Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Small Paybacks

No, you shouldn't call Prince's new album a comeback, but musicology will do just fine

A dozen years ago I ended an account of Prince's epic hissy fit against the Corporation Briefly to Be Known as AOL Time Warner by supporting his demand that the slavemasters let 450 of his unreleased songs out of the can. But by 2000, when Prince launched the NPG Music Club, where a claimed 400,000 fans would pay $25 to frolic among the artist's musical leavings, I'd changed my mind. Prince's late Warners music is far more inspired than it's made out to be. But he's proven too self-involved to quality-control the self-released albums with which he now marks time and clocks dollars between major-label releases, of which the remarkable if over-reported Musicology "comeback" is merely the latest.

In 1996, Prince ditched Warners and by year's end had gone to Capitol with Emancipation, three CDs' worth of blessed excess that never peaks like a pop album should. Having credited the self-released Soul to New Power Generation in 1998, he was backed by Arista on 1999's high-generic Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, where pro forma cameos failed to produce the hits Clive Davis banks on. The Columbia-backed Musicology comes four and a half years and two self-released studio CDs later. Although the latter were augmented by two more three-disc sets--in-concert One Night Alone . . . Live!, outtakes-stuffed Crystal Ball (special bonus album also included!)--the timing is unworthy of the hoopla: Rolling Stone lead review, Time feature review, Newsweek feature, and an Entertainment Weekly cover piece preemptively entitled "Comeback? I Never Went Anywhere!" But hoopla is what corporations are for.

Without question the long, hyperbolic label dispute damaged Prince's star power. But the built-in limitations of that power ought to be equally clear. His heroic campaign to become the first black rock star since Jimi Hendrix never took his hard-earned status to the next level of meaning, the one achieved by Springsteen and Bono and even Madonna (even King of Pop Michael Jackson, who made his obsession with childhood resemble a cause). Famously reclusive, he shunned interviews. Sex was his great theme, but his view of it remained frustratingly polymorphic--designed for stimulation to the exclusion of edification. Sly-like, he worked with musicians of many races and both genders, and as of Purple Rain was publicly biracial himself. Yet this one-man rainbow coalition barely had it in him to come out for brotherhood; apocalyptic, incoherent, or mushy, his rare political lyrics were always poorly informed. So his multitude of dedicated fans never much cared about what he represented. Instead, they cared about what he was. They cared about his talent--his musical talent. Musicology--good title.

Early on the music's attraction was all the things he proved belonged in one place--Prince's rainbow was aural and his listeners knew it. Here were funk beats and rock beats, blunt come-ons and sly metaphors, dinky keyb hooks and killer guitar solos, and a singing voice that was an array of voices--smooth pop, sweet croon, deep soul, funny funk, casual speech, unreal shrieks and coos and basso profundos, harmonies to die for and falsetto to knock your fillings out. But though in the '90s these elements often recombined effectively, always their sound was big, full, slammin'. Musicology is noticeably spare and controlled. This development gratifies its admirers, and rightly so--as long as it's added that spareness is only a precondition. If Prince has made music like this before, it must be on his website.

The lead track, first single, and MTV staple "Musicology" establishes his method. It's a straight James Brown rip--Jimmy Nolen guitar, understated bass curlicue, syncopated tom, daubs of organ and faux horn, irregular backup vocals, with every sound, presumably including the thugs and munchkins, provided by Prince himself. The back-in-the-day lyric claiming JB, Sly, Earth, Wind & Fire, old-school rap, and bands-not-turntables might render this unspontaneous multitracking a contradiction, but hell, he contains multitudes, and he loves playing with himself. "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance" is just as lean and more out--the patched-in guitar fills startling yet right rhythmically and harmonically, the scratches an extra contradiction. The requisite "Life 'O' the Party" adds femme vox and femme sax to Prince's one-man singing group and ersatz horn charts. That's an uptempo trifecta through track four, interrupted by one of three synthed-up ballads where he loses his mental toughness. And then, having gotten our attention and assent, this lifelong tease slows the pace, permanently--without materially harming the record. Pleasant shocks lurk near the surface and go against the flow of the quality material, and almost everything packs payback: apt rock guitar turning into apt tasty guitar (lick me); vocal calculations that could only have been improvised (right?); godfathered horn charts, some live (Maceo!).

As for the lyrics, who cares? Track two isn't about a dirty dog and an evil rich white woman, it's about the Meters gone pomo. And though the confusion of "Cinnamon Girl" suits its doomed attempt to blur "color lines" where the confusion of 2001's Rainbow Children made the same goal a travesty, its doomed appeal to the good book reminds us that Prince is now a Jehovah's Witness, which bodes ill for his significance. Better, although hardly as newsworthy as EW pretends, is his conversion to monogamy, which yields the yearning eros of "On the Couch" ("Don't make me sleep . . . ") as well as one about resisting a female fan that has Garth Brooks written all over it. But better still is the musicology itself. The rock star mantle implies obligations we shouldn't give up on just because Prince hasn't made the most of them. But James Brown just ignored them, and that hasn't stopped him.

Village Voice, May 11, 2004