Category Archives: 2000s

A Time to Love, 12 Years Later: Reconsidering Stevie Wonder’s Last Studio Album on His 67th Birthday

timetolove

Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.


What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.

Calling from the

Calling from the depths of the MOR gutter; © Motown Records

In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.

And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.

To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”

It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Music Reviewing, Prince, Stevie Wonder

Looking Back at Public Enemy’s Underrated New Whirl Odor

new-whirl-odor-cover

Next Friday marks the 30th anniversary of Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the debut album by legendary political hip-hop crew Public Enemy. I have a post planned for both Andresmusictalk and my own blog, Dystopian Dance Party, to mark the occasion; but in the meantime, I thought I’d dig up a post I wrote back in 2005 about their surprisingly good album from that year, New Whirl Odor. As I note below, 2005 was at least 10 years past what anyone would consider P.E.’s “prime”; but the fact that it still turned out to be pretty great is a testament to their continued vitality and relevance. Here’s hoping they can continue to surprise us in the next 30 years.

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D is 56 years old. That’s only two years younger than my father… my father, whose favorite band is the Traveling Wilburys. This, of course, brings up all the usual questions about relevance and staying power: questions that are perhaps even more potent when applied to a rap group who made their reputation as a thoroughly of-the-moment firebrand “CNN of the black community.” But listening to New Whirl Odor–Public Enemy’s ninth album in their almost-30-year career–and reading some of the early press reactions, I’m a lot more interested in a different question: namely, when are we going to stop demanding another Nation of Millions from Public Enemy?

After all, it’s more than evident that Chuck and company couldn’t care less about recapturing their “golden era”: if Odor is stuck in any time period, it isn’t the late ’80s or even the early ’90s, but 1994, the year PE released their hugely misunderstood fifth album, Muse Sick-N-Our Mess Age. From the punning title and hand-drawn cover art to the Bomb Squad-free, live-instrumentation arrangements, Odor is a sister album of sorts to Muse Sick–and a worthy follow-up at that. But just like that earlier album, it’s unlikely that anyone will be listening until years down the line. Put simply, this was–and remains–a different group altogether from the one that recorded “Fight the Power,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” The sound is mellower, atmospheric, almost minimalist; nothing like the dense sonic barrage that peaked on 1990′s Fear of a Black Planet. There’s nothing here with quite the instantaneous impact of, say, “You’re Gonna Get Yours.” In fact, unlike that seminal 1987 cut, which literally revved to life in a blur of gunning engine and squealing tires, New Whirl Odor’s title track drops in with an insistent, low-in-the-mix beat and almost subliminal swirling keyboards. Is it classic P.E.? Hardly; no song operating on wordplay that terrible ought to be considered “classic” anything. But excitement? Is any Public Enemy track not exciting?

 

What follows, I’m happy to say, is even better. “Bring That Beat Back” is the kind of thing the S1Ws were born to step to: the sound of mainstream hip-hop being marched to the gallows. “Preachin’ to the Quiet” blends live guitar with a laid-back jazz-funk loop and some truly frenetic scratching. And “MKLVFKWR” just plain kicks ass, as musically engaging as “Welcome to the Terrordome” with none of the overly defensive, anti-Semitic bravado. The Enemy is in fine form throughout: Chuck’s voice is as hefty of timbre as ever, but delivered with a restraint that becomes him, high on confidence and only a little lower on boom. Even Professor Griff takes the mic to great effect on tracks like the ambient, reggae-flavored “Revolution” and the tense, jerky “Y’all Don’t Know.” Flav, perhaps for the best, is kept largely out of the spotlight, but provides color and support with his usual panache.

Of course there are a few missteps. “66.6 Strikes Again” needlessly rehashes the cut-and-paste radio skit of Black Planet with diminishing returns, while the abysmal “What a Fool Believes” is not only the worst Public Enemy song I’ve ever heard, but one of the worst rap songs–and probably up there on the list of worst songs in general. Harsh words, I know, but to Public Enemy’s credit, New Whirl Odor’s highs far outnumber its lows… and even the lows speak to this group’s continuing vitality, their willingness to take risks. Closing track “Superman is Black in the Building” (above) stands as a testament to this: nearly twelve minutes long and not a second wasted, it’s at once an epic recap of everything that continues to make Public Enemy great, and a bold excursion into new heights of jazz-flavored funk and soul. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think twice about writing off these hip-hop elder statesmen, even if their “glory days” have long past. Because like it or not, Public Enemy doesn’t need to make another Nation of Millions. They’ve already made their first New Whirl Odor, and that’s plenty good enough.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Chuck D, conscious rap, Hip-Hop, Public Enemy, rap, Uncategorized

4 Paisley Park’s Consideration: The NPG Era Needs Its Own “4Ever”

In my guest post last week, I made the case for a more definitive compilation of Prince‘s Warner-era material, combining the best qualities of the new set 4Ever (and yes, contrary to some of the Prince fans who have been yelling at me on Facebook, I do think 4Ever has some good qualities) with the best of earlier collections like The Hits/The B-Sides and Ultimate. But I also promised I’d take a slightly different tack this week and pitch another compilation analogous to 4Ever, this one covering the years after his departure from W.B. As I noted last time, such a collection is arguably even more needed than a deeper dive into the already well-covered territory of 1978-1993. The last two-plus decades of Prince’s career were certainly more vexing and uneven than the first decade-and-a-half, but they were very nearly as prolific; and somewhere amidst all that for-hardcore-fans-only chaff is a killer “Best-of” just waiting to be discovered.

So where to start? Well, that’s easy…

mostbeautiful

Step 1: The Singles

One thing about my previous post that I probably deserved to be yelled at about was the obvious fact I glossed over: that 4Ever is, at its heart, a singles collection. Even less-frequently-compiled tracks like “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About),” “Mountains,” and “Batdance” were released as singles in the ’80s. Now, in some ways, this actually hurts the argument in support of 4Ever: if Prince/NPG/Warner wanted it to be strictly singles only, they should have gone all-in and released all the damn singles from the period in question (B-sides, too!). But a singles-first approach is, frankly, a better idea for the years 1994-2016 anyway: Prince released a ton of singles as an independent artist (some of them even hits!), and shockingly, none of them have ever been collected in a “Greatest Hits”-style compilation. Hell, I probably hear 1994’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”–one of his biggest hit singles ever–on the radio more frequently than any other Prince song, and the damn thing is out of print: the only place you can buy it at the moment is digitally on TIDAL, or as some vinyl picture disc of questionable provenance.

So our imaginary NPG-era comp would absolutely have to include “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”–hell, make it disc one, track one. But there were plenty of other singles from the ’90s and 2000s that deserve to be heard by a wider audience. Come had “Letitgo”; The Gold Experience had “I Hate U”; hell, even Chaos and Disorder had “Dinner with Delores.” Granted, Prince struggled commercially during the “Symbol” era, which means many of the songs released as singles during the time aren’t going to be greeted with the same level of nostalgia as, say, “Little Red Corvette”: I’m pretty sure no one in 2017 will be clamoring to hear his 1996 version of “Betcha by Golly Wow!” But some of his post-name change, pre-comeback singles absolutely deserve another chance: like the bluesy title track for 1997’s acoustic album The Truth, which failed to chart but presented a totally different side of “the Artist” to the public; or “The Work, Pt. 1” from 2001’s The Rainbow Children, which very clearly signposted the 21st-century James Brown revivalism of 2004’s much more successful Musicology. Part of the reason why compilations exist (other than to line record executives’ pockets, of course) is to offer fresh context for previously-issued material; and few catalogues are more in need of fresh context than the singles Prince released after his departure from Warner Bros.

emancipation

 

Step 2: The Landmarks

But the singles aren’t the only “late”-period releases that could benefit from recontextualization; as I tried to argue in my post last week, even in his most dependable years as a hitmaker, Prince’s singles only ever told part of the story. So why not use this opportunity to put 1994-era live favorite “Days of Wild” next to The Gold Experience tracks where it belongs–or, for that matter, to highlight some of the gems that got buried in the three-disc excess of Emancipation in 1996? Another reason for a compilation to exist is to tell the story of an artist’s development over time–something that 4Ever probably does better than any of Prince’s earlier collections, simply by virtue of it being (mostly) chronological. But we also mostly know the first arc of Prince’s story; an “NPG era” compilation would provide an excellent opportunity to tell a story that a lot less listeners know, one that Prince himself seemed at times to delight in obscuring. Hell, there are whole swathes of Prince fans who have never even heard important late-period highlights like 2014’s self-eulogizing “My Way Home” or 2015’s “June,” either because they’d given up on buying every new Prince album when it comes out or because they couldn’t be bothered to subscribe to TIDAL. A comp like this would be a great opportunity to bring them back in the fold.

2016-03-05-1457200249-1795447-PrinceaMicrophone

Step 3: ???

Look, I’ll be the first to admit: this period of Prince’s music isn’t my wheelhouse, which is one reason why I really want to see it collected–unlike 4Ever, which I bought pretty much as an act of charity to support the estate, a selection of the highlights from 1994-2016 would directly benefit my musical education. I know a few tracks from the period that I would consider hidden gems–“Shy” from The Gold Experience, “The Human Body” from Emancipation,  the aforementioned highlights from Art Official Age and HITnRUN Phase Two–but I would much rather hear other people’s recommendations. So what do you say? Aside from the obvious singles, what songs from the “NPG Era” do you deem worthy of compilation? Let me know in the comments, or just yell at me on Facebook. And if you want to read my writing about Prince from an era that is at least somewhat more in my wheelhouse, check out my song-by-song chronological blog dance / music / sex / romance. I’m hoping to finish 1978 by the end of the year.

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Filed under 1990s, 2000s, 2001, 2004, 2014, 2015, NPG Records, Prince, Prince 4ever, Uncategorized

Prince & The Corperate World: The Emptying Of The Royal Purple Music Box

Prince artwork

Today I was going to bring you an article about Prince’s hip-hop oriented period-focusing on brief explanations of songs with video links attached. Unfortunately,many of them were not to be found. Since Andresmusictalk got started,I’ve only dropped hints about how deeply affected writing about Prince has been by the late musician’s contentious relationship with the worldwide web. In an effort not to focus too much on negativity,not to mention the mans tragic passing,I’ve avoided going into depth about it. But it seems the time has come to try and set the record straight about this matter.

Without doubt,this blog would not be possible if YouTube did not exist. It allows for the music discussed in it to come to life to the ears of readers. And many contemporary writers with a musical focus likely have similar views. Much as with David Bowie,Prince had a very early advocacy of the internet during it’s rudimentary,trial and error days of the mid to late 1990’s. He even developed separate websites for individual albums and songs,which wasn’t typical and still isn’t.  He even developed interactive CD-ROM content during that allowed interaction with his music in a very futurist manner.

In 1993,Prince also began a legal battle with his label Warner Bros. The purpose of this was not only to secure rights to his own music catalog. But also to release his swelling amount of recorded content as he saw fit. Warner’s had long worried Prince’s enormous wealth of recorded material would glut the market with one man’s music. This resulted in Prince changing his name to a symbol that couldn’t be pronounced in order to gain his creative autonomy. This helped secure him a position as a champion for artists rights. And doing the unconventional in order to allow this precedence to be set.

Then towards the end of the early aughts,something went terribly wrong. During a 2010 interview with the UK’s Daily Mirror,Prince declared that the internet was completely over. That computers and gadgets were no good. While (likely) shyness on his part often resulted in random hostility towards his admirers throughout his career,it came to a fevered pitch in the 2010’s. He sued fans for $22 million dollars for what he saw as bootlegging live shows he never officially released on physical media. He also began yanking any and all content related to him off YouTube and most major streaming sites.

Prince would’ve seemed to have become,according to music and law educated friends I’ve spoken to,what is officially referred to as a vexatious litigant. This means a party that sues not so much to resolve a legitimate legal matter,but rather to to subdue and/or harass subjective enemies. While the subject matter of Prince’s problems with the internet is explored in major online and offline articles,it’s seldom brought out that Prince sullied the legitimacy of his own agenda by acting in a hostile manner towards people helping to project his art onto a medium that was the future of music distribution.

Now the man is gone. And the reasons for his anger at his music being online is still mired in speculation. Was he being paid unfairly? Was seeing himself in the past reminding him of the physical pain he lived with in the present? Was he selfish? Out of touch with reality and the future of recorded music? Well during this time, his Paisley Park organization became increasingly cultish even from where it had been for some time. And still with fans trying to do tributes to his music by posting on YouTube,even an official Vevo channel for his music videos. This content is still often yanked down.

By alienating the internet, Prince missed out on one of the most tremendous opportunities of his professional career. Official Prince YouTube and other streaming channels could have focused on musician related content such as a Prince guitar camp,or tutorials on music production. He could have put exclusive musical content from his vault up as well. Now as physical media’s fate in the music world remains unclear,will Prince’s music meet the same fate? With record labels paying artists for content on YouTube via the channels known as Artist-Topic? Prince’s concerns over profit do seem to have been baseless.

The vast musical catalog of Prince’s recordings and concert footage has inspired at least two generations of music lovers. Not just to sing and dance but to pick up instruments, start bands and stand up for sexual and political liberation. Whatever Prince’s reason for cutting himself off from the internet,his artistic vision should not be allowed to die with him. I wanted to end this by encouraging you,the reader to create hashtags and Tweets focusing on finding an honorable way to get Prince’s music back online through YouTube,Spotify and iTunes again. Thank you!

 

 

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Filed under 1990s, 2000s, 2010's, activism, Blogging, internet, online streaming, Prince, Vevo, vexatious litigants, Warner Bros., YouTube

Prince: I Rock Therefore I Am

prince-symbol-guitar

Prince’s music enviably would end up being the Minneapolis sound. It turned out to be a rather variable form where soul,synth pop,blues,rock ‘n roll and even jazz would all combine through a particular sonic framework. Personally speaking,the basis of Prince’s sound was always funk. He did however grow up listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix,Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell too. Whether it be on electric or acoustic guitar,Prince also enjoyed rocking out. Be it on a possible hit single or to let his virtuosity on guitar have it’s way. So here are my personal favorite rock oriented numbers from ”

“I’m Yours” from For You (1978)

Prince always insisted that Carlos Santana was a major influence on him as a guitarist. Mainly because “Santana played prettier” to quote the man on the subject. With his use of sustains and Latin style melodies,this powerfully produced number from his debut album (with it’s heavy reverb and echo) is the earliest released example of his lead guitar chops.

“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” from Prince (1979)

It was Prince’s childhood friend and fellow band mate in his earlier touring group The Rebels, Andre Cymone, who played bass and sang backup on this tune. This is where Prince really showcased his ability to write and perform radio friendly,hook filled rockers. With this one having that sleek West Coast production flair of his late 70’s albums.

“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)

Warner Bros executives have been said to have commented that “we signed the new Stevie Wonder,and he’s giving us the new Ric Ocasek” upon hearing Prince’s third album for the first time. And it likely has a lot to do with his song. Prince’s brittle,low rhythm guitar pump and melodic keyboards have The Cars’s musical flavor written all over it. With it’s hook filled singability and classic new wave guitar riff (not to mention becoming a hit agai with Cyndi Lauper covering it four years later),this might be one of Prince’s very finest rockers ever.

“Private Joy” from Controversy (1981)

While not a guitar rocker,this song really showcased Prince and his band the Revolution evolving into itself with synth pop/new wave based dance music. It has a simple rock style melody performed on the Linn drum machine plus a few layers of synthesizers. So it showcased Prince’s ability to rock even without guitar soloing.

“Let’s Go Crazy” from Purple Rain (1984)

With it’s gospel style theatrics,fast tempo,brittle guitar and keyboard? This song might just be the moment when Prince’s rock side fully matured musically. With rock ‘n roll really being divided along racial lines after the late 60’s,this song finds Prince “bringing it back to church” by joining Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix in re-introducing rock ‘n roll with a very heavy black American musical subtext.

“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” from Sign O The Times (1987)

Prince really bought out the hand clap powered,orchestral melodic guitar sound of Phil Spector via Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band in this extraordinarily catchy heartland style pop/rock number. This is one of Prince’s catchiest rock songs since the days of “When You Were Mine”.

“Thieves In The Temple” from Graffiti Bridge (1990) 

Prince actually did something rather unique with this song. It has a mysterious,late 80’s arena rock flavor about it’s production and guitar sound during the main choruses. But the melodic construction has a theme similar to the type that a mid 60’s jazz musician might improvise off of. That probably has a lot to do with why Herbie Hancock did an acoustic jazz version of it on his The New Standard album seven years later.

“Cream” from Diamonds And Pearls (1991)

With it’s rhythmic mix of Southern soul and countrified blues rock, this Prince hit actually hits on a very similar musical vibe to Bonnie Raitt’s hit “Something To Talk About” from the same era. Prince also takes the instrumental sound he gets with the NPG and allows the melody to just drip with that rascally,old school blues sexuality.

“Cinnamon Girl” from Musicology (2004)

Been listening to this song lately. Since the turn of the millennium,Prince began writing hook filled protest rockers more than he ever had. This one has a similar acoustic texture to his more recent song “Baltimore”. This one tells a very significant story America is still dealing with today: post 9/11 racial profiling and discrimination against those with a Muslim back-round. Prince did himself a lot of good by being one of the view high profile musical voices taking a bold lyrical stance against America’s dog whistle heavy “war on terror” of the early aughts.

“Rock And Roll Love Affair” from Hitnrun Phase 2 (2015)

Actually a couple of years old at the time of it’s album release, this song has a similar vibe to “Cream” from a quarter century ago-in terms of it’s country/blues-rock approach. Prince adds dramatic Minneapolis style synth brass to this one though. Since there’s a good possibility this might’ve been among the very last rock numbers Prince recorded,it finds this element of his sound seeming to come full circle.

As with many of the list style Prince articles I’ve written o Andresmusictalk,the erratic presence of Prince’s music via YouTube is still a factor. Songs such as “I Rock Therefore I Am” and “Fury” are not present here for that very reason. While they will be dealt with on this blog later,and in different ways? This is really about how Prince was able to evolve as a guitar soloist and pop songwriter through the rock oriented side of his artistry. Now that the man isn’t with us anymore,the seeds he planted as a guitarist from Lenny Kravitz to Gary Clark Jr. have strong potential to carry on this particular side of his legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2000s, 2010's, Blues, funk/rock, guitar, lead guitar, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Wave, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, protest songs, rock 'n' roll, rock guitar, synth brass, synthesizer, Uncategorized, YouTube

Prince 1958-2016: Literary Musings On The Late Master Of Purple Funk

Prince Rogers Nelson’s public persona was defined by the irony of him not being a particularly public person. So as opposed to artists such as Michael Jackson,George Clinton and Stevie Wonder whose histories was more of an open book? Prince was someone who required some outsider figure to try to understand him. So literature on the man was paramount as I was getting into his music. Authors  such as Per Nilsen,Jason Draper and the Daily Mail’s somewhat controversial Liz Jones were helpful in terms of writing the Prince literature that I’ve personally been exposed to.

With the reference material from my Amazon.com reviews on these Prince related publications,this article will attempt to provide an insight into the information I was taking in about Prince while just digging into his music. Most of you fellow Prince admirers out there probably had similar experiences. And I’d enjoy hearing about them in the comment section of this article.  They three books are being illustrated here in order of release in order to point out the progression of what impact their content had on my interest in Prince. So please enjoy this literary musical experience!

Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince by Liz Jones (April 1998)

Purple Reign

Prince is a notoriously difficult biographical subject. Most things said about him are second hand accounts of one sort or another and what does come from the source tends to be cryptic and open to much interpretation. He makes himself into such a mystery and as much as she tries writer Liz Jones isn’t able to go much further than that in writing this. There are some obvious contradictions that do get played up here,the most obvious being that Prince didn’t listen to R&B growing up: he most certainly did by most accounts.

Basically we start after Prince and than wife Mayte Garcia lost their only child to a birth defect,goes back to Prince’s beginnings and right back to square one again. There are plenty of interesting musical analyzations along the way and they make up the best part of this particular book. One thing almost every account tends to point out is Prince being a workaholic control freak,often obsessed with perfecting his musical art and often recording mounds of music only to can most of it in his massive vaults.

There’s also some troubling notes regarding his extreme rudeness to fans on occasion and even outright hostility towards others,notably musicians he seems to feel threatened by. His moodiness would seem to indicate he wheres his astrological sign of Gemini on his sleeve as his attitude seems to know little predictability. Again though these don’t come from Prince himself. What you do get here from his own mouth paint the picture of another character.

It’s that of an aloof,complex and reflective man who has yet to discover who he is personally and developed his persona largely as a method of coping with sensitivity over mistreatment in his life. It’s a similar psychological makeup to another talented musical icon Prince greatly admired;Miles Davis. The book doesn’t go too in depth to Prince’s somewhat baffling name change to O(-> during the mid 90’s and his confusing record company hassles. Again most of this comes from different outside accounts.

There’s a lot of healthy discussion here regarding the long gestating making of his debut motion picture Purple Rain and all the twists and turns,cast and script changes it went through during it’s conception. This helps to explain why 1983 was the one single year of the 1980’s that Prince didn’t release an album of his own. Even though a lot of the book tries to make some sense of his life it actually ends up asking more questions than it answers and that’s what makes this book so interesting. Even so there has yet to be a definitive and thoroughly truthful biography of Prince.

Prince-A Documentary by Per Nilsen (Published on July 1st,1998)

Prince A Documentary

After reading Michael Jackson: Visual Documentary the sight of this similarly themed, large format paperback led me to immediately snag it up. Not only are different writers involved here but the style of the books couldn’t differ more. Adrian Grant presented MJ’s life in a detailed textbook like context based on names,places and events on a fairly strict timeline. Considering the public persona of his subject that was really the only approach Adrian could take in that regard. Prince was always a more complex figure.

As a man possessed of a very elaborate personality and who is still something of a one man music industry a half an inch thick book like this covering his life and career up until 1992 even would seem highly intimidating for any writer. This book has a lot of pictures but is a more analytical and scholarly approach to it’s writing. This book has far more literary content as not only does it present reviews of Prince’s albums but those he was involved in-not to mention reviewing all his feature films.

There’s also a great deal of his known biography involved in the story. The book starts off with a description of the twin cities as Prince grew up in them,even down to a small map of the area along with,as in the rest of the book direct quotations from the man himself taken from various interviews about his life and career. This actually has one of the best presentations of Prince’s pre-recording music career than much before it as it describes a lot of his school life and how he became interested in music-along with insight into the possible nature of his sometimes explicit lyrics.

There is also extensive information on Prince’s many concert tours,often describing the experiences of each one to the extent you might believe you’ve been to one. If your not aware of all the music he produced outside himself from lesser known spin-off acts such as Mazaratti,The Family and Prince’s legendary Madhouse projects. I suppose some of the musical criticism is,as criticism is by some definition slightly bias but is generally fair and I agree with a great deal of it mainly because it sticks  to obvious facts rather than blanket judgment calls.

It would be wonderful if this volume would be re-written today with updates about his 90’s career and 21’st century commercial comeback-along with the newer spin off acts he continues to create. But as it stands this book has always impressed me and I find myself going back to it again and again.

Prince: Life & Times by Jason Draper (September 1st,2008)

Prince life and times

Well it’s certainly true that Prince is one of the most enigmatic subjects for biography. The trouble is he’s also one of the most elusive. Truths about his life seem to contradict each other as much as the lies and with all the books written about him in the past he genuinely does seem like one of the worlds most unknowable celebrities,both musical and personally. This enormous coffee table book is a wonderfully presented volume,featuring a colorfully present volume containing hundreds of rare and unseen photos,both in black & white and color of Prince,his proteges and almost everyone else in his circle.

For the more casual reader this book surpasses both Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince in terms of a more fully balanced viewpoint and Prince: A Documentary in terms of not presenting too many musical technicalities and surpasses both in terms of it’s scope. Both of those overall wonderful books were written in the mid 90’s and before many of the events in Prince’s life and career. This album ends roughly during the 21 Nights period and therefore extends all the way up to the circumstances revolving around the release of his Planet Earth album.

In this volume there’s a lot of biographic facts most of us are already familiar with along with an in depth discography presented including,happily a lot of Prince’s somewhat obscure online only releases such as ‘Xpectation’,’C-Note’,’Slaugterhouse’ and ‘The Chocolate Invasion’. One of the big selling points of this book is also how is very casually looks to reconcile Prince’s sometimes obscure career choices with his personal life and how they often wind up joining around the middle.

His spiritual journey and now well known legal battle with Warner Bros in the mid 90’s are explained well and in frank and honest enough terms for most readers to understand as well as also being analytical enough to appeal to those who enjoy digging deep. The writers present very personalized reviews of each of his albums,no matter how obscure. And while their self assurances about their opinions is not my personal cup of tea the reviews make a lot of valid points on all ends,even if people won’t always agree with them.

This book is especially detailed on the period between 1993 and around 2004 which,even for people such as myself who happily put up with Prince’s publicity moves,started to totally lose his intentions. Considering that “the internet is over” for Prince, to coin his own phrase this book would be interesting to revisit a decade from now with an addendum since I believe the game is certainly not over for The Artist Always Known As Complex.

Now that Prince is no longer with us,there exists the possibility of his life becoming literarily unraveled. Perhaps in a way he’d have found totally undesirable in life. Currently there awaits Prince’s personal memoirs,set to be released this fall. Suppose there’s one key question when it comes to any Prince related literature. Just how important is knowing the man and his motivations in terms of appreciating his musical art?  I don’t personally have the answer. That leaves it up to each and every one of us to make that choice for ourselves-based on our experiences with the late master of Purple Funk.

 

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Prince Rogers Nelson 1958-2016: The Musical Legacy Of The Purple One

Prince 1980's

Now that a day had passed since Prince’s rather sudden death,there’s been some time to absorb everything a bit better. Henrique Hopkins and myself have been discussing Prince’s music in a funk context for years now. Everything from the strong influence of Curtis Mayfield on his falsetto voice and high on the neck guitar playing,down to his bass playing being influenced by his guitar style. Earlier I ran down some of Prince’s most influential albums throughout the years. As the man himself said last year,,albums matter.

Also on that last article,mention was made about a good deal of Prince’s most creatively satisfying works having not been mentioned in favor of the highlights. So in this article I plan to remedy some of this. As my friend Calvin Lincoln had implied,Prince’s music has been overdressed by some. And in all truth,his album’s after the early 90’s could be extremely uneven in quality. But the key element of his musical ethic was the element of surprise. When one thought he was out of steam,couldn’t rock and had lost the funk,he came back with vigor. So here are some albums that reflected this for me anyway.

Prince 1979

Prince’s sophomore album provided him with his first major pop hit in “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. Songs such as “I Feel For You”,later done by the Pointer Sisters and most famously by Chaka Khan as well as the churning funk of “Sexy Dancer” are stand out funky grooves on an album that leans heavily towards west coast style pop/rock and mildly country influenced ballads. As Prince himself said it,the album was for the radio more than for him. But in the end it balanced his musical approach and sense of pop craft very well.

I’m listing these albums together because Prince’s third album Dirty Mind  from 1980 and and fourth Controversy from 1981 could almost be part one and part two. The former album has a rougher demo like musical quality-with “Partyup”,”Head” and “Uptown” having an anti authoritarian punk funk vibe about them. The latter album was a bit sleeker musically. And an interesting attempt for Prince to address socio political concerns as they were developing. “Sexuality” and “Annie Christian” address everything from censorship to gun violence while the title song deals with his sexually and musical free outlook. He also pulls out some heavy funk on “Let’s Work” as well. These are two albums that really lend themselves well to be heard together.

Purple Rain

Prince knew this 1984 album was going to be his commercial breakthrough album. In hindsight it’s also the album that still has a lot of radio oriented music lovers convinced (incorrectly,really) that Prince was primarily a rock based artist. And probably on purpose. That’s because this album doesn’t have much funk/soul content on it. At the same time,it could best be described as progressive new wave/synth rock at the cutting edge instrumentally-with the bass-less classic “When Does Cry”,the brittle “I Would Die 4 U” and “Computer Blue” leading the way. That plus the fierce gospel hard rocker “Let’s Go Crazy” and the arena anthem title cut really gave Prince the huge audience he has today. And it served to musically illustrate the semi autobiographical feature film of the same name.

Parade

Parade was Prince’s second soundtrack for his second film in 1986 called Under The Cherry Moon marked the ethos of a massive change in musical priorities for Prince. The electronic orchestrations of the Minneapolis sound are replaced by the sweeping strings of Claire Fischer and the sax of newcomer Eric Leeds. These shows up on the cinematic “Christopher Tracy’s Parade”,”Life Can Be So Nice” and “Mountains”. Still Prince throws down some of his most powerful funk with “Girls & Boys”,”Anotherloverholeinyohead” and the iconic hit “Kiss”-with it’s Curtis Mayfield style falsetto and that high up on the neck guitar.

Sign O The Times

Perhaps this is Prince’s most personally defining album in his career. The history of this 1987 album is enough for at least one whole article. Started as a whole other type of project during a massive period of recording the year before,it eventually became a double album. It has the uneven quality of a greatest hits album,with songs sounding as if they come from totally different sessions. But the strength of all the material make it all work.

It has it all-from soul ballads like “Slow Love”,pop/rockers such as “Play In The Sunshine” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” to the proto alternative/grunge sound of “The Cross”. The funk comes in many varieties from the full on JB groove of “Housequake”,the slow grinding “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to the danceable hit “U Got The Look”. There’s also two more distinctive numbers in the jazzy funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” and the dreamy melodic piano pop of “Starfish And Coffee”.

The Black Album

Prince apparently recorded this album in 1987 to be played at a birthday party for drummer Sheila E,who was playing in his band Madhouse at the time. From “Le Grind” to “Rockhard In A Funky Place” at the end,this album is almost a non stop hard funk stomp. Save for the sweet ballad “When 2 R In Love”. Prince is basically playing up one big sexual orgy on all these lyrics-allegedly to showcase he hadn’t sold out. He abruptly shelved this album and didn’t put it out until 1994. But it’s a great party funk album if one is in a particularly rascally mood.

Graffiti Bridge

Prince’s third soundtrack to his final and least successful motion picture isn’t a full Prince album per se. It features many productions of his from Paisley Park signed artists such as George Clinton,Mavis Staples and the revived lineup of The Time. As for Prince’s contributions,he has some mutant funk/rockers here such as “Elephants & Flowers”,”Tick Tack Bang” and the epic,jazzy arena rocker “Thieves In The Temple”,his first hit of the 1990’s.

Love Symbol Album

This very elusive concept album from 1992 actually focuses a great deal on the funk side of things with another JB sendup with “Sexy MF” leading the way. “The Sacrifice Of Victor” keeps the funk stripped down in classic Prince style as he waxes nostalgic on the Civil Rights movement. With the psychedelic soul/gospel of “7” leading the way,this largely hip-hop inflected album finds Prince as a bandleader for the NPG “taking it back to Church” as they say in fully rediscovering his black American musical roots.

Emancipation

This 1996 triple CD set was the newest Prince album to come out when I was first getting into exploring his albums. From “We Gets Up”,”Get Your Groove On”,”Sex In The Summer” and the big band sounding “Sleep Around” represent some of his most massive funk of the 90’s decade-along with the synth heavy Minneapolis groove of “New World” and the jazzy opener “Jam Of The Year” and the witty hip-hop of “Style”. Some of the music on this album,as with much of Prince’s output at the time,hasn’t musically aged well. But when the grooves cooks,it cooks up a storm!

Musicology

Prince made a huge statement towards his music being based in funk with the title track of this 2004 album-another James Brown influenced number in the vein of “Housequake” and “Sexy MF”. This is an album of mostly pop/rockers and 60’s style soul ballads generally. Of the rockers Prince does provide a powerful message song in “Cinnamon Girl”,in which he discusses how the post 9/11 events are leading to discrimination of Muslim Americans.

MPLsound

Prince packaged this 2009 album with another of his entitled Lotusflow3r and female protege Bria Valente’s debut Elixer-exclusively at Target stores at the time. With songs such as “Chocolate Box” and “Dance 4 Me”,Prince began the reboots the 80’s Minneapolis sound this album is named for with it’s use of the Linn drum machine and synth brass. While the album itself represent Prince making his music harder to find by seeking new distribution methods,it paved the way for it’s harder to find follow up 20Ten and represents him re-embracing a sound he was in on the ground floor with.

Art Official Age

This 2014 albums turned out to be one of Prince’s final studio albums. Released after a five year hiatus from releasing any new material publicly,it also found him back on Warner Bros. after years of fighting them over artists rights. It’s something of a ground zero for Prince-donning an Afro as he did at the very start of his career and working with a younger producer Joshua Welton. The album is home to two major funk blowouts in “The Gold Standard” and the jazzy “Breakfast Can Wait”-along with some sincere efforts to embrace modern pop and rock production techniques.

I am sure there are many people who’d have very different content in such a list. As much as Prince effected me in terms of his championing of creative freedom for artists? It’s hard to get away from the fact that he died having not effectively been able to embrace online streaming and video (such as YouTube and Vimeo),and became a hostile litigant against anyone who shared his music online in lieu of him doing it. The history of the physical music media he embraced is unknown. But as long as his music exists in some form,it’s important for young people (especially aspiring musicians) to listen to and learn from his grooves.

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Prince Rogers Nelson 1958-2016: The Recorded Legacy Of The Purple One

 

Prince Vault 1977-1984 frontWhile writing this,I am still reeling from the sudden death of Prince Rogers Nelson. He passed all too young at the age of 57. It happened on what was in my neck of the woods a warm sunny Thursday. Those were the same circumstances in which the world lost another 80’s era icon of funk in Michael Jackson almost eight years ago. My perception of Prince’s life is quite a bit different. Right now,I cannot bring you an Anatomy of THE Groove article on any of his songs due to Prince’s music being absent from YouTube. So have decided in tribute to focus on his most significant full albums of his through the decades.

For You

Prince’s 1978 debut comes across as his most creatively satisfying albums of his first (and very short) decade as a recording artist. The fact that songs such as “Just As Long As We’re Together” are very instrumental oriented make the funk of this album some of his funkiest. Above all,the fact Prince used Polymoog synthesizers to play the horn charts and string arrangements on this album make it the official beginning of the Minneapolis sound. A debut that I feel more Prince admirers would be wise to give another chance.

1999

The early to mid 80’s were generally Prince’s peak period of creativity. But on the other hand,his third album of the decade really pulled it all together. Featuring his band the Revolution featuring bassist Dez Dickerson,drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Lisa Coleman this album contained some of the finest music of Prince in whatever genre he was embracing. The funk was on fire on the title song,”D.M.S.R” and “Lady Cab Driver”,he was getting seriously electronic on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “Automatic” while he rocked out in style on “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious”. This album really put him on the map as a creatively and commercially successful artist.

Diamonds & Pearls

The 1990’s would be a musically mixed decade for Prince. He spent much of it being the literal symbol for musicians rights-again with mixed results. Musically speaking,his second album of the decade in Diamonds And Pearls did for this decade what 1999 did almost a decade earlier. Introducing his band the New Power Generation for the first time,Prince embraced hip-hop styled productions to a heavier extent on songs such as “Gett Off”. But also took the time out for the breezy,swinging jazz of “Strollin” along with more progressive pieces like “Thunder” and the country rock of “Cream”. Not to mention the epic soul ballad of the title song.

3121

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of this album. Prince had been making albums pretty consistently over the years. But what a surprise when 3121 burst out in 2006 and Prince was back with his first number 1 pop record in years,plus a massive single in “Black Sweat”-very much the “Kiss” in terms of stripped down Minneapolis funk for the early aughts. Coming out with the pounding rocker of “Fury” on the same album showcased Prince hadn’t skipped a beat musically.

20ten

While I could lean towards his 2014 release Art Official Age as being a strong Prince album for the 2010’s,this one actually takes the cake personally. Only released officially as a free covermount CD on a number of different European music magazines,my local record haunt Bull Moose Music actually stocked a few copies. What this album did well was present the synthesizer/drum machine heavy electro funk Minneapolis sound as a musical sub genre,rather than a passing trend. This never got an official release and is becoming a much sought after collectors items.

Prince’s released catalog of music spans 43 albums strong. This was not the easiest list for me to make. Albums such as Purple Rain,Emancipation,Dirty Mind,Musicology,Parade and especially the groundbreaking Sign O The Times were all amazing pieces of music. This actually brings me to the idea of doing a similar article on Prince’s favorite creative moments. Time will have to tell if Prince’s music will find it’s way back online after his passing. But what’s important is that funky rhythms could survive the way they did through his work and musical influence.

 

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