After years of contractual disputes, name changes, musical experimentation and allegiance to The Watch Tower, Prince showed signs of reclaiming his pop crown with 2004’s Musicology album. His first record released through a major label in years, it suggested The Artist was ready to stride back into public consciousness. A tour around its release was the most profitable of the year. He’d been a Slave, but now the master was set for his return.
In consequence of Musicology’s success, its follow-up, 3121, has been the subject of that much more interest. Released through a different major on another one-album deal, 3121 finds Prince, after years in pop’s wilderness, all funked up.
The multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis has grown to be hugely influential since his late ’70s debut. Influenced himself by Sly Stone and James Brown, his disciples now include everyone from Pharrell Williams to Alicia Keyes. His funkier, poppy flavours are the moments best remembered – 1999 and When Doves Cry amongst them.
The sleeve suggests Prince remains convinced of his own immeasurable worth. Photos of what seem to be his diva pad, complete with purple cushions embossed variously with his symbol or, in one case, the word “SATISFIED”, are precious. There’s a custom-built gold pool table, a jacuzzi complete with floating flower petals and a great deal of (what else?) purple. In this mausoleum-like tribute to himself everything looks ironed – even the tables. Move over, Mariah.
3121’s opener, the title track, is a promising if jarring beginning toward justifying such outlandishness. Off-tone bass and a chugging rhythm, with effects-treated vocals reminiscent of his experimentation on The Rainbow Children, mix with squeaky, off-the-wall horns and a backing choir of munchkins to create an unsettling dungeon of demons. Lyrically it sets the scene for what will be an album with libidinous concerns at its core as Prince, sounding like a dirty old man in a beige coat, invites all and sundry back to his place: “U can come if U want 2 / But U can never leave.”
The dirty old man theme continues with Lolita where, unlike Nobokov, he seems to turn down the attentions of an underage girl: “U’re trying to write cheques / Ur body can’t cash.” But with phat, echoing synths and shimmering guitar, and The New Power Generation gang lending vocal support, it’s one of the album’s strongest moments.
Single Black Sweat reminds most of Pharrell Williams, with Prince’s vocals ranging extraordinarily from camp-as-fake-tits falsetto to throaty growls, multitracked over a harsh backdrop of whistley synth, hand claps and bass-laden drums. A couple of tracks later, Love revisits a similar funky place, while later still Fury feels like a sample of his late ’80s heyday.
Amongst the guests are Maceo Parker and Candi Dulfer with “hornz” (matron!), but Prince is well able to handle just about everything himself. One of the catchier moments is The Word, on which he sings and plays every instrument including sax. The Dance showcases that virtuosity again, with menacing synths and flamboyant piano set to a Cubanesque rhythm. Its counterpoint here is Te Amo Corazon, also taking its cue from Havana’s beat but with more obvious radio play potential.
But it’s not all booty-bouncing bohemia. Incense and Candles and Beautiful, Loved and Blessed, recorded with Prince’s latest purple prot�g� Támar, are downtempo R&B numbers that seem to serve only to break up the record’s better moments. On their evidence he can do syrupy ballads. But so can Craig David and Mariah Carey, and the world is not a better place for them.
He concludes with a foot-stomping homage to James Brown, Get On The Boat, where just about everyone joins him for an extended wig-out showcase of performance genius. It sounds like he’s having fun leading a band and getting on down. It’s a great note to finish on.
Prince is at his best when his music is unmistakably his. Half of the tracks on 3121 could not have been made by anyone else, but the slushy R&B ballads are not amongst them. Fast forward through these, however, and in the rest of his most accessible record in years hear why Prince is hailed a genius, and one who here sounds like he’s having a ball.