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Music: Ready for His New Evolution

5 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

Shortly after he signed a $60 million contract with Warner Bros. in 1992, Prince scrawled the word slave on his face, changed his name to a symbol and announced that he was retiring from recorded music. The problem was that he had a backlog of 450 songs he felt the world wanted to hear, and Warner Bros. simply refused to flood the market with that much product. Commercial suicide, the company said. In one of his last public acts before locking himself away in Paisley Park, his hermitage just west of Minneapolis, Minn., Prince stood before an awards-show audience and prophesied in his little whisper, “Perhaps one day, all the powers that are will realize that it is better to let a man be all that he can be than to try to limit his output to just what they can handle.”

A decade later, Warner Bros. and the other record-industry giants are flat-lining, and Prince is doing a happy dance that would make Snoopy look like a depressive. In the past two months, he has opened the Grammy Awards with Beyonce Knowles, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, launched a sold-out arena tour, opened an iTunes-ish music-download store to go along with his successful, subscription-based NPG Music Club and released Musicology, his best album in an age.

It’s tempting to call this resurgence a victory lap for free-spirited artists over the big, bad corporations, but that would be giving Prince too much–and too little–credit. He may have briefly adopted the language of artistic brotherhood in his fight with Warner, but Prince didn’t pick up the face pencil to fight for the Hoobastanks and Josh Grobans of the world. The principle at stake was never creative Utopianism: it was narcissism. Prince believed that he was a genius and that his tiniest musical doodle merited commercial attention. (He even declined to do phone interviews, saying he didn’t want his voice recorded by anyone else.)

He has spent most of his time in seclusion proving his point. Since 2000, the NPG Music Club has signed up around 400,000 members, who pay a $25 initiation fee for access to countless Prince songs (and many less enjoyable Prince songlike things) as well as unreleased videos, specially reserved concert tickets and after-parties. It is a highly profitable model of music distribution utterly dependent on the fact that many people will pay to listen to even Prince’s worst ideas.

But it’s clearly not enough, at least not for Prince. Why else would he have launched his Musicology download store, an iTunes rip-off that makes his music available to the agnostic, non-NPG fan for 99¢ a song? Why would he be touring with the come-on–aimed at all those slow-dancing Purple Rain thirtysomethings–that this may be the last time he will play the hits? Why would he have released Musicology both on his website and in record stores (on April 20) through a distribution deal with megacorp Sony?

Perhaps because having established that he is a genius, Prince has decided he would rather be a rock star. And Musicology reminds you he is still capable of being the world’s greatest. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince has said he will try to abstain from getting too dirty, and give the man credit: he manages to hold out for an entire song. But by the time the second track, Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance, comes on, he’s pushing the throttle with some funk four-four and singing about a gigolo and his old bag of a client. “Ugly! So ugly, the bitch beyond compare/Dropped a couple hundred thousand dollars on a silver whip just to match the color of her hair.”

The best and sexiest song on the album, On the Couch, is a slow jam that has Prince begging from the living room. It starts with a “Come on, baaaaaaaby,” proceeds to a line about how “it’s undignified to sleep alone” and reaches its climax–yeah, yeah–with a grand moment when the backup singers go “bip-bip-a-bip-a-dee-dip,” the horns wail away and Prince slides down the begging scale from falsetto to a great big rumbling roar. It’s the best James Brown song in years.

There are wit and sex all over Musicology, but Prince at 45 is not trying to imitate Prince at 25. A surprising number of songs (A Million Days, Call My Name, The Marrying Kind) are about monogamy, and it’s a testament to his confidence that none of them feel corny. He falters a bit when he tries to address the war in Iraq on Cinnamon Girl and inner-city woes on the Marvin Gaye-ish Dear Mr. Man, but then he never was at his best discussing public policy. No, with that voice and one of the best backing bands he has ever assembled, Prince’s place is in the bedroom. Everybody’s bedroom.

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