Prince: Finding the balance between the dated and the timeless

For an artist as uniquely talented as Prince Rogers Nelson, the trajectory is never quite linear. There is his unmatched dominance of the 1980s, the spat and acrimonious split with Warner Brothers in the 1990s and the slew of befuddling, mostly uneven releases as Prince struggled to maintain a foothold in a rapidly changing industry.

As he got lost in an increasingly saturated playing field, there were some moments of renewed success found in albums such as 2004’s Musicology. But, for an artist who has never really stopped touring, releasing albums is never really an act of desperation. Stacking albums is also nothing new for Prince. His tiff with Warner Brothers was, in part, about heavily regulated release schedules. After leaving the label, he released the triple-disc album Emancipation in 1996. 

More recently there has been Lotusflower/MPLSound, another three-disc album featuring Elixer, a body of work by his understudy Bria Valente. There is a purposeful duality to his new pair of releases, Plectrumelectrum and Art Official Age. They are his first albums since 20Ten four years ago. These albums evoke the methodology of Parliament-Funkadelic. In their 1970s heyday, George Clinton helmed two groups that blended into one: Parliament reached for the quirkier side of black radio while Funkadelic channelled post-Experience Jimi Hendrix rhythms and riffs into their futurist conclusions.

Plectrumelectrum (with all-girl band 3rdeyegirl) and Art Official Age chart similarly distinct courses, but these paths are not without intersections. Both share a track, the morphing dancefloor stomper that is Funknroll. In Art Official Age, the song starts off with an eight-bar vamp that gives in to Timbaland-style minimalism, the type with Missy Elliott written all over it. Instead of Missy, though, Prince is in his life-of-the-party role, exhorting his circle to party like there’s no consequence. In Plectrumelectrum, the same song goes through the same eight bars in the beginning, before it morphs into a Fishbone-like funky jam with cycles of riffs.

Prince has several good innings in him 
It is these two versions that, perhaps conceptually, anchor both albums. Read what you will into his return to the Warner Brothers fold, but Prince sounds like he’s got several good innings in him. Plectrumelectrum, for the most part, mines vintage rock riffs and funk rhythms, jaded melodies and heart-on-sleeve polemics to create an album that sounds like a joyous raid through two decades of untouched vaults. Throughout it, Prince sounds as though he is perfecting a dance between the dated and the timeless, the alternative and the straitlaced. 

Boy Trouble, for instance, recruits the talents of Lizzo, a versatile singer and rapper from Minneapolis who contributes a dazzling triple-time flow to the song. But something about the song’s sensibility and atmosphere evokes the 1980s, perhaps Vanity 6’s Drive Me Wild or Nasty Girl. Whitecaps is a floating, delicate Prince ballad with vocals handled solely by his backing band 3rdeyegirl. 

The fact that it wins on the first listen makes it something of an anomaly in this collection, where the softer, ballad-like material such as Stop This Train and Tic Tac Toe is trumped by rockier material such as Fixurlifeup. With Art Official Age, Prince starts off with gaudy stadium pop before revealing the album’s true colours: some artfully rendered funky R&B ballads with swinging funk workouts thrown in. 

Travelling from the 1980s electro funk 
In the end, it feels as though you have travelled from 1980s electro funk (via The Gold Standard) to some future R&B in the form of the deftly phrased U Know. A lot of the songs tend towards the understated and even ordinary. With the exception of U Know, one never feels as though the possibility of a new Prince aesthetic is within reach. Songs like This Could Be Us work precisely because you imagine Prince is actually singing The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.

There are also moments here when you feel Prince is retreading New Power Generations’ 1998 release New Power Soul. Appreciating Prince’s huge catalogue is a subjective undertaking. It is one largely dependent on setting and mood. Art Official Age and its companion Plectrumelectrum, for example, have their moments of schmaltz and transcendence. Where exactly one finds these depends on which aspects of his persona one is drawn to. These two albums will be similarly divisive, with some preferring a crusading, female band-backed Prince rallying against the world (Plectrum), while others choose the leisurely pillow talk delivered, as usual, with a touch of androgyny (Art…).

To choose one above the other, would be to confine yourself to only one room of the sprawling white mansion.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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