TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2014 – #1: PRINCE – ART OFFICIAL AGE…

prince-art-official-age

Finally… the top of the list! This year it wasn’t easy. In fact there were easily over 50 albums this year that I really liked and had to choose from. There were even a couple that I hadn’t even heard until I had the list completed. But there was one album that topped my favorites, hands down, and that was Art Official Age by Prince. With this album, Prince actually managed to wow me in a way he hasn’t in quite a long time. Sure, there were some great moments on more recent albums like 20Ten, Lotusflow3r and definitely 3121 (almost a decade ago – my, how time flies!). But none of them gave me that feeling I used to get hearing a Prince for album the first time. That sense of adventure. Well, it’s back on AOA. Prince stopped being on a soapbox and just started being his weird self again. That weird self is what made the songs great. And as I stated in the PLECTRUMELECTRUM review, I treated these two new albums separately. Both are the sound of Prince moving forward. I just think I’ve come to like Prince’s R&B and funk side a bit more than his rock side. I’ve had this album playing so much since it came out, and usually I play it start to finish if I can. That simply didn’t happen with Planet Earth or MPLSound. Kudos to Prince for really bringing his all this time, and hopefully he keeps this hot streak going!

Here’s my original review:

Prince’s last proper album with a wide release was 2009’s Lotusflow3r/MPLSound, which as some of you may recall was a Target-only release in America, sold in a 3-part package with an album by his latest muse at the time, Bria Valente. Five full years ago. To a fan that grew up with an artist that put out a new release pretty much every year, this was an eternity ago. But I think this break was a good thing. Those albums had inspired moments, and were definitely good. But at points it felt like Prince was merely dialing it in. That wonder and enthusiasm he once had was replaced by distance. Ever since Prince had converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, there was a preachy tone to parts of the albums. The sexual drive that made Prince a master of his own game had all but vanished on some of the songs. And musically, it felt like he was *trying* to sound like Prince. And that was the biggest mistake ever. Those of us lucky enough to get a copy of 20Ten, his limited “free” covermount release (meaning we had to buy it on eBay in most countries) found that it was more laid back and relaxed. Prince was starting to find a way to blend his religious side with his playful side again. But the lyrics were still way heavy on the ideology and less on the fun. It felt like the party had strings attached. But then something amazing happened.

The man who had become frustrated with the state of social media and had announced “the internet is dead” changed his mind. In fact, he realized that you can have fun and be creative using the internet as a tool to reach people. Could it be that he actually started to consider what longtime fans such as myself had to say by the way of constructive criticism? Did that “Prince World” jab by Kevin Smith trigger something? In 2013, after a hush-released laid-back (but really good) single “Rock and Roll Love Affair”, Prince went viral. He concocted a story about somebody “stealing” his new songs and leaking them, under the name 3RDEYEGIRL. The strategy worked. Prince was now on Vimeo, Facebook, and seemingly everywhere with his new clip “Screwdriver”. Within a very short time, his cover story unraveled and it was revealed that 3RDEYEGIRL was this great new 3-woman rock band. For the first time since 1990, it wasn’t some form of the ever-changing New Power Generation. Word caught on. Prince used the 3RDEYEGIRL.com website to privately release new songs in high quality. Some were rock songs with 3EG, and some were Prince’s own demo mixes of new funk jams and slow songs. Some disappeared quickly, others didn’t. As you can see in an article I wrote last year, there were easily enough songs to easily fill up a CD. After the success of a single release and video of “Breakfast Can Wait”, it was also announced that Prince has once again partnered with Warner Brothers for a deal that involved a new album, and the remasters of his classic albums.

Prince worked the promotional circuit in a way he hadn’t in many years. He appeared on The New Girl and recorded a single with Zoey Deschanel called “FALLINLOVE2NIGHT”. He appeared on the short-lived resurrection of The Arsenio Hall Show. And it seemed like for the first time in a long time in public, he could lighten up about himself and just have fun. That’s what was missing… the fun! So finally when the new album announcement came this year, we were surprised with an announcement that there would be *two* new albums. One would be a Prince album, and one would be a Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL album. That time is now upon us. The best way to do this is that I am reviewing each album as its own separate entity. This is how they are released, and this is how they should be heard and considered. So without further adieu, part one…

ART OFFICIAL AGE

AOA is the half of the two new albums that concentrates on Prince solely. By regulating the rock and roll to PLECTRUMELECTRUM, this gives him some room to have some fun. However, this album couldn’t be more different from MPLSsound, where Prince tried this idea previously. On MPLSound, it usually felt like Prince hit auto-play on the Linn drum. Here, Prince has carefully constructed, crafted and had fun with the sonic playground. There’s a sort of storyline to the album, something to do with Prince being in time stasis for 45 years and finally waking up in a world that he was born for. As I break down the album track by track, I think the most important thing that comes through in this album is that Prince is starting to embrace *all* of his sides again. While he now has years of knowledge and experience with him that he did not in his formal years, he now seems at ease with letting his sexual side back into the party. He also doesn’t beat us over the head with ideology. Instead it’s all in the mix. And in a surprise move, he lets someone *else* do some of the production! Duties were handed to Joshua Welton, husband of 3rdEyeGirl’s Hannah Ford. The results prove that Prince should take chances like this more often. So let’s explore:

“ART OFFICIAL CAGE”:
Prince opens this album with “Welcome home class! We’ve come a long way!”, acknowledging that most of us *are* the hardcore fans that have followed him through his ups and downs. This is followed by, in Danish via 3EG member Ida, and translated by members of Prince.org… “Ladies and gentlemen, kings and queens and everything in between, welcome to the class, you are about to do something that will change your life forever – open this cage.” And the party starts with funky techo-pop, signature guitar jangle and yes, airhorns. This song sets the tone for the technology/future theme of the album while throwing in quite a few of Prince’s musical sides, and even including a somehow non-intrusive rap verse. My first thought, “Is that Tony M.?”, but since the CD provides no detailed liner notes, I’m not sure who provides this part. After a thrilling guitar solo and a workout that goes through several styles of pop and funk, Prince wakes up from the cage he speaks of.

“CLOUDS”:
This is what it sounds like when Prince really works with a groove on his Linn Drum machine. There’s a rich sound tapestry woven here with gorgeous vocals and a classic funktastic bass line. Romantic lyrics like “you should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck” woven with the idea of entertainment only being something of a virtual nature, or in “The Cloud” finds Prince longing for real romanticism that involves physical interaction with an actual person. And here instead of sounding sorely old-fashioned, he really hits the nail on the head without being preachy. Instead you’re left wondering how he is able to impress a woman by simply rubbing a flower on her back. He’s also asking if any of us remembers a time before everything we did was a show for the public via social media. The storyline advances here, as a British female voice (a person? a computer?), played by Lianne La Havas, brings Prince out of his state of suspended animation. Somehow it fits the song and this is still a highlight of the album, however strange it may be.

“BREAKDOWN”:
This song was previewed long in advance of the album. Prince reminisces his past here in an almost shameful way. We get the feeling here that no matter how much of a womanizer he ever was, he was ultimately a lonely person not finding true happiness. Again, not preachy here. Instead he’s saying “give me back the time, you can keep the memories”, before singing about meeting someone new and now having a new frame of mind. The breakdown isn’t necessarily what we’d think of as a nervous breakdown, but rather someone making Prince break himself down to his essential true self. This is one of the deepest looks at himself that he has placed into a song in some time. For those looking for the obligatory 7 reference, it is tucked into a mention of all the relationships and phone numbers he used to go through. In context of the album, now those laser sound effects make more sense.

“THE GOLD STANDARD”:
SHUT UP ALREADY!! This is the part where my jaw hit the floor. If there was ever a moment where Prince finally came to be okay with his former personalities, it’s right here. Prince has revisited the spare irresistible funk of The Black Album! In the groove alone, this is something that fits nicely next to “Le Grind”. But who showed up to the party? It’s the main character from “Bob George”! Bob! Ain’t that a bitch! Prince hinted at this in last year’s single “Ain’t Gonna Miss U When Ur Gone”. No the song isn’t laced with expletives. But who cares? The music says everything the words didn’t need to. The guitar – this is prime mid-80s plucky funk guitar. Prince in his best falsetto. When he shouts “Turn it up!” I feel like Prince of Dirty Mind has stepped in. It’s like all of the Princes of past and present showed up to the same party, got along and had one great time. I haven’t felt *that* chill in a long time and it brings such a great big smile to my face! At the end of this, the “Bob George” persona takes over.. possibly inebriated (as cued by the bubbly sounds) and gets caught up in a moment that quickly turns sexual, strange, and actually quite funny. But just as things get interesting…

“U KNOW”:
Wait but I wanted to know how the last song ended! In a flash Prince switches from “Bob George” being wrapped up in the lust of a moment back to.. is this his true self? Now he’s lusting after a woman but he’s considering how he should be treating a woman if she’s worth it. “Another treat, another trick.. but which one’s which?”. Prince gets introspective about relationships in general, and gets a bit into female self-empowerment (wow, that’s a far cry from “let me run your gender through your hair” on “Muse 2 The Pharaoh” in 2001). Does he get the woman? Well if this is a storyline..

“BREAKFAST CAN WAIT”:
…then yes. Flash forward. She shut it down last night. This is the one surviving song from the singles of 2012-2013 before the Warner Brothers deal. It makes sense. This song caught attention and actually got people talking again. Prince being sexy again. Prince showing you how it’s done if you wanna get some action. Prince making you late for work. I normally don’t quote Rolling Stone but part of their single review said, “If Prince says breakfast can wait… then that shit can wait.” What made this song work is that he didn’t try too hard to be Prince. He just let it flow. The groove was just right. And while some hated the sped up voice ending, I love it. It’s that moment when Prince’s lustful side, another one of his personalities, takes over. For me that tops the song off. That headscratcher moment is what makes this Prince and nobody else.

“THIS COULD BE US”:
So this is where the second half starts. Prince wasn’t kidding when he talked on Arsenio about wanting to make a proper album. “This Could Be Us” is the song where Prince tries to get not a trick, or a treat, but the real deal. Of course his ego comes through with “you know you want me”. But he wants not only sex but to “do it metaphysically”. The music sets the right tone. Like much of the album, the electronic drums are countered by natural sounding guitar, keyboards that don’t sound prepackaged, and Prince’s vocals are in top form to woo you, or at least make you wish you were his. And this song is said to be inspired by a meme on Facebook. Of all things. The guitar solo here is just right, and it sounds fresh. 3RDEYEGIRL is owed a huge debt of thanks for making Prince play with vitality again.

“WHAT IT FEELS LIKE”:
This is the only one on the album that doesn’t really dazzle at first . It’s actually a duet with Andy Allo, a well chosen counterpart for the vocals. With whom I’m not sure yet. One of 3EG? I think this is sort of a part two to the last track if we are still on a storyline here. I would have been happier to have either “Ain’t Gonna Miss U When Ur Gone” or “Groovy Potential” in this spot. But it’s not bad either. (Followup two weeks later – now I quite like it.)

“AFFIRMATION I & II”:
Back to the plot. British computer lady (or.. Lady Mac Driver?) is bringing Prince up to speed that this new time he is in has no use for the words “me or mine”. This leads into the next song, where Prince digs deep.

“WAY BACK HOME”:
Prince has not written a song quite like this one before. The music… it’s just not a sound he’s done yet. The lyrics and ideas? Prince may be finally coming to terms with who he really is. Back in the 80s Prince talked about having two sides of his personality. In reality, I think there were many more sides to him. As I am understanding it, this song explores the thought that we are all part of one collective consciousness, and that we splinter and find our way back “home” to this collective eventually. This really *really* surprises me, in that Prince has spent the better part of a decade trying to put a huge chasm between the spirituality he had found and the rest of the world. Maybe this is why he chose the “3RDEYE” part of the band name. With lyrics like “all I ever wanted was to be left alone”, Prince exposes himself in a way here like he almost never does. Instead of preaching what he thinks is right at everyone else, he is questioning his own meaning of life. The song is just the right length and doesn’t become overblown. Definitely an emotional highlight of this album.

“FUNKNROLL”:
But we’re not done. On first listen when this song was pre-released a couple weeks ago, this was another jaw-dropper. I had heard Prince perform this on Arsenio, but this version is a total remix. Now while the thought of a remix would normally fill me with dread (see the many remixes of “Dance 4 Me”), this one makes the song all new again, and in some ways better. The 3RDEYEGIRL version appears on PLECTRUMELECTRUM, and is a funked up party jam in its own right. But here Prince takes stripped down sound effect percussion that is used in some modern pop and hip hop and plays with it in a way to remind you that he once showed us all exactly how to get creative with electronic beats. This is most likely where Prince let Joshua Welton have some fun with the mixing. For full effect, I suggest headphones, as the bit and pieces of sound jump from left to right and you don’t wanna miss the subtle details. the guitar solo at the end, unique to this version, leaves the end of the track in flames. You almost don’t realize Prince is duetting with his alter ego Camille. Or that he *aaalmost* breaks his own no cursing rule.. throwing in a “motherfutha” mid-song. This track reminds me that Prince is at his best when he’s playing around and says “let’s see what happens if…”.

“TIME”:
One more slower jam. Now he’s back to “Bob George” voice. But at this point, the lines are so blurred with the voices that when Andy Allo’s voice comes in, you’re almost unsure if that’s not also Prince (remember the gender-bent confusion of the ending of “Lovesexy”?). This is a great duet, and makes me feel extra guilty for having still not picked up Andy Allo’s album Superconductor. But is this a song about finding someone special? Or just the idea of it? I mean didn’t he just profess that he’s happiest alone? So confusing. But then emotions are messy. I’ll take confused, messy Prince over calculated sterile Prince any day. The production on this track is really something special. There’s an intermingling of keyboard melody, deep rolling bass funk and just the right amount of drums stringing it all together. Prince’s voice wraps around it all and builds until… cleanup in isle seven! Oh but then there’s horns even after. This fades and we are left with.

“AFFIRMATION III”:
This is “Way Back Home” part two. Lady Mac Driver makes sense of it all to Prince as he comes to full consciousness. The music behind it is truly beautiful. Via the voice talking to him, we realize that Prince has now realized he can be all things without needing to limit himself. “There is really only one destination, and that place is you. All of it. Everything is you”.

Color me taken aback! I always find something positive in each Prince album amongst all the harsh negative criticism he gets. But hearing this album really does make me understand why the last decade or so has been so frustrating for Prince’s faithful fans. With this album, Prince stopped imitating Prince and just let himself *be* Prince. And he’s let us come along for the ride while he does some soul searching, rather than soul searching and then giving us the report afterwards. While I haven’t reviewed PLECTRUMELECTRUM yet, it’s important to remember there would be no AOA without it. Prince needs to be inspired by other people once in a while. All of the 2000s it seemed like his only influences were Larry Graham and his childhood heroes. This left him with little room to learn and grow. The work he did that was unanimously considered his best was done when he had fresh musicians showing him new things. The Revolution. Wendy and Lisa. Sheila E. Even for a short time, the new New Power Generation, before that became merely a name for his backing band of whoever (while talented they were, no doubt). With 3EG, those three women had new ideas and new ways to approach music, and while this album is almost the opposite sound of PLECTRUMELECTRUM, the experimentation and the fun of having new musicians around – 3RDEYEGIRL as well as as well as Joshua Welton assisting on the production, is once again pushing Prince to open up his mind again. The results are stunning.

Welcome back Mr. Nelson!

Get your copy of ART OFFICIAL AGE here:

CD | MP3 | VINYL

“FUNKNROLL” (Audio):

“BREAKFAST CAN WAIT”:

“Saturday Night Live”:
http://www.wat.tv/video/prince-saturday-night-live-2014-73283_2hztv_.html#

Prince on Arsenio Hall back in March:

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