Prince has not released great music for a long time.
However, he has found new and inventive ways to get his music to fans, mostly by forgoing the traditional major record label route. Tons of his work has been internet exclusive, while albums like 2004’s Musicology was distributed only with concert tickets. His 2007 album Planet Earth was given away free in England in the Daily Mail, while his 2009 album LotusFlow3r was an exclusive with Target stores. Experiments in distribution continued when his 2010 album, 20Ten, wasn’t even released in the States, and was also given away as a magazine exclusive in Europe. Almost none of those albums could be considered hits, and none spawned any big singles.
Now the Purple Paisley One has aligned himself with Jay Z’s new music subscription service Tidal as an exclusive for his latest album, HITnRUN Phase One (we’ll see how long this association lasts, or how long Tidal lasts for that matter). The eleven tracks which make up the album have Prince collaborating with a variety of other musicians, including Judith Hill, Rita Ora, the duo known as Curly Fryz, and Lianne La Havas. But his most important collaboration on this album is with Joshua Welton, who brings to the table a fresh energy that has been missing from most of Prince’s albums for a really long time.
The opening track, ‘Million $ Show’, starts with samples from ‘1999’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, and at first I’m not sure if it’s smart for Prince to open this track (and this album) with a song that samples the opening of two of his most iconic hits, because on the one hand it reminds everyone how great you are, but on the other hand, it sets expectations really high. But for the most part, the next three songs, ‘Shut This Down’, ‘Ain’t About to Stop’ and ‘Like a Mack’, are party jams in classic Prince ‘Housequake’ fashion, and all doubts about Prince’s abilities to compete with his own legacy vanish. With these four opening tracks, we see Prince embracing modern dance music in a big way, and he hasn’t flirted this much with EDM in a long, long time, almost as far back as his 1992 “Love Symbol” album, (or O-+> for which he eventually named himself) back when it was still called “techno music”.
The fifth track, ‘This Could Be Us’, is actually a reworking of a song he did for his last album Art Official Age, but together with Joshua Welton, he obviously felt it could be improved upon, and I agree. I personally like this version better, but I have a feeling many will disagree with me. ‘FallinLove2Nite’ is a fluffy disco throwback tune, and kind of get lost among the better tracks, but it’s good enough. The next track, ‘X’s Face’, is more memorable, and down’n dirty in the best Prince tradition (even if he still refrains from cussing.) But it’s track eight, ‘HardRockLover’ that’s the true standout on the album, where Prince reminds us that he’s the world’s greatest lover and one of the best guitar players in history, with lyrics like “’bout to cover your ears, ’cause I’m about to make this woman scream” before wailing on his guitar in truly epic fashion. This song is like “everything you need to know about Prince” in a nutshell.
The last three tracks, ‘Mr. Nelson’ (no doubt a reference to himself, as Prince Rogers Nelson is his full name) ‘1000 X’s & 0’s’ and ‘June’ end the album on a somewhat lesser note. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they feel very “been there/done that”-style Prince, which is still better than most artists. For an album that starts off with so much energy, it’s kind of a bummer that it just sort of peters out. But the overall effect isn’t enough to ruin what’s so good about HITnRUN.
HITnRUN Phase One feels like a shot in the arm for Prince, who has been in, pardon the expression, kind of a funk over the past decade, musically speaking. Of course He’s still amazing, especially live, but while his albums have been technically proficient, he seemed to stop innovating musically. Everything sounded like a Sly and the Family Stone, 1970s funk cover band almost. It’s as if he just wanted to emulate the music of his youth, and stop pushing forward, which is totally fine after you’ve spent much of your career innovating, but when you’re as talented as Prince is, it’s also kind of disappointing.
This is why I’d hoped for a long time that Prince would take a lesson from his contemporary in 80’s pop royalty (and ex girlfriend) Madonna. Prince has more inate musical talent in his pinky finger than Madonna does in her whole body, (not a slam on Madonna, Prince is more talented than almost everyone) but Madge has always been open to collaborating with newer, younger artists and producers, which has kept her sound fresh for much longer than Prince’s has. With HITnRUN Phase One, collaborating with newer talents is exactly what Prince has done, and this longtime fan couldn’t be happier with the end results.
Is HITnRUN another work of genius like 1999, Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times? Well, no. But I think we all need to stop expecting that. You’re lucky if you get one truly work of genius album in your lifetime as an artist, and Prince has had at least three. This album doesn’t have much to say, aside from “I’m Prince, I’m a sexy MF, the original badass sexy MF as a matter of fact, and don’t you forget it.” And that’s OK. While HITnRUN Phase One isn’t going to change the world, at the end of the day it is worth more than a few plays, and several tracks are even worth a spot of your “Best of Prince” playlist, next to ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Cream’. And there’s really no higher praise than that. Bring on ‘Phase Two‘, Mr. Nelson.
Prince’s HITnRUN Phase One can be found exclusively on Tidal
Rating: 3.5 Burritos