Having the police related murders of Michael Brown (in Ferguson,Missouri)and most recently Freddie Gray (in Baltimore) on the public consciousness so much of late? One of the major conversations among musically minded individuals was the almost complete lack of attention paid to the issue by contemporary you musicians. Especially black American musicians such as economic powerhouses Beyonce,Nikki Minaj,Jay Z and Alicia Keys. So were civil rights related protest songs truly a dead art form in the United States?
Apparently they were not. And as it turned out? It was going to come from a source that not everyone (including myself) would’ve expected it to. Throughout his career? Prince has shown himself,at best,to be extremely fickle and unpredictable in terms of what sort of sociopolitical benefits he chooses to become musically involved in. Considering his two decade personal mission of asserting a creative end of black power on his own terms? This purple icon recorded a new song. And as typical performed the instrumental parts by himself. Later bringing in young Chicago vocalist Eryn Allen Kane to sing on this new number he called simply “Baltimore”.
Beginning with Eryn’s gospel drenched vocal cry of the title, a drum roll opens the main core of the song. This is a very basic melodic setup on that level. It’s an acoustic guitar harmony with a smooth blues lead guitar riff. On the refrain, Prince is playing a pumping bass over a steady 4/4 pop/rock beat with more rock guitar accents. This pattern repeats itself in two or three variations and building in intensity as the lyrics do. On the bridge? There’s a thick drum/percussion rhythm over which Prince declares “if there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace”.
Prince comes back with another powerful bluesy lead guitar before Eryn comes in with another powerful lead. The song ends first with a repeat of the bridge-this time with 80’s Minneapolis orchestral synthesizer before ending on a gentler version of the chorus. The two beat drum pattern is accompanied by a synthesizer and Prince’s own falsetto vocal harmonies. This leads off the song, which concludes with what sounds like a news report “interrupting your regularly scheduled program about a developing situation in Los Angeles”.
Upon my first listen to the song? It actually didn’t come off as all that moving musically. Personally? It seems a bit more instrumentally fitting to use funk as a medium for a message song. That musical genre’s strong emphasis on rhythm makes it ideal accompaniment for a song about a real life event which needs to be dealt with positively. Prince actually decided to make a very bright and acoustically tinged pop/rock number here. The sometimes elaborate and percussive drum patterns really showcases the rhythmic mastery Prince has been able to transfer from drum machines to live drums over the decades.
Taken on it’s own terms? This is one of the more upbeat rock songs Prince has made in years. From an instrumental and compositional perspective. Lyrically there’s another kind of feeling eluded to. The man is looking at the present situation from a rather broad and historical perspective. He showcases how a day and place can make all the difference in terms of perceiving racially motivated human tragedy. He even paraphrases Albert Einstein by stating “peace is more than the absence of war”. That after asking for prayer for the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. So the song asks for heartfelt acts of kindness and social responsibility in a time where silent shock creates too much human inaction.