Almost thirty years ago, Prince released an album called Controversy; the album was split between tough-talking protest songs and lascivious sex songs, and the title of the record has served the Purple One well ever since. But if Prince once courted controversy through his actual music, his rabble-rousing and hell-raising in 2010 is strictly in the province of his extra-musical stances and his stodgy refusal to play by the typical record label political games. In other words, people aren’t making a fuss about the content of his music anymore, just the context, something that’s perhaps never been truer than it is with 20ten— an album that arrives just days after Prince announced the Internet to be a passing fad, and is available neither in digital form nor via conventional distribution methods, coming only as a freebie nestled inside copies of various European newspapers and music rags. (Those who prefer to get their music on iTunes– or who live in the United States– are out of luck, at least for now.)
And if you think Prince is becoming something of a curmudgeon, what with his Luddite griping about technology and his stubborn refusal to play by the now-accepted rules of the game, well, just wait. The new album is called 20ten, and if the title is meant to suggest that this is how Prince views life and music in this infant decade, he’s even more out of touch than any of us could have believed. Never before has Prince sounded so stuck in the past, not only because the music here never varies from the strengths of his most famous work, but because the very sound of the album sounds like it was designed to emulate the production techniques of mid-80s Prince classics. But even on those albums, Prince often had a dynamite band like the Revolution to back him up, which means that those albums still sound fresh and full even though they may also sound a bit dated; 20ten, with its heavy reliance on synthesizers and programming, sounds like it’s basically all Prince, and he’s never sounded stodgier.
It is, admittedly, a stronger work than last year’s LotusFlow3r/MPLSound twofer, if only because it’s a concise ten songs rather than a sprawling, conceptually rigid experiment. In that sense, 20ten is something of a companion to lean, classicist Prince albums like Musicology and 3121, but where those albums impressed due to the artist’s still-sharp sense of craft, 20ten sounds like the work of a Prince who is just going through the motions, lacking anything resembling real inspiration. That’s not to say that his sense of craft has left him, something that’s made evident by finely-layered slow jams like “Beginning Endlessly” and “Future Soul Song”– which are, compositionally, some of the sturdiest Prince constructions of the last ten years or so. But where that sense of craft was once vital and thriving, here it simply sounds mechanical.
Actually, what it sounds like is precisely what it is– the work of a 52 year-old Jehovah’s Witness who just can’t live on the edge the way he used to. That certainly extends to the music here, which is at times painfully dated. The opening funk/rock song, “Compassion,” might have been a classic Prince party-starter were it not for the tinny beat and processed horns that keep the music from ever really popping the way it should. “Walk in Sand” is a falsetto ballad in the grand Prince tradition, only instead of sounding sexy, it sounds like adult contemporary schmaltz, closer to easy listening than to R&B. And “Sticky Like Glue,” with another awkwardly dull drum beat and the most embarrassingly cliched synthesizers to be heard anywhere in 2010– along with an ill-advised B-boy rap break– would have made for a fine 1980s sitcom theme, but here it only makes the once-funky one sound like he’s woefully out of touch.
But if his inspiration as a record-maker is running low, his songwriting potency must be totally empty. There was a time when Prince wrote wonderfully edgy songs that balanced the sacred and the profane, the solemn and the frivolous; here, his sex songs don’t come any hotter than tunes about kissing in the back row of the movies and going for a walk, hand-in-hand, on the beach. His religious imagery is largely absent here, save for one song that likens social activism to an “Act of God,” and as for politics, he peppers the album with vague, dumb asides about “greedy fat bankers” that don’t really sound indignant, simply duty-bound. He also has some choice words for George Bush regarding the decision to go to war with Iraq. In 2010!
I suppose he means us to take 20ten as an ironic title– as though nothing’s really changed since then, that this is the same old Prince we all grew up with. But the greater irony is that something has changed– that for as hard as the album tries to emulate the sound of classic Prince records, it ultimately fails to match even strong latter-day albums like 3121, instead sounding like the work of a man who’s out of ideas, out of passion, lost his edge. That’s not the same Prince, the one who, once upon a time, might have matched his bold marketing strategy with an equally bold piece of music. This is a Prince who’s stuck in the past, and as such it’s hard to imagine this record lingering any longer than this morning’s headlines.