The age-old lament that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is commonly expressed in discussions of contemporary R&B. Fans of classic soul often long for raw, unfiltered vocals in the age of Auto-Tune and instrumental talent in an era when the word “band” is tossed around loosely. The one-man band Prince has apparently taken the outcry to heart, as he puts his unmistakable genius to work on his new album ART OFFICIAL AGE.
After releasing many uneven records over the past two decades, he reminds the world of the musical greatness with which he ruled the ’80s. On ART, he showcases the highly influential funk-pop-rock-soul stew he innovated, highlighted by such masterworks as 1982’s 1999; 1984’s Purple Rain, the soundtrack to the movie that won him an Oscar for best score; and 1987’s Sign o’ the Times.
TRACK BY TRACK REVIEW
Track 1: “ART OFFICIAL CAGE”
The visionary’s always-apparent distaste for senseless pigeonholing drives this pulsating anthem of free expression, the title being a play on “artificial cage.” With a declaration of his intention to “free my mind from this art official cage,” the tempo-changing opener is a well-crafted marriage of pop, rock and funk.
Track 2: “CLOUDS”
The mellow vibe of this winner serves up the kind of bass-heavy, guitar-accented groove diehard Prince fans know and love. A celebration of affection and intimacy, it features a beautifully soothing guest vocal by British newcomer Lianne La Havas. This standout brilliantly decries the impersonal aspects of modern, technology-reliant communication and a lack of sincerity in human interaction in a world of “reality”-show posing. “I want to give you something, baby, but I wonder, does it even really matter if it ain’t on a stage?” he muses. “If it ain’t on a stage, I don’t think it really matters in this brand new age.” The message is communicated within a smooth musical mosaic that avoids heavy-handed sermonizing.
Track 3: “BREAKDOWN”
A top-notch balladeer when on his A-game, Prince is in stellar form on this heartfelt lament of a relationship gone wrong. He puts his falsetto to great use over a stirring track that transitions multiple times between sparse, vocal-and-keyboard-only verses and a chorus with those elements effectively joined by drums and a gripping bass line. It brings to mind the captivating yet criminally underappreciated “Man o’ War,” a highlight of his 1999 LP Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
Track 4: “THE GOLD STANDARD”
Dismissing inhibitions over a funky dance track is quintessential Prince (“Uptown” on 1980’s Dirty Mind; “Let’s Work” on 1981’s Controversy; “DMSR,” which stands for Dance Music Sex Romance, on 1982’s 1999), and this tune follows that tradition. With its lively horn and guitar riffs, it commands you to “let me see that body move.” A nod to James Brown, it’s a passably fun tune, but not quite the infectious jam it aspires to be.
Track 5: “U KNOW”
This laid-back, synth-driven number finds Prince singing in a rapid-fire fashion. Think Bone Thugs-n-Harmony or Destiny’s Child on “Say My Name.” It’s a nice enough tune, something to make you nod your head. The constant “uh, uh-huh” ad-libs by a female backing vocalist, however, are superfluous and without them, the song would’ve had a better chance of rising above filler status.
Track 6: “BREAKFAST CAN WAIT”
Although he has publicly sworn off cursing, the man who gave us such carnal jams as “Do Me Baby,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Gett Off” and you-name-it shows on this single that he’s still down for a musical romp. But at 56, he has expectedly come to appreciate the concept of subtlety that was not a priority at 26. The ode to morning mating is another of the album’s chill, funked out tracks. It’s mildly enjoyable but not as memorable as his aforementioned sexually charged songs of yesteryear.
Track 7: “THIS COULD BE US”
This remarkable ballad scores big with its engaging expression of romantic disappointment. Prince movingly conveys the frustration of unrequited love against a gorgeous instrumental backdrop of light percussion, keyboards, synths and guitar licks.
Track 8: “WHAT IT FEELS LIKE”
This duet with singer-guitarist Andy Allo is actually a reworking of her 2012 song of the same title. The Cameroonian artist’s sublime voice blends nicely with Prince’s on the mid-tempo tune.
Track 9: “affirmation I & II”
This 35-second spoken interlude consists of La Havas playing the role of a Prince’s therapist disabusing Mr. Nelson, as she addresses her patient, of selfishness. The counsel, which continues into the first nine seconds of the next track, is in keeping with the album’s thematic stance against the allegedly rampant lack of interpersonal skills in this tech-obsessed age.
Track 10 “WAY BACK HOME”
An introspective pop-rock ballad, this is lyrically and musically one of the album’s finest moments. “I never wanted a typical life,” Prince sings in his opening line. “Scripted role, a trophy wife.” It’s hard to resist going along for the journey as he continues, poetically embarking on a quest for eternal fulfillment. And with a song this exquisite, you wouldn’t want to refuse anyway.
Track 11: “FUNKNROLL”
Few can command you to the dance floor as authoritatively as the man who offered the famously rebellious invitation “Let’s Go Crazy.” And reminiscent of that No. 1 hit from Purple Rain, this rollicking tune is a guitar-fueled ode to reckless abandon. It’s good, though not great, fun. To hear him really nail the titular sound, which he is one of the best to ever perform, one should give a listen to the 1999 album, particularly the title track, “DMSR” and “Lady Cab Driver.”
Track 12: “TIME”
Andy Allo is back for this mesmerizing duet with a slow and steady groove about busy lovers longing to spend quality time with each other. Classic Prince this song is, with its smooth, synth-laced backing track laced with jazzy guitar riffs from Allo, whose star will soon rise if there is any justice in the world.
Track 13: “affirmation III”
At a song-length 3:28, this outro seamlessly brings it all home. As she sings Track 10’s chorus, “until I find my way back home,” over that song’s hauntingly lush instrumental arrangement, La Havas gives Prince words of encouragement: “Remember, there is really only one destination, and that place is you. All of it, everything, is you.” We might all want to join Mr. Nelson in receiving that poignant advice.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Coming the same week as PLECTRUMELECTRUM, his excellent collaborative LP with female trio 3RDEYEGIRL, ART is a welcome addition to his storied discography. While not quite up there with the best of his heyday releases – and honestly, whose albums are these days? – it is a triumph that reminds the world what drew legions of enthusiasts to the Purple One in the first place.
Standout tracks: “CLOUDS,” “BREAKDOWN,” “THIS COULD BE US,” “WAY BACK HOME” and “TIME”