Prince doesn’t release records—he stages “comebacks.”
The Artist reached his creative apogee in the late eighties with his landmark double album, “Sign ‘O’ the Times”, and each of his subsequent releases has struggled to recreate that recording’s effortless songcraft, crack musicianship, and irrepressible joie de vivre.
Prince’s high-profile disputes with the label executives at Warner Brothers Records, and his failed bid for release from his multi-album contract, are usually blamed for the precipitous drop in quality of his early nineties recordings. But the truth is, the Purple One just wasn’t destined to reclaim the Olympian heights he achieved on “Sign.”
There have been some high points since then: “Diamonds and Pearls,” “The Love Symbol Album,” and his previous outing, “Musicology,” all evidenced some of the old magic. And the music press heralded each of them as a “return to form,” but those in the know admit that they came up short of greatness.
Prince’s most recent release, the enigmatically titled “3121,” is also being called a “return to form” and lavished with praise out of proportion to its actual merit. “3121” is a fine record, and one of the better R&B releases of the year, but it’s an insult to Prince’s legacy to place it in the same league as his best work.
The album’s greatest flaw is that it finds Prince following rather than setting musical trends. The album’s obligatory club-banger, “Black Sweat,” sounds like a Neptunes outtake: down to the minimalist drum machine beat and screeching synthesizer effects. Prince’s animated vocal performance deserves a richer melodic backdrop—the kind provided by a studio band, rather than studio equipment.
Unfortunately, “Black Sweat” isn’t the only track on which Prince relies more heavily on Pro Tools effects than the New Power Generation’s funky virtuosity. “Love,” the album’s sole flirtation with hard rock, is produced to within an inch of its life: it has more bleeps and blips than the “Lost in Space” robot—but not nearly as much personality. Prince is a legendarily gifted musician, so it’s a shame that he limits his sonic palate to drum machines and synthesizers on so many of the record’s cuts.
The songs that really take off on “3121” are those where the Prince lets the NPG cut loose with some old school funk workouts. The album’s lead single, “Fury,” is vintage purple-funk: Prince’s wailing guitar takes center stage, a gospel organ provides counterpoint to the melody, and a flesh and blood drummer keeps sick time in the background.
“Get On the Boat”, the album’s closer, does “Fury” one better in the funk department. Prince channels the spirit of James Brown and delivers a gritty call-and-response vocal performance over the jazzy stylings of a killer horn section. A number of bravura instrumental solos punctuate the six-minute mini-epic, each endeavoring to top the previous in terms of sheer technical prowess. It’s far and away the most exhilarating track on the album and easily the most fun thing Prince has recorded in a decade.
And what would a Prince record be without a salacious slow-jam for your hook-up mixtape? “Incense and Candles” fits the bill nicely. Prince and a female accompanist exchange sexy bon mots over a simple keyboard melody as the track builds to its climax: Prince’s spoken word interlude, in which he describes in graphic detail how he plans to satisfy his partner’s…cravings. The song is an erotic on tour de force on par with “Darling Nikki,” and if you ever need to liberate a lady friend from the tyranny of her undergarments this song is your Shock and Awe.
“3121” contains some of the most satisfying work Prince has done in years, work good enough to stand alongside his best. But’s it’s not a wholly successful endeavor—some real duds made the cut as well. So let’s not call this a-you-know-what. Alright?
—Reviewer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at email@example.com.