Prince: “Lotus Flow3r” and “MPLSOUND”

lotusflow3r

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Sign ‘O the Times and Purple Rain are Prince’s two finest, most fully-realized albums– a safe and easy proclamation to make, and one that the majority of critics– and, I suspect, Prince fans– would agree with. Both records are classics, of course, and both are landmarks in their own right; the former might capture the spirit and the mood of the 1980s as well as any pop album ever could, while the latter set the standard for pop-oriented movie soundtracks and crossover blockbusters. But more crucially, these two albums represent what I would consider to be the two opposing tendencies in Prince’s music; Sign ‘O the Times is a huge, sweeping album, characterized by its double-disc sprawl and epitomizing the eclectic, freewheeling ambitions, the sense of adventure and the inclination toward inspired overreach, that defined Prince in his glory days, while Purple Rain, somewhat ironically, was the album that made him a legend precisely because it clipped his more ambitious tendencies in favor of a tight, fat-free running order of nine top-shelf singles, pointing the way toward his trio of concise, craftman-like comeback albums in the 2000s.

Three well-received albums, a celebrated Super Bowl performance and a lucrative tour or two later, Prince can no longer be termed an artist in need of a comeback, which explains why he feels like he can get away with a move like releasing not one but two new albums in the same package, available only from his Web site or through an exclusive deal with Target. But lest one think this marks a return to sprawling, sweeping works like Sign ‘O the Times, make careful note that Lotus Flow3r and MPLSOUND are not a grand statement like that classic album was; these are clearly meant to be two separate entities, their release in the same package simply a commercial consideration, not an artistic one. But this isn’t a continuation of the workmanlike but creative groove represented by Musicology and 3121, either; rather than condensing Prince’s brilliance into a tight, hard-hitting package, each of these albums focuses on a particular facet of the Purple One’s sound, as though he’s trying to remind us of his myriad talents not by allowing them to mesh together, but compartmentalizing them into neat little boxes.

But alas: Where some artists might thrive on such self-imposed creative restraints, Prince is an artist whose free spirit needs to be allowed to follow its own path and go wherever it will. By boxing himself in with these two overly-conceptual releases, Prince has made two of the flattest, least interesting records of his career. You could take about half of Lotus Flow3r and a couple of highlights from MPLSOUND and you’d have a solid B-grade Prince album, but that’s about the best that can be said of this so-so material.

Perhaps the most hotly-anticipated album of the two, Lotus Flow3r is Prince’s long-promised guitar-rock album, the one where he shows us what a talented and perennially-underrated axeslinger he is. And he is, make no mistake, a great guitarist, though this album doesn’t make the case for it any better than Purple Rain or even Planet Earth did. It’s not really a guitar-rock album at all so much as a funk album, which works wonders on a couple of standout tracks– the weird, apocalyptic “Boom” and the hot licks of “Colonized Mind,” maybe the only track on either album that truly sound like a classic in the making– but there are just as many lightweight, throwaway moments. “Love Like Jazz” technically lives up to its title, but it’s not the kind of jazz you’re hoping it is– rather, it’s a smooth, elevator-ready ballad that sounds like it’s made with soft rock stations in mind. “The Morning After” is a grating, two-minute burst of cheesy synthesizers and redundant refrains, while “4Ever” is a corny pop ballad with a forced gospel motif.

It’s not just that the album fails in delivering on its promise of purple-hot guitar rock, or that the few flashes of brilliance only make its weaker moments that much more painful; it’s that Prince has lost his sense of adventure, his sense of danger. In the past, he mixed a daring sexual audacity with pointed social commentary and lofty spiritual aspirations; these days, he’s a pious Jehovah’s Witness, and his songs try to shoehorn his religious faith into tepid love songs. He makes sex sound boring and religion sound trite.

That problem carries over into MPLSOUND, too, which is rife with half-assed come-ons (“Another Like Me”), cheesy attempts at fusing his faith with his carnality (“Dance 4 Me”), and one flat-out embarrassing attempt at picking up, uh, Salma Hayek (“Valentina”). But what makes the album not just limp, but outright depressing is how feebly Prince tries to recapture his 80s glory; though the album is touted as his “experimental, electronic pop album,” there’s nothing experimental or edgy about it. If 3121 showed that he’s assimilated some modern production techniques into his sound, MPLSOUND ignored the past twenty years of stylistic trends and technological advances altogether, replicating the very same loops and beats and cheesy synths Prince used in the 1980s. The album sounds like it was made two decades ago, and not in a good way.

These two albums come packaged with a third– Elixer, written and produced by Prince but performed by Bria Valente– and I won’t get into this one, except to say that it’s a bland set of R&B songs and that Valente is merely a so-so singer. And that only serves to show how deep Prince’s rut is; not only is he having a hard time performing great music, but he’s even having a hard time recognizing great music. As he sings at the beginning of MPLSOUND, there will never be another one like him, and with a body of work as rich and diverse as his, an occasional misstep is more than forgivable. It’s sad to think, though, that no sooner does he accomplish his comeback than he suddenly finds himself needing one once again, as this weak batch of music needs to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

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