Prince’s final album Hitnrun Phase Two , to me anyway, still lives in the shadows as the Prince swansong it was never intended to be. It was a completely different album than the more contemporary pop centered first volume in the series. This was generally a live band album featuring a 28 member lineup of the NPG-very likely the largest lineup of that band Prince ever had. It also featured contributions from other artists such as Ledisi and Cassandra Wilson. The oddest part about the album was that it was released on CD only a couple of weeks following Prince’s passing.
The album was originally only released digitally through Tidal,in a bundle with the first volume of the series, at the end of 2015. Up until April of the next year, it was slowly released for sale on CD in different places and venues. In particular at the Paisley Park gala performance of Prince’s Piano & A Microphone tour. With absolutely no bias on my part, I found Hitnrun Phase Two to be the strongest album of his 2014-2016 comeback period. Especially in terms of funkiness and musicianship. The song that stands out to both Henrique Hopkins and myself is “Stare”.
Prince starts out with a hard hitting slap bass line-starting out slowly and speeding up on the final part of its bar. This hefty bass run provides the basis for the entire groove. After the unaccompanied intro,the drum plays every rhythm change within the bass line. The NPG Hornz and Prince’s low rhythm guitar each accent these changes with ever more elaborate variations as the song progresses. There’s even a sample of “Kiss”‘s opening rhythm guitar early on. The bridge of the song is basically a false fade-followed up by an emphasis before the song comes to an actual dead stop.
“Stare” finally allows every type of funk that Prince ever dealt with coming into its full flower. It has his live band funk style he’d been perfecting on and off since the late 80’s. But also has the digitized crunch of his earlier electronic grooves even with the live instrumentals used for this. This also emphasizes the hard slap bass more than most band oriented Prince funk,which was generally paced on a higher pitched rhythm guitar sound that isn’t present here. Its funky,stripped down,Minneapolis and all the way Prince. And as it turned out,as good a funky swansong as one is likely to get.
Prince surprised a lot of people after a five year absence by releasing two albums on the same day: September 30th,2014 to be exact. It was an event that was just in time to be covered by this particular blog as well. Out of the two, Art Official Age seems to be the album that got the best response. During this time,Prince was expanding the NPG off into an all female side project called 3rdEyeGirl. The husband of one of its members Hannah Ford,Joshua Welton marked the first time Prince worked closely with an outside producer. Presumably to give his sound a more youth friendly sound for the 2010’s.
Welton’s contributions to Art Official Age were not as prominent as they’d be on the rather more modern teen EDM styled Hitnrun Phase 1 a year later. Prince was still ever deeply in control of the writing,instrumentation and yes-production on the former album. Still,its likely Welton’s presence reminded Prince of what made his music so appealing when he was at his most vital creative peak in the 1980’s. So with that Prince decided to reinvigorate his classic funk sound and came up with a song for the Art Official Age album entitled “The Gold Standard”.
A one note Linn drum kick starts of the song before a descending synth brass riser punctuates his slowed down rhythmically spoken vocal. The high on the neck rhythm guitar,slightly digitized live bass line and the accenting charts of the NPG Hornz. On the first bars, Prince is singing mainly with the drums and bass alone. Then the horn sections JB’s like charts take higher priority in the mix. The synth brass finally joins in with the live horns After a hand clap powered rendering of the chorus,a P–Funk synth bass initiates as bass/guitar/horn based cadence that fades out the song.
“The Gold Standard” brings together two different sides of Prince’s 80’s funk approach. His classic Minneapolis sound is represented by the brittle synth brass and stripped down arrangement. His rhythm guitar sound at its ever peak performance here as well. Aside from some modern production touches,particularly on the bass line,this also brings out his horn fueled mid/late 80’s period from songs such as “Girls & Boys” and “Housequake”. What it all does so well is showcase how much of an innovation for its time Prince’s condensation of funk was for the genres future-especially in the 2010’s.