Prince’s 1996 triple CD set Emancipation is turning 20 today. I’ve read here and there that a lot of people consider this to album to be the Sign O The Times for the 90’s in Prince’s catalog. In a lot of ways that’s true. Personally,these songs all sound as if they were recorded to go together from the outset,whereas Sign O The Times was culled from three aborted album sessions. Whatever the case may have been, Emancipation was the ultimate flower of Prince’s 90’s sound. In the end,that’s not so much a matter of deciding if that’s a good or bad thing. But more looking at what Prince’s musical priorities were in the 90’s.
As one of my blogging partners Zach Hoskins pointed out on his own blog Dystopian Dance Party,Prince defined “Jheri curl music” in the 1980’s with the Minneapolis sound. By the mid 80’s many newcomers and funk veterans were embracing some variation of Prince’s stripped down electro grooves. As Prince’s music grew into a more live band sound,it also grew somewhat more experimental. This resulted in a series of albums in the late 80’s that weren’t so commercially successful. With the major success of his 1989 soundtrack for Batman,Prince saw that his musical future may not lay in setting trends.
For his 1991 album Diamonds & Pearls,Prince heavily embraced the hip-hop sound. He had been weary and somewhat mocking of this genre in the late 80’s-almost behaving as if it was musically beneath his abilities. Yet Diamonds & Pearls was his biggest commercial success in many years. And he also found that,on album tracks that could be future hits,Prince could still exercise his eclectic musical outlook as he always had. Then came the battle with Warner Bros. By 1993-1994,Prince became very angry and frustrated at the music industry for what he saw as the financial enslavement of artists.
This anger and frustration began to become a key element of his songs. Interestingly enough,contemporary alternative rock and hip-hop became his primary musical focus. It all came down to Prince not using his own name anymore. I personally remember Prince appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show at the time (with then wife Mayte Garcia),and actually discussing how on a psychological level,he felt very distant from “Prince” as a personal identity. That was the framework I had to work with at the time the Emancipation album came out. This was Prince,a man freed from creative shackles.
When I actually heard the album,the most interesting part for me was that Prince’s “liberated” music actually made heavy creative concessions to smooth jazz and still hip-hop. And the frustrated lyrics remained intact. On the other hand,it was a broader mixture overall. It gave up the funk many times. And the 2nd disc of it was basically an elongated love ballad (in separate parts) to Mayte. So to me,Emancipation is one part the sound of freedom and another the sound of musical concessions. Still a now unpublished Amazon review of mine on the album went into more depth than even that.
Probably the most significant aspect of this album was that it was the very first brand new Prince album I purchased after becoming a huge admirer of his work. There was a lot of publicity about this album when it came out. The people who I talked to in record stores at the time would often says things to the affect of “this is going to be the crowning achievement of Prince’s career” and so on. At the time? I wasn’t aware of the intense level of idolatry of Prince’s musical abilities that might’ve been behind a lot of this.
All I did know is that Prince was leaving behind Warner Bros. and launching his NPG Records.beginning his unshackling from the record company burdens he’d been dealing with for the past several years. I also wasn’t aware that any and all musical expectations were simply not part of the game when understanding Prince. And while I had mine? This,my second actual full listening to this since it came out,has really helped to resolve my views on his era of his creative output.
“Jam Of The Year” opens with a strong jazz/funk/hip-hop number-full of muted trumpet and piano. “Right Back Here In My Arms”,the Ice Cube collaboration of “Mr.Happy”,”Joint 2 Joint”,”Da Da Da” and in particular “Email” all follow that hip-hop style sound. On the other hand “Get Your Groove On”,the JB horn styled “We Gets Up”,the synth bass driven groove of “Sex In The Summer”-with it’s percussion effect from he and then wife Mayte’s baby’s ultrasound and the stomping,bass heavy title track represent the strongest funk element of the album.
The hip-hop oriented “Slave” and “Face Down” as well as the bumping bass/acoustic guitar driven pop/rock ballad “White Mansion” all discuss the consequences of his liberation from his recording contract. “Betcha By Golly Wow”,”I Can’t Make You Love Me”,”One Kiss At A Time”,Soul Sanctuary”,Curious Child”,”Dreamin’ Bout You”,”Let’s Have A Baby”,Savior”,”The Plain”,”Friend,Lover,Sister,Mother/Wife”,”La La Means I Love You”,”One Of Us” and “The Love We Make” are all powerful,often epic soul ballads.
“New World” marks something a return to his original Minneapolis sound with it’s brittle,stripped down synth driven dance/funk groove. The one man band rhythm section of “Courtin’ Time” and my favorite number here “Sleep Around” are both highly kinetic big band jazz oriented pieces-the latter what I’d describe as “horn house” I suppose.
“Style” is the best of the jazz/hip-hop numbers here-with it’s descriptions of different (often humorous,always clever) actions Prince equates with “style being the second cousin to class”. “The Human Body” has a Hi NRG industrial dance sound while “My Computer” is a gurgling synth jazzy/funk/fusion mid tempo piece. The acoustic folk based “The Holy River” and the uptempo guitar driven “D***ed If Eye Do” are both the rockier numbers here.
36 songs over a 3 CD set that clocks in at exactly 3 hours makes this a lot of music. There were and still are many mysteries regarding the origins of what’s on this album. For me? It’s surprisingly ballad heavy. Functioning as something of a love ballad to his then wife. The uptempo songs here also tend to follow the angry hip-hop/funk approach of a lot of his early/mid 90’s work. Not only is it clear the man was still very angry at record companies.
But the lyrics also showcase a burgeoning paranoia. With numerous references to mid 90’s period conspiracy theories such as the anti vaccination and “cows are for calves” anti diary movements. When he turns up the funk however? The groove is often heavy and horn filled. Even with his likable embrace of the jazz/hop hybrid here as well. That gives him and the ever expanding NPG to really stretch their instrumental muscles with phat bass lines,horn charts and rhythms. Certainly some areas of this album are very dated and stereotypical for it’s era. Yet it’s still likely Prince’s strongest overall release of the 1990’s.
A little healthy self criticism reveals that I have no great love for musicians who embrace negative ideas (or even musical styles that happen to be trendy at the moment) simply to maintain their popularity. And do actually think Prince did that to a tiny degree on Emancipation. But Prince never was a particularly commercial minded artist either. As a musician,his first concern seemed to generally be about how new ideas would fit into his creative ethic. At the end of the day,its an album with many songs that maintain their strong grooves. And others that are simply indelibly linked to its time.
Perhaps one reason for why this and much of Prince’s 90’s output didn’t age as well was the general musical atmosphere of the day. When Prince first emerged as a major star in the 80’s,he was essentially spicing up a 60’s/70’s style funk-rock framework with newer instruments. But with that expansive musical period as his base,there was stronger room for flight. By the early/mid 90’s,Prince was starting to pre program more and more of his rhythms. So that left some of his music of the day having little base at all. Still, Emancipation showcased Prince on a strong path to even bigger and better musical things.