improvement on the annoying original, even if that's not saying much).

Colonized Mind and Dreamer feature the most intriguing lyrics on the whole set. The former sets up a clever cause and effect structure to make some pointed social commentary on race, politics, business, and other topics. And while I applaud Prince for using his music to really say something, I don't exactly see eye to eye with him, especially when he says that a belief in evolution leads to a lack of self-responsibility. Nor am I comfortable with the chorus that comes dangerously close to condemning the separation of church and state ("the one in power makes laws / under which the colonized fall / without God, it's just the blind leading the blind"). He neglects to mention that the people in power often claim to be doing God's will while they suppress the subordinate and less fortunate.

Dreamer is a blistering discussion of racism aimed at those who would like to avoid the topic or declare it a dead issue. It starts with a recollection of the assassination of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. and moves on to modern day: "21st century, oh what a shame, what a shame / Race, race still matters / A race to what, and where we going? / We in the same boat, but I'm the only one rowing." Musically, the song rocks like Jimi Hendrix fronting Living Colour.

The record is rounded out by three instrumentals (the opening and closing tracks, and 77 Beverly Park), the limp Wall of Berlin, the '60s-styled $, and yet another James Brown homage in a long list of them (Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful).

Overall, Lotusflow3r is the best record of the three, even if that's the equivalent of being the nicest murderer on death row.

Grade: C
Fave Song: Dreamer

216. You could tell me that MPLSound was actually comprised of a bunch of lost Prince b-sides from the '80s and I would probably believe you. Obviously from the title of the album, it was intentional that these songs have that classic Prince sound. And for the most part, the Artist does a fine job of recreating his heyday, but there's also something calculated and cold about the whole thing.

Sure, (There'll Never B) Another Like Me is danceable self-congratulation (with drum machine programming that brings to mind Do the Bartman) and Dance 4 Me definitely has that old thrill, but neither is spectacular.

Ol' Skool
Company serves as the album's mission statement, but basically it's Musicology warmed over. In a glimpse into just how fast Prince writes, the song contains mentions the Wall Street bailout ("$700 billion but my old neighborhood / ain't nothin' changed but the date") and Obama's election ("the White House is black"). At over 7 and a half minutes the song drags, and the "things used to be better" message is empty.

One also needs to be careful deriding current songs as bland (as Prince does on Ol' Skool Company), lest your songs be made of glass. Ballads You're Gonna C Me and Better With Time both dust off Prince's capable falsetto, but ultimately come off as synthesized Al Green. They're both adequate, but nothing Prince hasn't done better before (see The Most Beautiful Girl in the World and Call My Name).
Here, the album's other ballad, fares slightly better. All it's missing is some harmonies from Apollonia.

Valentina is just weird. In the lyrics, Prince hits on Salma Hayek through her 18-month-old daughter: "Hey Valentina tell your mama she should give me a call." As if that wasn't squirm-inducing enough, there's also mention of "late-night feedings." It's a shame such an awful lyrical conceit is wasted on a pretty good tune. The synths are bouncy and the chorus is as catchy as malaria. It's very modern too; it wouldn't sound out-of-place played in a club between the latest from Flo Rida or T-Pain. Prince even channels Andre 3000 on a little rap before he unleashes a Satana-esque guitar solo.

Chocolate Box is similar in that the lyrics ruin an otherwise pleasant listening experiences. It's an insanely catchy little number, and features a guest verse by one of my favorite rappers (Q-Tip), but two things bother me about the song. For one, it's about 2 and 1/2 minutes too long. For another, the lyrics are beyond me. What exactly is "box of chocolates" a euphamism for? I've puzzled over this for many days now, and all I've been able to figure out is that whatever they are, Prince has them in ample supply, and is willing to give them to the right lady. The lyric "so what's the deal / are u gay or poppin' pills?" also does nothing to endear the song to my heart, especially given Prince's comments on gay marriage.

Overall, MPLSound is a more interesting and fun album than Lotusflow3r, but it's also more cringeworthy.

Grade: C-
Fave Song: Here

217. Bria Valentine's Elixer is the third album in the set. One assumes Prince wrote or co-wrote the songs and produced the album. Perhaps he even played on it. There's no way to know since none of the albums have liner notes or lyrics (you've gotta pay $77 to get that info from his website, apparently).

Prince has a spotty history choosing female proteges: Vanity, Appolonia, Carmen Electra, and Mayte all had looks, but little talent. Tamar was pretty good, but her Prince-assisted album never even got a proper release. So is Bria Valente any different?

Well, she's attractive, and she has a good, if undistinguished, voice. But her album? It's pretty terrible. If you didn't know Prince had a hand in it, it would be hard to tell from the bland R & B tunes that make up 70% of the album.

More insidious than blandness is the fact of Valente serving as Prince's mouthpiece, saying things he wants to hear from a woman. She masturbates to thoughts of him in Here Eye Come. In 2Nite, she has been so overwhelmed by his lovemaking prowess that she "had some trouble walking" the next morning. Worst of all, she celebrates being dominated and controlled on Kept Woman.

By the way, is Elixer supposed to be a homophone for "he licks her"? It sure sounds like it on the boring title track duet.

Only the jazzy-funky All This Love brings anything interesting to the table.

Grade: D
Fave Song: All This Love

Look, I am a huge Prince fan. I have seen him in concert three times. I buy his albums the day they come out. I actually enjoy watching Under the Cherry Moon. Depending on what day you ask me, he might even beat out the Beatles or XTC as my very favorite artist ever. But that doesn't mean I don't recognize his flaws and mistakes (which is definitely what these three albums are). As I think about being a Prince fan it occurs to me that it's a little bit like being a teacher or a parent: You take the good with the bad, keep a forgiving heart, and hope for a good future.

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