Originally published November 17th, 2010. I’ve updated to include new photos, correct a few grammatical errors, and some text has been revised slightly.
The last Prince album we covered in “Blerd’s Notes”‘ Part 3 was 1992’s Love Symbol album with the New Power Generation. Following that album, Prince’s label, Warner Brothers, gifted him with a lucrative (and ludicrous) contract that offered him a VP stake in the company. Shortly thereafter, Prince bailed-at least mentally. He changed his name to the unpronounceable symbol that marked the cover of his last album, called “Prince” dead, and started making moves in earnest to leave the company that he’d called home since he was a teenager.
While the remainder of the ’90s still found Mr. Nelson capable of making good and even great music, there were also albums released during that time that found Prince deliberately putting out mediocre material to satisfy his Warners contract. This fact muddies perceptions about whether Prince’s creative decline actually continued during this time period. Some albums proved that, when inspired, the mojo was still there. On other albums, you can’t tell whether he’s lost it because he’s not trying, or whether he’s lost it because he’s legitimately lost it.
“The Hits/The B-Sides” (1993)– Prince tallied up so much quality material in the first fifteen years of his career that he could put together a two-CD set of his hits and leave off a handful of career-defining songs. The most glaring omission on “The Hits/The B-Sides” is all of his “Batman” material. The set serves as a decent primer provided you’re only a casual fan. However, many of the hits are presented in their single efforts, and you really need to hear the full versions of songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “When Doves Cry”, and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” to truly appreciate them. The sumptuous ballad “Pink Cashmere” and the Def Comedy Jam-sampling “Pope” are pretty good new songs, but the score here is the third disc of B-sides, many of which are as good if not better than most artists’ A-sides. Songs like the immortal “Erotic City” and the Noel-for-depressed-people carol “Another Lonely Christmas” are top shelf, and even the goofs (the “Glam Slam” extension “Escape”) are pretty interesting. Grade: B+
“Come” (1994)– At the beginning of 1994, Prince (I’m not typing that damn symbol out) released a one-off single, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” through indie label Bellmark Records (home of Tag Team). It became his biggest hit single in three years and a major point of contention in his ongoing battle with Warner Brothers. After releasing an EP called “The Beautiful Experience” through Bellmark (basically a glorified CD single that deserves no further mention), The Artist came back to Warner Brothers and issued “Come” under his given name. Marked ominously with a “1958-1993” tag (seriously-there’s something creepy about an artist who’s very much alive basically playing dead), the set has some very interesting moments despite the perception of being thrown together. “Space” is a bassy funk jam, “Solo” is ambient and new-agey (and good!), while the single “Letitgo” was as breezy a pop/funk tune as Prince had ever written. The title track was excellent, too, although we really didn’t need for it to be stretched to 11 minutes plus, complete with recorded moaning (courtesy of Vanity) and sucking noises that were supposed to simulate cunnilingus. I love sex as much as the next guy, but ugh. Grade: B-
In the middle of all this, “Exodus” was issued under the New Power Generation moniker, in territories outside the United States. Not exactly a Prince album, not exactly not a Prince album, it’s interesting enough if you can find it cheaply. I didn’t review when this was originally published, and I don’t feel right about shoehorning it in now. There was also a compilation album called “1-800-NEW-FUNK” that was released independently. Tons of good stuff on it, but the album is out of print and although P writes and produces just about everything, most of the songs are voiced by other artists.
“The Gold Experience” (1995)– The first official album of the Symbol era was Prince’s most exciting and cohesive effort since Sign o’ the Times eight years prior. Although there’s still the occasional anonymous funk jam here and there (“Now”, “319”), Gold is his best album of the decade by a mile. “Pussy Control” contains some of Prince’s most hilarious (and explicitly female-empowered) lyrics ever, the acoustic ballad “Shy” is amazing (and makes me wonder why he never did an episode of MTV Unplugged), he rocks hard on “Dolphin”, goes back to his synth-heavy Eighties sound on “Billy Jack Bitch” and continues his lengthy string of bedroom classics with “Shhh”, a song he originally wrote and played on for Tevin Campbell. The between-songs interludes are super-dated now, but that’s really the worst I can say about this blast of genius from an artist who was widely considered to be past his sell-by date at this point. Grade: A-
“Chaos & Disorder”, “Girl 6” and “The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale” (1996)-These three albums marked the end of Prince’s Warner Brothers contract, and while none of them is totally awful, these sets (two albums of unreleased material and a compilation) certainly aren’t representative of Prince’s best work. “Chaos & Disorder” was Prince’s most straight-ahead pop/rock effort until “Planet Earth” a decade later and culminates with the bitter kiss-off “Had U”. “The Vault” contains some great funk and jazz playing by Prince and (I’m assuming) The New Power Generation but lacks one truly memorable song. The best of the bunch is the soundtrack to the Spike Lee flick “Girl 6”, which lines up B-sides (“Erotic City”), memorable tracks from side projects (“The Screams of Passion”) and slept-on album cuts (“Adore”) and adds unreleased cuts like the bluesy “Count the Days” (originally released on the NPG’s Exodus) and the tender “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers”. Grades: “Chaos”=C, “Vault”-C, “Girl 6” A-
“Emancipation” (1996)– Prince’s first post-Warner album is much better than any 3-disc set of original material has any right to be. Prince being Prince, however, this “comeback” album (even though his last legit hit single had only been 2 1/2 years prior) is a wee tad overindulgent. However, considering how good the good material is here and the fact that you can find it dirt cheap these days (supply way outweighed demand on this one), any Prince collection should have “Emancipation” in it. The second disc is by far the weak link here, and even that album’s ratio of good songs to so-so is about even. Disc 1 gets off to a roaring start with “Jam of the Year”, “Right Back Here in My Arms” and “Somebody’s Somebody” and doesn’t look back. Disc 3 contains some stellar playing on “Style” and “Sleep Around”, as well as ripping take on Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”. Grade: B
Up next? The true wilderness years…and another commercial comeback.
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