Review Summary: Second worst Prince album under any of his names, ever.
Any hopes that Prince would be able to rebound after finally leaving Warner Bros. and the good start that was "The Gold Experience" were lost amidst a new blitzcra
p in 1996 - "Girl 6", "Chaos and Disorder", and culminating in "Emancipation", a three-disc shi
tstorm only eclipsed in terms of controversy and foolishness by the four
-disc "Crystal Ball" in 1997, easily the worst Prince album released under any of his names.
"Emancipation" was essentially a disaster waiting to happen. And now, it's time to dissect and examine why.
The album overall
One reason I actually prefer Prince when he was "enslaved" to Warner Bros. was quality control. Sure, the label was probably very exploitative and didn't know how to deal with him, but one thing you could count on was that most of the times Warner could correctly tell Prince which of his songs were horrible and shouldn't be put out. He obviously grew an ego and by the time indie status beckoned, he possibly thought he could make a tape of himself vomiting and it would be regarded as sheer genius. Because of this there's a lot of songs where he whines and pouts and bitches like a spoiled kid with a "me-against-the-world" mentality.
As a result, the album is so full of filler and misguided ideas that it actually makes nowadays bubblegum pop albums look cohesive. It would've worked better as one CD after some severe slashing and hacking. "Emancipation" is devoted to the main purpose of convincing everyone of Prince's extreme talent. As a result the album is full of his trademark styles - rock, soul, pop, funk, jazz - and some other experiments (some worthwhile, some not). These are mostly spread out randomly across the three discs, making for jarring transitions and a maddenly inconsistent tone. Disc one seems to be mostly devoted to pop/rock, disc two balladry and disc three funk/hip-hop/dance/whatever.
After a strong start in the shape of Jam of the Year
(see "Choice Cuts" section), we almost expect some more ultra-funky groove-heavy songs. But sadly this proves not to be the case, as Prince instead dumps his interpretations of hip-hop ("White Mansion", "We Gets Up"), various incarnations of slow-jams ("Right Back Here In My Arms", "Somebody's Somebody") and slightly rock-infused pop. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if everything was as loose-limbed and great as "Jam of the Year", but... well, saying it isn't is a massive understatement.
Some of the other songs rely one high-pitched whiny synth arrangements that sound like relics from Dr. Dre
's G-Funk era. Right Back Here In My Arms
is the worst offender, with a repetitive, uninteresting hook and a flat vocal performance. Somebody's Somebody
manages to deploy the same technique more subtly in the context of a slow R&B ballad, and thus works better (even if the main hook isn't horribly imaginative).
Every once in a while, Prince elects to add a more upbeat track to alleviate the boredom of repeated midtempo songs. Get Yo Groove On
is probably the least effective of them all. The guitar and piano melodies alone might have worked, but the added strings make it sound like an outtake from the Rayman II
soundtrack. He also loses his discipline here, taking what would have been an okay 3-minute track and making it a 6-minute repeat-a-thon, complete with a failed "comedy" end. We Gets Up
begins with the sound of what seems to be a malfunctioning Atari, but improves quickly. It's actually one of the livelier tracks on display here, complete with a punchy James Brown
brass section and some detectable energy, performed with a loose, off-hand charm. White Mansion
is a quick fall. It's yet another ho-hum pop/rock track performed at a middling tempo, complete with grating subject matter - this is the first, but definitely not the last, time he's gonna whine, rant or make stupidly obvious metaphors about his David and Goliath fight with the music industry. Damned If I Do
is a rewrite of "Endorphinmachine" performed with cold professionalism and even less glimmers of energy. The main riff is melodic to the point of sentimentality, Prince sings in a distinctly MOR manner - no more of the insane screams and shouts that breathed some life into its predecessor. Mr. Happy
crosses a hip-hop rhythm with an Europoppish synth melody, and adds a misguided, cliched rap section (still haven't learned lessons from "My Name Is Prince"?).
For some reason, there are also some covers here. Now, this is one thing I find very pointless. I mean, this is a 3-CD album. Why include covers? And why choose them as singles? I blame delusions of grandeur. Betcha By Golly Wow!
, a Stylistics
hit, is turned here into background muzak for the Hallmark channel, complete with castrated drum machine, plodding piano melodies and lachrymose string arrangement. There is no edge in this song at all which would set it apart from the huge mush of stereotypical ballads and make it compelling. I Can't Make You Love Me
) is wussified to Phil Collins
-levels: slower-than-a-snail tempo, proeminent use of snapping, sax licks, boring piano playing, tinkling background synths and a reuse of the sitar from "Somebody", to way less than average results.
The less said about Courtin' Time
, the better. I don't have anything much to say about In This Bed I Scream
, either, apart from the fact that it's thoroughly mediocre and average: you'll actually forget what it sounds likes as it's playing.
Easily the worst disc, thanks to its excess of ballads and their generally unimaginative nature, resulting in one huge mostly mediocre mush with few standouts.
One Kiss At A Time
is your typical offender: slow tempo, soft drumming, stock chord progressions, falsetto vocals, vanilla lyrics and some quirky Prince touches. Of course by "quirky Prince touches" I mean here spacey synth and an annoyingly repetitive sound effect. Dreaming About You
does segue from the highlight of "Curious Child", but it represents a step back for quality. The main guitar riff is good, but the song loses its potential power thanks to its weepy, cheesy string arrangement and the soft-jazz sax solo. Strip this song to guitar and Prince's desperate, emotional vocals (sans the incoherent spoken word rambling) and it would work. In its current incarnation, it's just mediocre but with potential. The Holy River
's piano and acoustic guitar hook-based balladry works with reduced expectations, but it's not much once you remember this is Prince
: all instruments and the mechanic drum machine programming melt into one huge plate of pabulum. It's nothing new, and if it's ordinary it isn't even saved by the performance. How this was made a single is beyond me. Let's Have a Baby
's lyrics are creepy enough even in this post-Natasha Bedingfield
world, but they're married to a perfunctory lounge-jazz arrangement. Essentially a rehash of "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore" without the latter's devastating, cathartic honesty and originality. Saviour
is a revision of "I Hate You", complete with lifeless melodies and overblown arrangement complete with horn section. The lyrics are the kind of things anyone would say to a woman to get some ass - they're imbalanced and exaggerated, lacking even the latter song's "WTF?" factor. Then there's Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife
- no, this is not a song dealing with who Prince would like to fu
ck. It's yet more puppy-love praise for his new girlfriend. Argh, I swear, Queen
made this stuff better with "You're My Best Friend". Not to mention the dreary, slow and incredibly tame arrangement - relying on ethereal keyboards, phased Rhodes and wah guitar, all totally neutered. By the end of this 7-minute chunk of corn, you'll wish eternal torment upon him.
But there are
a few non-ballads. Sex In The Summer
is slightly saccharine bubblegum melodies placed over a tired hip hop beat, plus some routine funk guitar solos. And the melodies don't even rise to the level of "memorable", let alone "guilty pleasure". Joint To Joint
is less overtly saccharine than "Sex", but its hip hop beat sounds quite dated and the main hook is vapid. Doesn't sound bad enough? Consider this: it's 8 mother***ing minutes
, it boasts some groan-inducing sophomoric sex talk (including screwing in a washing machine, or something), amateurish scratching, and some tap dancing
(!!!) that is pretty much the funniest thing ever put on a Prince album, in a Plan 9
kind of way. Emale
is cringe-inducing, relying a jumpy G-Funk-apring arrangement and absolutely ridiculous lyrics (he actually rhymes "computer screen" with "sex machine" at one point. Unconvincingly), and should not be experienced even as a form of torture.
There are three surprises. Soul Sanctuary
has a Caribbean touch in its melodies and percussion. This spin allows what would've otherwise been your by-the-numbers Prince ballad into something that sounds relatively fresh and gracious. Well, okay, the "soul/sole sanctuary" wordplay takes a bit of effort to twist and make it work; he seems content to simply toss it lazily as if it were the Poetic Wordplay Discovery of the Century. Curious Child
is a pleasing, minimal, well-orchestrated ballad with a great melody. Not even the confusing opening lyrics ("In a room full of harlots and fantasies/Destiny beckons there"?) dent its overall enjoyability. The Plan
is a charming ambient interlude that gives us a respite from the barrage of b(l)a(n)dness - a Brian Eno
-esque arrangement mostly reliant on synth and piano that not even a sax solo can ruin.
Okay, after the coma of CD2, are you ready for some action? This is easily the most schizophrenic disc, mostly devoted to funk/hip-hop/anything rhythmic. Sadly most of these end up sounding rote and uninspired. There are three modes: funk, hip-hop and others.
is a strong opener: minimal, monotone "Tambourine"-style funk. The main beat grinds like nothing else on this disk and the looped bass groove is tight. As a bonus there is some delicious percussion and scatting work. This would've made a great bump 'n grind sex anthem. Sadly Prince whines and bitches here in the most obnoxious manner possible. Refrain: "Everybody keeps trying to break my heart/Everybody except for me/I just want a chance to play the part/Of someone truly free". I dare you to listen to this song and not find yourself shouting at the screen, "Prince, shut the FU
CK up!". Simultaneously a highlight and a song in dire need of remixing. Style
for the first time harnesses the sax and manages to make it sound funky... but barely. The synth bass riff is halfway decent and the drum programming is once again lazy and unimaginative. What a wasted opportunity. Its successor, Sleep Around
is better. A rehash of "Partyman" at its core with a fast-paced slightly disco arrangement, its hooks are immediately catchy. The horn section gets to perform some nice licks. Okay, the string section is a superfluous, but this song is actually buoyant and infectious, so I won't argue. And it even sustains energy for 8 minutes. A perfectly seized opportunity.
Apart from funk, Prince also takes the opportunity to jump into hip-hop. Face Down
has "bad" written all over it: a trite beat, pedestrian hook and yet more obnoxious spoiled-child lyrics ("Somebody once told him that he wouldn't take Prince through the ringer/Let him go down as a washed up singer/Ain't that a bitch?"; "What you need to do is keep your place/Next time you pull a card, it better be a ace mother***er") rapped in a very clumsy, amateurish way. Oh, and a very aggravating "dead like Elvis" repeated throughout. What joy. Da Da Da
is not a cover of The Police
, but a gloomy hip-hop track with an eerie church bell hook (that somehow works) and socially conscious lyrics about the plight of the unemployed young black men. Thankfully Prince elects to leave a more experienced rapper to the task and preoccupies himself with the production, delivering a gritty beat and a great instrumental breakdown/drum solo. A real highlight.
There are weird experiments littered all over this disc. New World
is a case in point: thanks to its frantic synth bass melodies, synth stabs and techno drum machine, it sounds (I shi
t you not) like an outtake from the Sonic the Hedgehog
soundtrack. Still, it's kind of fun, and that's a relief from all the humourlessness plaguing the entire "Emancipation" album. The Human Body
is a foray into house music. Yes, you've read that correctly, the Purple One actually attempts to make house. The vocal loop at first may be an odd attempt to mimic Daft Punk
, but it quickly grows tiresome. Prince's vocals don't mix at all with the track's overall mood, resulting in a failed experiment that probably shouldn't have been tried in the first place: a house song without groove, fun or
catchiness. My Computer
is a rewrite of "Emale" that's a million times worse, with some pretentious arrangement wankery (strings, lots of keyboards), even sampling from the AOL opening screen and somehow getting Kate Bush
know better) for background vocals. Ostensibly a song about internet dating, but with one small problem: Prince can't fu
cking surf the net. Exhibit A: "I scan my computer looking for a site/Somebody to talk to, funny and bright/I scan my computer looking for a site/Make believe it's a better world, a better life". Er, yeah. How does this bastard run his own site again?. The Love We Make
opens in a low-key manner and is actually appealing despite its recycling of dreary descending chord progressions for the verse. Of course, then Reverend Prince, Ph.D. starts spouting some garbled religious nonsense ("To whip the dogs that beg, steal or borrow/From the table God set for His Son"; "Precious is the baby with a mother/That tells him that his Saviour is coming soon"). And then it turns into yet another boring midtempo ballad, only this time complete with religious bullshi
t from a guy who can't grasp the benefits of subtlety over preaching. Lord help us all.
Of course, this being Emancipation
, no album is complete without the obligatory misguided cover. Prince thankfully decided to provide us with two for the price of one. La, La, La Means I Love You
) has... yes, you guessed it! More weepy string arrangements! Trite lyrics delivered in a falsetto! Spacey keyboard noodling! Kenny G-styled sax solo! James Blunt
would be proud. And frankly, the original came across as kind of sincere and endearing. One of Us
, never one of the best songs in the world, is butchered into a mundane soft-rock track with a pretentious intro, neutered limp guitars and a very horrible, strained delivery of the chorus (at times coming close to Chad Kroeger).
The album closes with Emancipation
, the last funk track here, and it lives up to its name. Relying on funky bass riffage interplayed with clavinet, it turns into a giddy, almost gospel-ish celebration of newfound freedom. It's disheartening to think that more of the album couldn't be like this.
"Emancipation" was a success commercially (2xPlatinum and #11 on the Billboard charts), but I'd say it ruined Prince's career. His newfound independence allowed him to run wild and feed his rampant ego, issuing yet another multi-disc catastrophe ("Crystal Ball") and many other albums where he merely recycled himself, lacking the spark, inspiration, or even the fierce performing skills that had shot him to the top. As it stands before us, "Emancipation" is the beginning of the Prince Recycling Factory. Most of the songs here are either perfunctory rehashes of past glories or misguided experiments attempting to keep him "relevant" or fool people into thinking he's still "original". As such, it can possess a gruesome quality: seeing the exact historical moment when one major, innovative artist brazenly ignored every opportunity to right his course, and plunged straight into the abyss. I for one am thankful that he's re-emerged since. Perhaps he needed to hit rock bottom before he could finally get fired up enough to create great albums again. We may never know.
(don't sue me, please, Robert)
Jam of the Year
- an excellent lounge-funk concoction with a catchy central riff, falsetto vocals and a subtle, headphone-friendly arrangement. Plus heavy doses of instrumentally-proeficient jamming.
- not exactly great, but better than most filler on CD1. A simple, honest R&B/slow-jam/late-night thing with nice use of sitar, dull hook aside.
We Gets Up
- a delightfully funky James Brown-esque song.
- cool Caribbean midtempo song.
- cinematically orchestrated, sympathetic ballad.
- Brian Eno
in the Music for Films
era, filtered through Prince's vision.
- ignore the lyrics and there's a minimal masterpiece here. Simultaneously in the Reassembly section for that reason.
- the novelty value of hearing Prince contribute to the Sonic the Hedgehog
- slightly disco-ish minor gem.
Da Da Da
- social conscience over a Prince interpretation of Wu Tang Clan
- this is what Emancipation
should've been: a happy, thoroughly funky celebration of freedom. Not lashing out at everybody like Eminem
(the worst stuff)
- ever since "Honey Pie" and "When I'm Sixty Four", anything with a swing rhythm and the vaguest ragtime/oldies/1950s/big band influence has made me vomit. All that bullshi
t aside though, this is a very bad filler track. From the trite horn arrangement, sleepwalker riffs and the saccharine, inane vocal arrangement - it sounds like a game show theme song on acid... sadly not in the good sense. The humour falls flat and the track isn't fun at all.
- lame Dr. Dre-aping hip hop track where just about everything is done poorly, plus very embarassing and completely laughable computer-obsessed lyrics (refrain: "www.emale.com"). It would make a perfect Weird Al Yankovic
track if it weren't already a self-parody.
- more embarassing computer-obsession, even going as far as to sample from the AOL Messenger. And somehow Kate Bush
got roped in here apparently.
Joint To Joint
- a sleep-inducing 8-minute assembly-line hip-hop/R&B with a must-be-heard-for-lulz tap dancing part in the middle.
Let's Have A Baby
- pointless rehash of "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore" with fu
cking creepy lyrics.
One of Us
- okay, I didn't like the original much, but this pointless reimagination is more annoying.
The Human Body
- Prince attempts house music. Thousands sue for experiencing ear rape.
Dreaming About You