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Prince is back, as funky and contradictory as ever

We’re really not worthy. Or if we’re worthy, we’re barely so.

On Saturday, with no advance warning, Prince dropped his second album in six months.

“HITNRUN Phase Two” (NPG Records) followed September’s “Phase One” straight to Tidal, the Jay Z-authored streaming site said to be the most artist-friendly of the bunch. Now, you can stream or download the two-part album the way Prince and whatever deity you believe in intended – as a single entity comprising, much like the man himself, contradictory views on almost everything.

Prince hates technology; Prince loves technology. Prince is seeking something spiritual amidst a cultural landscape that is much more Kardashian than Krishna; Prince just wants to steal your girlfriend and teach her something about carnal revelry. Prince is a master of old school analog funk; Prince splashed auto-tune all over “HITNRUN Phase One.”

These philosophical dichotomies form  part of what makes Prince one of the most interesting artists of the past 35 years. The other part is his prodigious talent – as a musician capable of killing it on multiple instruments, as a songwriter, as a producer, as a bandleader, as a dancer, as a man who takes to the stage and does all of these things at once.  Critics and over-zealous fans might want to suggest that Drake, or Timberlake, or even Kendrick are the equivalent of Prince, but let’s face it, such arguments could be diffused immediately if one simply handed a guitar (or one of several other instruments) to Drake or Timberlake or Kendrick and asked them to play a solo like Prince. It ain’t happening.

Prince does have musical peers, though most of them are either deceased or older than he is – think Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Parliament Funkadelic – or have left pop behind altogether in favor of more jazz-inflected fusions. When it comes to music that might be considered mainstream R&B, Prince is on his own these days. At 57, he still has full possession of his agile singing voice, and he continues to dazzle as an instrumentalist. He also manages to sound contemporary, without expending much noticeable effort.

So “HITNRUN Phase Two” arrives without ceremony, which seems almost insulting, really, especially once you’ve spent some time with it, and realized that it’s made up of high-level Prince music. If an artist with his talent, pedigree and proven track record needs to pull a surprise attack as a way of generating the publicity that record labels used to consider it their job to generate, well, this somehow seems unjust. Shouldn’t a new release from one of our most significant artists be a bigger deal than, say, the absurd You Tube video for the new Psy single?

Whatever.

As he always has, Prince came to play, and he plays up a storm throughout “Phase Two,” flexing his songwriting muscle on tunes that run the gamut from psychedelic soul-pop to grinding funk, softly-lit and sexy R&B to horn-driven hot buttered soul.  It’s top-tier Prince fare – even relative throwaway pieces like “Screwdriver,” a salacious slab of pop-funk that would not have been out of place as a “Purple Rain”-era B-side, is still a more finely-crafted affair than the majority of tracks you’ll find at the top of Spotify’s hit-list.

The album begins with its only political/social criticism piece, in the form of “Baltimore,” a song that focuses on the riots in that city following the deaths of African Americans Freddie Gray and Michael Brown at the hands of police. Prince attempts to aim some sunlight toward this American tragedy, dressing “Baltimore” in trippy psychedelia and soothing tonal colors, but the “no justice, no peace” message still burns through.

“Baltimore” is gauzy and beautiful, which is remarkable, given the true horror behind its inspiration. But “Phase Two” hits its peak later on, with the one-two punch of “Black Muse” and “Revelation,” a combined 13 minutes of music that ranks amongst this prolific wunderkind’s finest. The former is a filthy funk workout that quotes both early Prince and prime period Earth Wind & Fire, but beneath its groove-based veneer is a paean to African American fortitude: “Black muse/We gonna’ make it through/Surely people that created rhythm and blues/Rock ‘n Roll and Jazz/You know we’re built to last/It’s cool,” Prince sings, female backing vocalists joining him in harmony. Three minutes in, the song evolves into a spacious jam with jazzy piano figures sprinkled around horn section stabs and the sort of sophisticated funk that Herbie Hancock was dealing with in the mid '70s.
“Revelation” is a slow-boiling ballad with a Philly Soul heart, bolstered by a bravura vocal performance and a classic Prince sexuality/spirituality double entendre at its center.

Together, these two pieces represent the sound of Prince leaving the competition a few miles behind, choking on his dust.

So is “Phase Two” as great of an album as, say, “Sign O’ the Times,” “Lovesexy” or “Purple Rain”? I might tell you yes, indeed it is, but how would you really know? Those earlier efforts came out during a time when albums meant something. Now, as great as it is, this two-part Prince masterpiece is just another teardrop in an ocean, a collection of sounds that will be given no more credence as a unified statement than will a Spotify playlist curated by Joe or Jane Everyman. And that’s nothing but a shame.

When it comes to music, democracy has its limits. Not everyone is equally talented or worthy of our time and attention. Prince is far more worthy than most. This is fact. Not speculation.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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