Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: Prince's 20Ten

Another year, another Prince album. Just as we were starting to wonder if the Purple One was going to be releasing anything this year came the announcement of a new disc. As you may be aware, Prince is not releasing the album to iTunes or any other legitimate download service. And to date, there is not an official US release. The talk around the campfire is that former label and long-time foe Warner Bros. will distribute the album in the US, but there has been no official release date announced at this point.

Prince has however begun to release the album in Europe by slipping the disc into a number of print publications. Because the Internet is dead, obviously. Predictably, the album leaked online within hours of discs getting into the hands of fans overseas.

I have to admit, I wasn't all that amped for this album. Usually (to a fault, even), I get pretty psyched for new Prince discs. Maybe there just wasn't enough time between the announcement and release for anticipation to build. Maybe I was just a little nervous about how the new disc would sound. Maybe it was a little bit of both.

Pressing "play," I entered the album with low expectations. Those expectations were met, and perhaps even exceeded - but just barely.

As I've said many times, I don't expect Prince to do anything particularly new or innovative at this point in his career. The well is dry. The most that we can expect is competent and pleasurable albums, a la 2004's Musicology or last year's Lotusflow3r/MPLSound. Occasionally, we'll get a flash of brilliance (2006's "Black Sweat," for example). But the fact of the matter is that Prince is well past his creative peak. I think that's to be expected. For us to expect another groundbreaking album from the man is expecting too much.

So what's the score on 20Ten? It's been hyped as a return to Prince's sparse, synth-driven funk of the 1999 era. However, you can't just fire up the Linn LM-1 and call it "classic Prince." If this self-referential retro style is what Prince was going for here, he achieved it more effectively with MPLSound.

Some tracks do pull it off, however. The start-stop progression of "Sticky Like Glue" may be the most successful example. It actually reminds me of a specific Prince song, though I'm having trouble placing it. "Wonderful Ass," perhaps (though it is nowhere near as funky nor interesting as "Wonderful Ass"). Prince's faux-rap bridge is a little cringe-worthy though. "Lavaux" is another that somewhat successfully appropriates the aesthetic qualities of Prince's most successful 1980s material. It pales in comparison of course, largely due to the fact that the lyrics leave much to be desired.

Another track that's been getting some attention is "Future Soul Song." If the totally uncreative title didn't give it away, this is Prince in his baby-makin' mode, and it has rarely sounded more contrived. The chorus just seems forced: "This is a future soul song." It also reminds me of Planet Earth's "Future Baby Mama," which I'm not a fan of at all. The album's other ballads, "Walking in the Sand" and "Sea of Everything" are equally uninspired. Maybe part of the problem is that this is such well trodden territory for Prince. Some of the greatest R&B ballads of all time came from his pen - "Purple Rain," "The Beautiful Ones," "Nothing Compares 2 U," "Adore," "When 2 R In Love," "Do Me Baby," et. al. Perhaps he's exhausted the idiom, and the best that he can do are these sound-alikes that never quite get us to where we want to go (the bedroom?).

The album's official closer, "Everybody Loves Me" sounds like a joke. Maybe it is. It's so incredibly juvenile that I would give it a pass were it written for Happy Feet 2. It's jumpy pop groove is also not a far cry from 2009's "No More Candy for U," which closed out MPLSound.

Notice that I referred to "Everybody Loves Me" as the album's official closer. There is a hidden track (#77). I'm reminded of 1998's New Power Soul. Like that album, Prince has once again buried the disc's most interesting piece. "Laydown" is a dark, mid-tempo groove laden with synth flourishes and a female vocal brings to mind the sample in Jay-Z's "Lucifer." Despite the facepalm inducing lyric in which Prince refers to himself as "the Purple Yoda," it's a solid groove that has Prince putting his spin on contemporary sounds (it sounds very much in the vein of a number of club/hip hop tracks from recent years). This would probably be the cut that I would cherry pick from 20Ten.

In sum, the album isn't doing anything that Prince (or others) haven't already done. The bulk of the songs are good enough, but after a handful of listens, nothing on the disc is particularly compelling lyrically, musically or emotionally. One of the reasons it took me so long to write my review is that after giving it a spin on Saturday, I wasn't compelled to give it another listen. Not because it's bad, but because it's chock full of mediocrity. This is only underscored by the fact that 2010 is the best year for music in recent history. I was much more interested in repeatedly listening to new offerings from The Roots and M.I.A. than Jamie Starr.

For much of his career, Prince was releasing an album a year. The exceptions are 1983 (whilst Prince was occupied with the Purple Rain album and film), 1997, 2005 and 2008. Indeed, some years saw multiple releases. I can't help but wonder if Prince continues this annual release schedule to maintain his status as a prolific artist. I think Prince would do well to cut back to say biannual releases in the hopes that this would lead to higher quality product. With a lot of Prince's work in the last decade (and even a bit beyond that) I sometimes think that you can cull one great album from two that he released. I stand by my claim that last year's double disc would have made one great album. Same goes for 2004's Musicology and 2006's 3121 (though I enjoy both). Planet Earth remains a lost cause.

But the fact of the matter is that I don't direct Prince's business decisions, nor those guiding his career. I'll continue to buy his product, and catch him live when I have the chance. In the end, 20Ten is not a bad album, just one that as a unit, is thoroughly underwhelming.

On a standard grading scale, I'd give it a light C that teeters on the brink of a C-.

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