“Only the greats have somewhere to come down from,” wrote the late critic Ian McDonald. Even though he was referring to Randy Newman, he could have been talking about Prince, who at his peak was unquestionably great. Beginning with 1983’s 1999 and ending with Sign ‘O’ the Times in ’87, the Purple One reigned supreme. He had it all — carnal heat, an unfair measure of talent, and an engaging mystique. He also did it all — playing most of the instruments and spitting out catchy tunes like a force of nature, combining the sweat of James Brown and the funk of Sly Stone with Hendrix guitar. Prince was nothing if not unique.
“Everybody’s got a bomb/We could all die any day/But before I’ll let that happen/I’ll dance my life away” he sang on “1999,” and those sentiments are Prince in a nutshell. He’s always wrestled with God and the devil. He stretched this leitmotif about as far as anyone could, and by the early ’90s his ideas had become predictable. His fame had also led him down a Michael Jackson–like path, with bizarre name changes, a very public spat with his then-label Warner Bros., and, eventually, by hermetically sealing himself in his own purple wonderland. He released a slew of woefully slack albums like Emancipation and Crystal Ball, trying the patience of even the most hard-core fan (of which I was one).
By 2001’s The Rainbow Children, which addressed his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Prince seemed to have forsaken his fans (and they him). So it was a surprise when Musicology was released in 2004 to no small amount of interest, even wending its way into Billboard’s Top 10. It wasn’t great, but it showed focus, with tight production and catchy songs. It could’ve been the follow-up to, say, 1988’s Lovesexy, which was also its main flaw: not much has changed in Prince’s sonic universe in two decades.
And that’s the problem with the chart-topping new 3121 (Universal), an album that sounds as if the dirty beats of hip-hop never happened. It’s an album for those who crave Prince doing prime Prince, I suppose. If that’s your thing, you’ll appreciate the rock-steady title track, which employs a thick beat, Prince’s patented “Camille” voice, as well as the lines “Lock the door/Till you see the sun/We gonna party, like there ain’t going be another one.” It rings as familiar as the metallic funk of the playful “Lolita” and the raging “Fury,” which reshapes the riff of “1999.” “Te Amo Corazón” is a beautifully synthetic samba and the chunky, mechanical beats of “Black Sweat” recall the mechanical beats of “Housequake” — state of the art two decades ago.
Prince tries hard to prove he once again has it. 3121 is ripe with sturdy songs with tactile hooks — the sensual “Incense and Candles” and the bump and grease of “Love” insinuate themselves like a mouse through a rattlesnake. Still, one can’t help but feel that 3121 is passé. There’s nothing here you haven’t heard before. And none of it stands up to classics like “Kiss” or “Let’s Go Crazy” or “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” No new ground is broken, and that used to be a Prince hallmark. It’s not impossible to reinvent your art in new and interesting ways past a certain point in life. Consider Kate Bush’s recent Aerial, which is both of-the-moment and timeless. She’s still the same Kate Bush of 1977’s The Kick Inside, but she’s not inextricably bound to her old sound and persona. Prince is. He may have killed on a recent Saturday Night Live, and overall 3121 isn’t a bad album. It’s just one that’s stuck in another time.
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