To paraphrase Miley Cyrus, he can’t stop and he won’t stop. Just three months after the surprise release of HiTNRUN Phase One in September, here comes Phase Two. This is nothing new for Prince of course – last year saw him release both Plectrumelecturm and Art Official Age on the very same day – but it’s still an impressive work ethic for anyone.
Rather like Justin Timberlake did with The 20/20 Experience, Phase Two is intended of the other side of the coin to its predecessor. And whereas Phase One was full of funky, sexy electro-jams, Phase Two takes the pace down a notch or two. The sound feels warmer and more organic (thanks to the entirely analogue production) and the addition of an impressive horn section on almost every track is a very welcome move. Like its companion album, it’s wildly inconsistent but when Prince hits form, it’s difficult to argue with the man’s genius.
Starting off strong, Phase Two begins with one of Prince’s most explicitly political songs for some time, Baltimore. Inspired by the riots in that city following the case of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody in April, it provides a stirring rallying cry to the Black Lives Matter movement with the chant “if there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace”, as well as namechecking both Grey and fellow victim of police violence Michael Brown. The tone isn’t so much angry as defiant, and makes for a stirring start to the record.
He hasn’t forgotten about his favourite topic though – that’s sex, in case you were wondering. 2Y2D sounds like an out-take from Dirty Mind sees him leching over a girl with “knee high boots” who’s “old enough to do you, but too young to dare” while Xtraloveable is proper old-school Prince, with lines like “you’ve got a dozen sexy tricks that a dozen cities in the USA won’t even allow” (and I think we all know what the randy old sod is referring to here). There’s an argument to be had that Prince is probably at that age where he should just be happy with a nice cup of tea and an evening watching Strictly Come Dancing, but a Prince album without sex would be like eating fish and chips with no salt and vinegar.
Like its companion album, there’s a fair few nods to Prince’s musical history. Rock N Roll Love Affair swipes the central keyboard riff to Take Me With U, and you can probably guess what song he samples after the line “can I get a kiss” on Stare. The many blasts of horn and brass arrangements recall the Purple One’s golden age of Parade and Sign O’The Times (albeit with less strong songs) – indeed, Big City sounds at times like a direct throwback to that very era. The only problem is that hardcore Prince fans will have heard the majority of these songs before, and so are likely to feel a bit short-changed.
At least six tracks have been released in some form before, either as official singles, giveaways from Prince’s website or as Spotify or iTunes exclusives (ironically, as it’s being released exclusively on Tidal for the time being). So, as good as it can be, there’s the feeling of a barrel being scraped at times. Inevitably then, there’s a fair bit of filler such as Groovy Potential or the Prince-by-numbers of Screwdriver, but now and again he effortlessly demonstrates that that spark that’s driven him on for nearly 40 years is still burning bright – as can be heard when he lets rip on the epic, seven-minute long Black Muse, the party anthem Big City or the slow, sexy jam of Revelation, he sounds as relevant and exciting as ever. He’s still got it.