Finally free from the major label machine, Prince’s first order of business was to release a 3-CD set of music called “Emancipation” and reclaim his crown as the most talented musician of his general. That didn’t exactly work. Though as solid a piece of work as he’d created during the Nineties, “Emancipation” failed to produce a radio hit and only sold moderately, scanning less than a million copies. On a far more personal note, he and his wife Mayte Garcia sadly had to bury their baby less than a week after he was born because of health problems. Professionally, Prince didn’t exactly do the rise-from-the-phoenix thing right away. This edition of Blerd’s Notes guide to Prince contains arguably the worst music of his career-several albums of mainly instrumental noodling and a sad attempt to recreate the Grammy-winning magic of Santana’s “Supernatural”.

Let’s take a look at the years 1997-2003 in the world of Prince.

Crystal Ball (1997)-This odds and sods collection was plagued by issues. One of the first ever web preorders, it apparently took some fans months to get their orders. Having purchased “Crystal Ball” online, they were chagrined to then find it available in stores-in some cases, they still hadn’t received their copies yet. Oopsie.

As good as Prince’s unreleased stuff is capable of being, lots of the songs on “Crystal Ball” could have stayed unreleased without a problem. One definite thing to note is that many of these songs are NPG-era unreleased tracks. Still, there are definite highlights-the hilarious “Movie Star”, the proto-“Adore” slow jam “Crucial”, the lengthy funk jam “Cloreen Baconskin”. The 4th disc on the 4 disc set (or 5-disc set, depending on which you bought), the acoustic “The Truth” is an unexpected treat, including the very Joni-esque “Circle of Amour”, the seething “Don’t Play Me” and the haunting “Comeback”, Prince’s tribute to the child he lost. I guess a 4-CD set with about a 1:1 ratio of good material to bad material is worth the money. Right? Grade: B-

New Power Soul (1998)- Coming out of the same era that brought you Chaka Khan and Larry Graham albums under the NPG Records banner, “New Power Soul” is credit to the New Power Generation on the album art, but it’s a Prince album for better or for worse (and he is the only person on the album’s front cover). Even if it weren’t for the low-budget artwork, this album would have been the closest thing to certified coaster material that Prince had recorded at this point. A lot of empty party chanting, watered-down funk, a Doug E. Fresh cameo (Doug E. Fresh???) and…exactly three good songs. The sparkling ballad “Until Ure in My Arms Again”, the moody ballad “The One” and the bizarre hidden track “Wasted Kisses”. Used to be a time when Prince could’ve produced an album with three good songs in his sleep. Grade: C-

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)- …and then Prince hooked up with Clive Davis. Clive was fresh off of the world-beating success of Santana’s “Supernatural” and Prince, having idolized Carlos, wondered if Clive could help replicate that magic. The short answer was no.

Prince teamed up with a variety of guest artists on “Rave”-Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, Eve and Chuck D. are among the notables who make appearances. All of the songs that contain those performers suck, to say nothing of the album’s dreadful cover of Crow’s “Every Day is a Winding Road”. Quite possibly, the most exciting thing about “Rave” was the return of “Prince” to the producer’s chair (he was still using the symbol at this point…apparently, the rumors of “Prince”‘s demise had been greatly exaggerated.

If you must have this (and I do), get it for the heartbreaking “I Love U But I Don’t Trust U Anymore”, an Ani Difranco-assisted account of the end of the Prince/Mayte union. This album’s bonus track, the James Brown pastiche “Pretty Man” is pretty damn good, too.  Grade: C

The Rainbow Children (2001)- I have to admit: when I first decided to do this look at Prince’s discography, “The Rainbow Children” almost stopped me dead in my tracks from doing so. I remember excitedly purchasing this album in the fall of 2001, taking it home and being profoundly disappointed. Noodly jazz textures and the schoolmarm-ish vibe of the lyrics just didn’t sit well with me.

Nearly a decade after listening to it initially, I gave it another listen and it’s not as bad as I remember it. The overt jam-ish jazz vibe threw me a little for a loop at first, and I guess I’m a little more used to sanctimonious Prince than I was back in ’01. Even so, “Rainbow” remains one of only two Prince albums that I sold back after buying (and the other album, which you’ll find in the next installment, I wound up buying a second time.) It’s still one of Prince’s least essential studio efforts. A C- isn’t exactly recommended, but it’s still higher than the grade I would’ve given it in 2001. Grade: C-

N.E.W.S. (2003)- 4 tracks, recorded in one day. All tracks are instrumental, each track is 14 minutes long. Let’s keep it real here. My tolerance for instrumental albums isn’t the greatest (my interest in Miles and Herbie aside), and my tolerance for songs over, say, 7 minutes is minimal. Some Prince diehards swear by this album (shit, some Prince diehards swear by EVERY album), but I just can’t get with this. I more than appreciate Prince’s chops-he’s the greatest musician of his era. That doesn’t mean I have to listen to what’s essentially a 56-minute rehearsal tape. Grade: D

Next? The Phoenix rises…and falls again.

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