Last week, Prince’s fiftyleventh album 3121 debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. Not only is this debut a first for his three-decade career, but it’s also solid proof that the comeback he initiated with 2004’s Musicology album wasn’t a fluke. For the first time in a decade, both the record-buying public and the music press are paying attention to Prince again. Every major and minor publication worth its salt has already voiced its opinion on this record. Why, then, would a little old ‘blog like ours, whose main purpose is to spotlight music that everyone else ignores or gives short shrift to, chime in with its own measly two cents?
BECAUSE I AM SEAN PADILLA, A GROWN-ASS MAN WHO CAN DO WHAT THE HELL HE WANTS, AND I LOVE PRINCE EVEN MORE THAN I LOVE BOB POLLARD…SO YOU *KNOW* I MEAN BIDNESS!
I liked Musicology but, as good as it was, I knew he could do better. On that album, he boasted about the supremacy of “real” musicianship (“Take your pick --- turntable or a band?”), took potshots at Michael Jackson (“My voice is getting higher, and I ain’t never had my nose done!”) and namedropped the few rappers he felt were worthy of his respect. His didacticism seemed disingenuous, though, because the album was mired in a light R&B sound that, while certainly more pleasant to listen to than the jazz experiments that marred some of his recent work, was simply too retro to hold a candle to the best of his ‘80s and ‘90s work. Someone must have subsequently told Prince, “Don’t talk about it --- be about it,” because on 3121, he cuts down on the self-aggrandizement and gets down to business with some of the most vibrant music he has made in at least 15 years.
Many of the songs on 3121’s first half connect the dots between the Spartan electro-funk that he pioneered on 1999 and The Black Album and the “minimalist crunk” (as my dear friend Justin calls it) that recent hip-hop producers have turned into a radio goldmine. On the opening title track, Prince pushes the drums to the front of the mix, drags the keyboards to the back, speeds up his voice and runs it through a squelchy “cat lead” filter. All of these effects produce one of the most alien-sounding songs I’ve heard from him since the songs his “female” alter-ego Camille sang on Sign o’ the Times. The second track, “Lolita,” builds a danceable groove from handclaps, wah-wah guitar and distorted keyboards. Two songs later, “Black Sweat” takes the Neptunes to school with little more than a simple drum program, an ear-piercing synthesizer and Prince’s lascivious falsetto. Prince shows his age on some of these songs; the lyrical allusions to the Berlin Wall and Ava Gardner on “3121” and “Lolita,” respectively, will fly over the heads of most listeners who are younger than me. Ageists need to shut up, though. Prince may be older than my mom, but if he invited me to a party at his house, I’d STILL show up with bells on.
The rest of the album finds Prince mixing up genres and blurring the line between the secular and the sacred in a way that only he can do well. “Te Amo Corazon” is one of three songs that betray a newfound Latin influence in his music. His Spanish accent sucks, but the song itself is beautiful, and not even careful study of the lyrics can reveal whether he’s singing about God or about a woman. Other songs aren’t as subtle. On the bossanova-tinged “The Dance,” Prince addresses a woman who withholds her affection from him; he ends the song by shrieking “It’s just not fair!” with a frightening intensity that proves how little his voice his aged in the last two decades. If Musicology’s slow jam “On the Couch” was a hilarious account of a domestic quarrel, then 3121’s “Satisfied” is the soundtrack to the subsequent makeup sex. On the other side of the divide, light R&B ballads “The Word” and “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed” form a one-two punch that makes a much stronger case for Prince’s conversion to the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses than anything on his scattershot The Rainbow Children album.
Of course, 3121 isn’t perfect. Some songs suffer from a puzzling overuse of the auto-tuner. First of all, Prince has already proven that he can still sing without the aid of computers; second of all, was it really necessary to employ the effect on his SPOKEN voice as well (see “Incense and Candles”)? Also, the studio version of “Fury” pales in comparison to the jaw-dropping rendition he gave during a recent Saturday Night Live episode; the drumming is mediocre, and Prince’s wonderful guitar solos are buried underneath overbearing synthesizers. This song is one of the few in Prince’s catalog wherein his one-man band approach backfires. These quibbles aside, 3121 finds Prince in near-peak form as a singer, writer, musician, producer and overall visionary. Unlike Musicology, this album isn’t an underwhelming effort buffered by goodwill; however, I still feel that Prince has got even better things waiting for us in the future.
Artist Website: www.3121.com
Label Website: www.npgmusicclub.com