The trouble with being a musical genius — which Prince truly is — is that in order to avoid becoming bored repeating yourself, you end up putting out music that goes over the head of audiences expecting endless Purple Rain permutations. With that said, Art Official Age is Prince's most consistent effort since his "return to commercial relevancy" circa 2004-2006 period with albums Musicology and 3121. (Subsequent projects were politely defined as "okay.")It's not that previous Prince albums were ever purely dreadful, but accessibility has been the main sticking point for many — if you aren't down with the often oblique sentiment or vision conveyed, it is unlikely that projects like Planet Earth or 20Ten were ever going to grab you.
When discussing the modern masters of studio wizardry, rock ‘n’ roll artists aren’t usually a part of the conversation. Yeah, vinyl’s posterboy Jack White’s pulled people back into a less compressed world and has done some pretty wacky things with the LP after the fact. But as the spoken-word narration goes on Prince’s “The Gold Standard,” there’s more out there.
Released simultaneously with PlectrumElectrum, the rockier offering put out by Prince’s 3rdeyegirl band, Art Official Age finds Prince solo, embracing the artificial age with glee. Half-a-dozen modern digital music tropes are chucked about merrily on the first song alone (Art Official Cage), while a vintage Prince good-time track percolates along beneath, as though the veteran studio wizard is offering all comers outside for a funk-off. This is a far better album than you’d dare hope from the latterday Prince; Breakdown is a heavy, plangent ballad, while The Gold Standard just sounds like he’s partying like it’s 1999 all over again.
Prince has been a big noise in the music industry long enough to know how to work it to his advantage, and Art Official Age arrives after an extensive period of teasing from the Purple One. There was the Glastonbury kerfuffle – the ‘will he or won’t he headline’ question lingered on lips for weeks. Prince really took his time before destroying the rumour, all the while teasing fans with surprise shows across the UK and America.
With these two albums, Prince returns to Warner Bros., the label where he made his Eighties classics, then rancorously left in 1996. Art Official Age is an attempt to get back to the violet-tinted pop mastery of the Purple Rain era. Plectrumelectrum is a set of exploratory funk-rock jams written with his new all-female band, 3rdEyeGirl. Guess which one you’ll probably like best.
We've been in the “narcissism of small differences” phase of Prince's career for so long now that, yes, the fact that he's made amends with the label that he once claimed had turned him into a slave does in fact register as a major sea change and not just another publicity stunt. If nothing else, the lead-up to the release of Art Official Age (and, in textbook “one for you, one for me” fashion, the debut album for the all-caps-happy neo-protégés 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM) has showed just what kind of buzz a little old-fashioned promotional muscle could do for an artist who in recent years had taken to bundling his albums inside copies of British tabloids. A few exclusive interviews here, a few breakfasts cooked for rock critics there, a feigned live Facebook Q&A for the target demo, and suddenly people undeniably care about Prince again.
Earlier this year, Prince finally resolved his career-upending legal dispute with Warner Bros. in a deal that saw him reclaim ownership of the masters to his back catalogue. The last 18 years have been an exasperating time to be a Prince fan, as his anti-major-label and anti-internet stance inspired contrarian moves like distributing his last album, 20Ten, exclusively through European print publications.
Prince returned to Warner Bros. Records in a big way in 2014, settling a 15-year feud on terms that were decidedly in his favor. He acquired the rights to his masters, agreed to a series of deluxe reissues, and released two brand-new albums, one recorded on his own and one recorded with his backing power trio 3rdEyeGirl.
In early 1997, a heritage rock magazine took it upon itself to try to curate Prince’s recent work. Under the heading “The Crown Jewels”, it offered readers advice on how to fillet the albums he’d put out since 1988’s Lovesexy in order to make a great compilation cassette. The article suggested that what it called Prince’s “patchy period” was now at an end: he’d freed himself of the contract with Warner Brothers that had caused him to shove out inconsistent albums in a bid to fulfil his obligations to the label.
“Welcome home, class,” he says. Both of Prince’s new albums, ART OFFICIAL AGE and PLECTRUMELECTRUM, are catchy, ambitious, and sensual works of long-earned musical expertise at every turn. In short, they sound like Prince albums, and in many ways, that’s already good enough. Prince, now 56, is pop’s most musically versatile star pound-for-pound, what with his imagination on guitar and his determination for bringing his biggest ideas to life.
Ten years ago, Prince woke up one day and casually decided that he wanted to be a superstar again. Having gotten lost in the wilderness of spiritual-jazz experiments like 2001’s The Rainbow Children and the 2003 instrumental set N.E.W.S., Prince was basically making music for only the most hardcore of his FAMS. His commercial prospects had long since passed, as his major-label Arista debacle Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic ended up proving that even when making what he thought was very radio-friendly hits, his reputation as a genre-busting trendsetter had waned inexorably.
Back in the mid-1990s, Prince and Warner Brothers did not split amicably. Not only did the superstar write the word SLAVE on his face, he also changed his name to an unpronounceable logo that was quickly translated into English as “The Artist Formerly Known As…” Unhappy with faltering sales in the new decade, he tried to release a quick slew of albums in order to get out of his contract, but Warner insisted on waiting the industry-standard two years between major releases. It must have felt like a demotion after Prince more or less owned the 1980s, a decade when even a flop like Under the Cherry Moon could spin off a hit album like Parade.
There are only two camps of people in this world: Prince apologists and Prince fault-finders. With the arrival of Prince’s new albums, Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum, both sides are calling on their members to fall in line. As the reviews start pouring in, there will likely be loyalists who claim these albums to be Prince’s best since Sign O’ The Times, as well as the skeptics who refuse to dole out praise for either record.
In one of the most improbable reunions of the last few decades, Prince is back with the label that he claims done him so wrong in the '90s that he was compelled to scrawl the word "slave" on his face. No one does drama like the multi-purpose entertainer from Minneapolis, though, and he's back with ….
Prince has made his career as syncopated as his music, juggling silence and noise, arena sellouts and secretive recordings. His latest confounding move is the simultaneous arrival of two albums: “Art Official Age,” a studio production billed as his first solo album since 2010 (though he had ….