What with the whole 'slaVe' fiasco, his decision to change his name to an unpronouncable symbol, and his withdrawal into media obscurity, Prince came to be a pretty big joke in the late 90s. Pretty much every one of his fans was in on the notion that he was simply making crappy records to piss off his label - everyone else just thought he was an artist far past his prime.
Yet, as both worldwide smash "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" and 2003's welcome return, Musicology
, showed, while he may have lost his way, he never truly lost his talent. [i]Musicology[/]'s release stopped Prince from being a joke, and turned into another of the major stars who made a return to critical acclaim in the '00s (Springsteen, Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, The Rolling Stones et al). Now, it would seem, is the time for the man born Prince Rogers Nelson to capitalise, and prove Musicology
was no fluke.
, then. Undoubtedly much will be made of the meaning of the enigmatic numbers, something Prince seemed to encourage with his performance at the NAACP awards when he turned his back to the crowd to reveal the numbers stitched into his jacket. Apparently, it's the address of the apartment he currently lives in, but the implicit meaning is actually far more obvious. Remember, 3121
is not the first Prince album to be named with a 4-digit number. Upfront, Prince is letting us know that this record is a return to the funky, hedonistic days of 1999
It's an inspired move. Although his best album, Sign O' The Times
, has a reputation as a socially conscious album, do we really want that sort of thing from Prince nowadays? Let's face it; whenever an elder statesman of rock turns to social commentary late in their careers, it almost always feels like preachy, irrelevant nonsense. There's a good reason for neither "S.S.T." nor "Brand New Orleans" being present here. Bruce Springsteen just about managed to avoid that trap with The Rising
, but elsewhere, the landscape is littered with examples of artists who failed miserably to ignite the imagination and spirit the way they did 20 or 25 years previous. And between you and me, I have absolutely no faith in Prince making a good political record right now.
So this is Prince playing very much to his strengths, which, in case you hadn't figured it out, are James Brown inspired party anthems about sex and love (but mostly sex). And that can only be a good thing - there's a real absence of credible party music around right now. Clubs are resorting to playing bands like The Kaiser Chiefs in order to pull in the music lovers. So there's most definitely a hole that Prince is tailor-made to fill. And with lyrics like 'I'm hot and I don't care who knows it, I got a job to do', you know he's bringing his A game to fill it.
Evidence that with "Black Sweat". Just how good does this song sound amongst everything else on the radio right now? And not just because it's probably the best Prince song since "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" (which it probably is), but because it straddles the line between commercial accessability and artistic credibility in a way nothing else in the charts does right now. Minimalist in the extreme - an irresistible stop-start breakbeat, Prince's vocals, a bubbling, sparse, barely-there bassline, and a theremin-esque melodic counterpoint form pretty much the whole song - but genius in its simplicity, it sounds both fresh as hell and utterly vintage. Which is, of course, very
Prince. Although it arguably displays a slight influence from The Neptunes (themselves massively influenced by Prince), nobody else could have made this record.
The rest of 3121
doesn't quite scale the same heights that this mighty tune does, but it follows suit, and comes close. "Incense & Candles" is a slow, sultry come-on replete with the vocoder, vocal harmonies, and boy-girl trade-offs that made the best of mid-90s R&B so sexy. "Love" kicks off with a four-to-the-floor house beat and slinky electronics before becoming the kind of melodic synth-driven pop he's renowned for. "Te Amo Corazon" introduces Hispanic elements into a mix, with cocktail piano and elegant orchestration holding the song together. "Satisfied" is pretty much pure gospel - check the organ! - but comes across as another song about sex ('Baby, can't you see, I just wanna get you satisfied....'), despite Prince's protestations to the contrary ('I ain't talking 'bout nothin' physical'). In truth, it's arguably "Satisfied" that comes closest to topping "Black Sweat". "The Word" puts up a bloody good fight, though - it's the obligatory track that lets Prince show off just what a almighty guitarist he is, and is cool as hell with it.
Odd then, that with so many songs vying to be highlights, 3121
works arguably just as well as a mood piece, a complete work. The mood is perhaps a little hard to pin down (sort of laid-back, sultry, cool, jazzy, and summery), but it's there, for sure. Which makes 3121
a rare thing - an album about partying and having fun that sounds great listened to on headphones when you're relaxing. Lord knows, in an era where so much of popular music is dominated by negativity, we need more albums like this.
Being honest, 3121
is unlikely to be seen as a high-point of Prince's career, although I, for one, certainly feel it should be. The problem is that it's not quite a latter-day renaissance in the same way an album like Kate Bush's Aerial
or Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind
is, but fear not - it's more than good enough to suggest something like that is on the cards for Prince in the near future, and more than enough to prove that there's a lot of life left in this particular genius. Ultimately, this is the best album The Artist Formerly Known As Squiggle could possibly have hoped to make in 2006.
Within The Genre - 4.5/5
Outside The Genre - 3.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
Beautiful, Loved, & Blessed