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Friday, March 17

"On Fridays, We Listen 2 Prince. We Gettin' Purple & Paisley, Y'all."

U can listen 2 a different Prince project every week for a year.  Taking it backwards chronologically (for the most part), we're still on 2004 with two albums you may never have heard of: The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse.  Both were subtitled as volumes of "Trax from the NPG Music Club."

First things first, neither of these have ever been pressed to disc, vinyl, or cassette.  Anybody selling a copy of them is selling you an unsanctioned bootleg.  DO NOT pay for these until they are being sold through a reliable seller.  Currently, the only way to listen to them all legally is through the TIDAL app/site.

These two albums are perhaps most interesting for what they represented in Prince's career:  a goodbye to the hypersexual, foul-mouthed Prince of yore.  Lyrically, they would be among Prince's last ultra-forward seduction songs.  The period that these twenty songs were recorded during, late '90's to 2003, was a quagmire for Prince.  And I mean that in the Dubbya sense of the word.  There was so much going on that it was a confusing period of time to explain in a digestible fashion.  Here are the highlights.

"When Eye Lay My Hands On U" live

Larry Graham exposed Prince to the Jehovah's Witness take on God and his law.  This perspective of the word had such an impact on him that Prince became a Jehovah's Witness himself, and went door to door sharing the good news.  Prince's new spirituality was now at odds with his old mentality.  It should be noted that he has almost always had a spiritual component to his writing, it just now became the filter for how he created his metaphors and how tongue-in-cheek or explicit he went from then on.  Some songs were even reworked for the live show, "Sexuality" became "Spirituality" when performed at 3121 shows in Vegas.

Early in 2000, the album Peace by the NPG (though in reality, Prince) was briefly talked about.  The three known tracks from that project (though not necessarily on the final tracklist), "Peace," "2045: Radical Man," and "Northside," all ended up on The Slaughterhouse.  "Peace" and "2045: Radical Man" were pressed as a single sold exclusively at shows in 2001.

In May of 2000, Prince got his name back.  No longer would the media be able to trivialize him for the O(+> glyph, some even referring to him simply as "Squiggle".

Later that same year, he was planning to release an album entitled High, his first under the reclaimed name of Prince.  Whether the project wasn't as finished as he led the world to believe or it was abandoned in favor of working on The Rainbow Children and his new religious perspective or even some other factor, there has not been an official reason on why it was shelved.  Of the ten tracks scheduled for High, seven ended up on The Chocolate Invasion (six initially, "My Medallion" joined the revised tracklist on the TIDAL platform) and two were used on The Slaughterhouse.  High was an odd project in the way it seemed to fall apart.  Every track from that album has since been released in different ways.  In 2001, the only High track not to make it onto one of these albums, a cover of The Staple Singers' song "When Will We B Paid?", was released commercially as the b-side to "U Make My Sun Shine."

"When Will We B Paid?"

He had also been experimenting with selling music on the internet for years, beating everyone to the punch - even iTunes.  In January of 2001, the NPG Music Club (his fifth such site) opened it's virtual doors and gave subscribers access to a wealth unreleased studio and live songs and videos.  All of these songs, as you might guess from the album subtitles, were released through the NPG Music Club in some fashion before being compiled into these two records (which is why the business of 2000 matters so much to a release from four years later).

Prince remarried.  His charitable giving, which has always been there, was no longer advertised - partly due to his new found religion, but partly because he just wanted that anonymity.

Prince had fallen into a trap of announcing albums that never came out.  A lot.  In all from 1996 - 2003, at least 17 projects were announced or talked about publicly only to never see the light of day.  Of these, only 2001's A Celebration made sense in why it was abandoned [cliff's notes version: it was an album of rerecorded songs from the early days.  Learning this, the Brothers Warner beat him to the punch with the one greatest hits compilation you should avoid, The Very Best Of Prince.  Prince cancelled his planned summer/fall tour and shelved the album just to make sure he wasn't even remotely seen as promoting the 2001 WB release.]

The Chocolate Invasion: 
Trax from the NPG Music Club Volume One
NOTE: I have the original NPGMC version, that is the configuration i will be talking about.

The Chocolate Invasion is a solid and coherent R&B album, infusing elements of many other related genres in that effortless Prince way.  Far less commercially accessible than Musicology, it was originally the centerpiece of a 7 album collection slated for release in late 2003.  The official story was that an issue arose with the manufacturing of the set, causing it to be put on hold indefinitely.  Six of the seven discs received a release in some fashion (mostly digital): The Chocolate Invasion, The Slaughterhouse, the live C-NOTE, One Night Alone..., the instrumental Xpectation, and The War (originally released as a download in 1998).

"When Eye Lay My Hands On U", and an excerpt from the music video stub

"When Eye Lay My Hands On U" starts the album.  It begins slowly and intimately building to a climax where Prince channels Santana on the ending guitar solo.   His impression was so spot on that for some time many believed that it was indeed Carlos playing Europa (his guitar).  Around this time, Prince had been incorporating a medley of Santana songs ("Another Star," "Jungle Strut," "Batuka," Soul Sacrifice," and "Toussaint L'Overture," and generally in that order).  The sound of the song comes from the same place as "3 Chains O' Gold" or "Beautiful Strange," a simple haunting background progression to showcase interesting guitar work, multi-tracked harmonies, and layers of subtle overdubs that accentuate every emotion.  Prince controls this journey, and isn't shy about letting you know it.

"Judas Smile"

After a few The Gold Experience-esque notes of an intro, the heavyweight "Judas Smile" comes next.  Filling the same role as Musicology's "Life O' The Party" as the high energy hip-hop nod, this is the stronger track of the two, but certainly not as commercially accessible.  It has more substance, and more is noticed with every successive listen.  The song starts with the same disarming and deservedly cocky swagger as the beginning of "My Name Is Prince," but it quickly becomes apparent that this is something more.  The lyrics are as cerebral as you want to read into them.  Prince addresses the industry in general viewing artists as if they were on the plantation, piety, social race relations, betrayals, and rising above the crap.  VERY open to interpretation, this is the song I wish he would have explained his take on the lyrics most.  They are all over the place, yet feel unified through Prince's unique ability to write sensible stream-of-consciousness with a singular endgame.  


The sparse and funky "Supercute" is driven by a dancehall reggae-styled bass line.  Enjoyable, but eclipsed by other more prominent works.  Prince waxes cheekily about a vexing temptress in the same vein as "Darling Nikki" and "Tell Me How U Wanna B Done?", going so far as to be poetically indiscreet about the way toys get used.  If "Supercute" is the steamy reunion, "Underneath The Cream" is the lonely pining for the next encounter.  Written from a more tender perspective, it has tinges of Luthor Vandross vocal tendencies over the type of smooth jazz/R&B combination that The Quiet Storm would set the mood for.  "Supercute" and "Underneath The Cream" were pressed as a concert-exclusive single sold at stops on the 2001 Hit + Run Tour and the week-long Prince: A Celebration festival at Paisley Park.  

"Underneath The Cream"

The remix of "Sexmesexmenot" included here reuses the synth riff from "Judas Smile" to tie the album together.  When it was initially released as "Sex Me Sex Me Not" with NPG Music Club Edition #5 in June '01, it was about a minute shorter and seemed to have more in common with the sound of his 1998 album, Newpower Soul.  Like "Supercute," it doesn't quite hold its own against similar tracks in his extensive catalogue.  "Vavoom," if edited into a slightly shorter form, could have been a great radio hit for Prince.  The infectious, high-energy pop rock groove starts with lyrics that seem to be about the narrator letting his guard down 'with you,' but they quickly digress into implying something more deliciously indecent - all while still being Top 40 friendly.   


If "High" had to be given a genre, it would be remix.  Seriously.  In the late '90's, club music didn't have much of a genre of it's own beyond that remixed sound.  It was this bizarre blend of techno, pop, R&B, and disco put in a blender until chunky.  Towards the end of the song, Prince's vocals seem to evoke more of a Whitney/Chaka/Cher dance floor vibe that, while interesting and pleasing, seemed more imitation than origination.  "High" was the centerpiece of what should have been his first release as Prince after getting his name back, but that album was shelved.  He used to say that music should be released while it was relevant.  I can't help but wonder if that project fizzled because the title track sounded like 'yesterday morning' and he was already looking ahead.  There are parts to the arrangement that are brilliant, the beat echoes the synth line from "Judas Smile," but perhaps not enough to set it apart from other similar popular songs of the time.  The version of "The Dance" included here is truly generic R&B that may have been slightly more than par for the course when he wrote it, but it feels more like trying to keep up with his peers sonically than leading the pack.  Approaching the 4-minute mark, there is a build up of intensity that goes absolutely nowhere.  "The Dance" was a last-minute addition to the album, bumping "My Medallion" from the tracklist completely.  The remixed version on 3121, incorporating the string riff from Under The Cherry Moon's 'Water In Your Bath' poem, has more depth and emotion to the arrangement and delivery.  Among all the tracks, "High" and "The Dance" seem the most dated.  Neither pushed any boundaries.

The beautiful smooth jazz instrumental "Gamillah," featuring Najee on the windy instruments, and the consoling gospel ballad "U Make My Sun Shine," featuring Angie Stone and minor girl group Millenia, round out the album.  On the album, the two songs would have had more impact had they not been in sequence with each other.  Back to back, they are almost too much of the same thing, making "Gamillah" seem like an extended intro that hurts the attention span for the full 7 minutes epic of the duet that follows because it is in the same genre, tempo, mood, etc.
  The shame of "U Make My Sun Shine" is that most people missed out on the wonderful gospel-esque outro, which was omitted from the music video and the edit released on the commercial single.  That outro is the embodiment of the sheer joy of unconditional love.

"My Medallion"

When The Chocolate Invasion was released through the TIDAL service in 2015, it had a different sequence of tracks that mirrored an earlier configuration:  "The Dance" was removed, and "My Medallion" was back in.  An entertaining minimalist funk story song, but not on par with some of his others, like "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance" released the same year.  It has a VERY dated reference in Bebe's Kids.  If you remember Bebe's Kids at all, it is likely from the 1991 animated film, but it was actually based on a stand-up routine by comedian Robin Harris (who died in 1990).  

The Slaughterhouse:
Trax from the NPG Music Club Volume 2
 The Slaughterhouse is more like a playlist of random songs that have little to do with each other than a well-thought out record.  Feeling more like an attempt at Crystal Ball Volume 2, which was one of the 17 shelved projects mentioned at the beginning, the songs collected here feel interchangeable.  It isn't until the last four tracks that any sense of unity occurs.  That isn't to say the music here isn't worthwhile, this album just lives up to the 'Trax from the NPG Music Club' subtitle better.  Curiously, there is not one sex-tinged song in the mix.  They all have substance, but are otherwise unrelated.

The title has nothing to do with the 1985 "Slaughterhouse" jam from The Flesh line-up or its 1993 Madhouse reworking.  No, the title comes from the opening of track 1, "Silicon."  And even then it makes little sense, other than Prince saying "Welcome 2 The Slaughterhouse."  Affected vocals and minimal instrumentation, it does not do it as well as other similar songs.


"S&M Groove," once known as "Sadomasochistic Groove," sets the tone for the next five songs: moments of inspired writing in otherwise standard songs.  Likely recorded during sessions that would evolve into Newpower Soul, it's chest is a bit too big to fit in with those songs - it would have more ably filled the anthem role that the very similar "Come On" did.  The best way to describe "Y Should Eye Do That When Eye Can Do This" is if the rap interlude from "Gett Off" were a song of its own and not about sex.  Probably the best song from the first half of the album.

"Golden Parachute" is standard slow groove smooth jazz/R&B fare with lyrics of substance.  Worth a listen, but not a highlight.

"Golden Parachute"

The outro to "Hypnoparadise" has interesting mixing choices, and is in itself inventive, funky, and sadly, a better rehash of the rest of the song.  With the generic '90's club take on an over-produced disc song, it feels like an outtake from The Gold Experience or disc 3 of Emancipation - albums from when the sound would have been more timely.  "Hypnoparadise" would be hot out on the dance floor, if it ever made it there.  "Props N' Pounds," featuring commentary by '90's Mtv awkwardly old guy Kurt Loder, is nothing to write home about either.  It posits that you should take the critics in stride.  Like many tracks, the song has moments of greatness in the arrangement, but an album release is unnecessary.  It feels like a piece of mid-tempo music that Prince really liked, wanted to do something with, but nothing monumental sprang to mind.  If you can picture it, it sounds somewhere between an early idea for "The Daisy Chain" and the outro of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me." 
The next three tracks were originally part of the shelved Peace album that was to be attributed to The New Power Generation.  It is likely that Prince had intended to keep releasing albums under the NPG moniker.  Why that never came to pass, we may never know.  Prince was notoriously fickle unless a project really struck that right chord.  The energetic funk of "Northside" takes the lessons learned from James Brown and expands on them.  Without an official credit, we can only speculate on the horn players (at least Najee was present).  


The light-hearted funk of "Peace" comes next, and brings back the mentality of "Why are we fighting?  Why Can't we just dance instead?" The song features Larry Graham at the very least providing vocals.  If he provided any bass work, he was following a chart because his signature approach to the bass is not present (which makes me think he gave vocals only).  The song starts with The Artist Formerly Known As Prince comping at the piano, playing to a host of overdubbed Princes.  At the end, the same club of Princes comes back as TAFKAP, and cracks himself up with .. well, just listen to it.

"2045: Radical Man"

"2045: Radical Man" was first released as part of Bamboozled, a Spike Lee joint in the vein of Mel Brooks' The Producers, and Catch-22 (the book, the movie is ... less than faithful).  It would have been great if this got a more prominent release due to the poignant lyrics about how black artists get used by the industry.  The draw back is that it's inclusion here, and it's a minor one, is that it is basically the same message as "Y Should Eye do that ..." at the beginning of the record.  The laid back groove is very reminiscent of "Johnny."  This one uses the N-word frequently, so be warned.

Music Video for "The Daisy Chain" featuring DVS

"The Daisy Chain" ends the album on a strong note.  In the same musical family as "Days Of Wild" and "Calhoun Square," it features a rap by DVS, a member of the Fonky Baldheads (a group that had received Prince's favor at the time - if you can find their album, get it!).  

The Chocolate Invasion - 7 out of 10.
The Slaughterhouse - 5 out of 10.

The Chocolate Invasion is my favorite of the two, and the one I feel that is most deserving of a true release.  Start to finish, it feels like it was meticulously crafted.  The Slaughterhouse has great moments, but overall it just seems like leftovers that didn't really fit anywhere else forced into album form.  Track down all of volume 1, get the last four and whatever else speaks to you off of volume 2.

Monday, March 13

Musicology (2004)

We're back!  You can listen to a different Prince project every week for a year, here's week 10: Musicology (2004).  Last week was a bit uneven in my personal life, so this comes a few days late.  We will get back on track this Friday.

A great commercially accessible album, if a bit incoherent at times.  It is a very stream-of-consciousness record, not dwelling very long on any one topic or having a unifying theme or general musical direction.  Its improbable blend of soul, experimental funk, rock, jazz, traditional R&B, blues, and club-ready hip-hop shouldn't work in such a compact track list, but it does in a way that only an artist of Prince's ability could make happen.  Musicology garnered a Grammy nomination for R&B Album of the Year, as well as containing two songs that did win Grammys.  Within a year of being released, it went Double Platinum (that's 2 million copies).

Musicology is political, rightly educational, and, most of all, personal.  A lot of the lyrics point to an overall timbre that is more than sensual and funky, but one of 'Prince has grown up' and 'Prince is making amends for some former relationships that he ruined.'  The Fam knows he never went away, he just went low key for a minute.  Prince's compass was pointing north again.  To the world at large, Prince had been M.I.A. since 1999.  In the interim, he released 5 studio albums, 2 live albums, and a plethora of studio and live recordings via the NPG Music Club.  While this wasn't a comeback album, it was announcing his return to the main stream.  It was Prince like the world hadn't been open to seeing since he changed his name to Prince logo.svg - funny, happy, poignant, sexy, introspective, cocky, and, above all else, effortlessly funky.  Of all his classic albums, Musicology has the most in common with Sign "☮" The Times in all of these regards.  There's not a bad song in the bunch.  There might be a song that doesn't speak to your particular genre tastes, but it would be hard to argue it as being a bad song.

It does have a flaw that, as a former studio engineer, is hard to overlook:  the editing.  Not musically, the songs themselves are crafted wonderfully, but it is with the sequencing and compiling into an album - more specifically an album released to a digital format - that I have an issue with.  Many of the spreads (the gap between songs) aren't appropriate when they exist.  When you listen to a song, your head and instincts begin to follow that beat even after the song finishes.  Unless segueing from it, the next song should start on the natural downbeat of the groove, regardless of tempo, tone, key, pacing, etc. - those factors affect how many of these ghost measures exist between songs.  Many of the songs start 'off beat' from this ghost groove, often ruining the moment.  The pick-up measures and intro portions that give the song perspective often happen at the end of the previous track.  It's not a wrong choice, but makes a la carte listening rough.  The wrong choice is when a single note straddles that division between tracks on the disc.  If it had been released on vinyl, or even in one track like Lovesexy or The Rainbow Children, it would never even have been noticed.

2004 was a big year for Prince.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his Musicology 2004Ever tour was sold out everywhere it went.  Musicology would have been a bigger juggernaut had he gone through completely traditional channels to release the album.  Every concert-goer received a copy of the album - proving that Prince just wanted to get the music out there, he didn't care if you bought it retail or got it there just as long as you got his music (legally).

Prince & The New Power Generation
The Tonight Show / 26 February 2004: Burbank, CA - NBC Studio 3
Musicology / Tighten Up

The album starts with the title track, "Musicology," a funky loop that pays homage to the influencing envelope-pushers that came before.  The live version was where it was at!  Rhonda Smith (bass) would break into Archie Bell & The Drells' classic dance joint "Tighten Up," and when he was feeling it Prince would cue the NPG to give us a taste of the unreleased track "Prince And the Band" as a stinger at the end.  Rightly, "Musicology" won the Grammy Award that year for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

 A couple disjointed segues lead in to "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance."  In the vein of story songs like "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker," it tells the tell of a gold digging gigolo and his silver fox of a sugar mama against a minimalist funk beat.  Not a radio tune by any stretch, it is one of the most enjoyable and fun tunes on the album because of how unexpected it is.  This is also probably the most prominent example of the pickup being on the previous track because the radio dial segue has absolutely nothing to do with "Musicology" and the beginning note straddles the barrier between track 1 and track 2.

Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Set

The brooding "A Million Days" follows.  While a good arena rock song, it feels somewhat out of place due to its tone and subject matter.  It would be more in line with some of his mid-90's emotion-driven rockers than the mature sound he was sporting in 2004, like the '94 redo of "Empty Room" (often wrongly labeled "Empty Room '95").  When I first heard it, I thought it odd that he was singing about Mayte or even (less likely) Susannah so long after those relationships had ended.  It felt like an 'apology, hoping for reconciliation' in song form.  Then I learned that it was originally recorded back in 1995.  Whether or not the recording that made it on to this record was that original version, the feeling and head space he performs it from still evoke the same ideas.

 "Life O' The Party" is probably one of Prince's most effective forays into clubbing hip-hop and fills the role that "Housequake" served.  Most of the time, his rapping has a tendency to feel forced and lighterweight than Drake, but here it feels appropriate and natural.  Featured on this song are long-time saxophonist Candy Dulfer, doing her best Rosie Gaines impression, and Chance Howard, who was filling the role of hype-man more ably and appropriately than Tony M. did.  While a fun party track, this particular genre was done to satisfaction by so many other artists at the time that "Life O' The Party" would have had a super hard time standing apart from the crowd.

Candy Dulfer f. Chance Howard
Leverkusener Jazztage / 12 November 2009: Leverkusener, GER
Life O' The Party (their version of it, at least)

Grammy winner for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, "Call My Name," should have been more widely known.  A deeply personal look at Prince's reaction to being able to use his name again.  JUST IN CASE, some of you don't remember Prince had changed his name to the unpronounceable 'Prince logo.svg' in order to keep making music that WB could not lay claim to.  As expected by nearly everybody not fooled by the industry-driven/Prince-fueled narrative, the minute his contracted period with WB expired, he became Prince again.  But Prince doesn't do anything by half measures, even in his private life he was Prince logo.svg and was referred to as 'The Artist' by many.  It is worth noting that in the lyrics, Prince injects political paranoia where it should feel out of place.  Around this time, 9/11 fallout in the Middle East and civil liberty-sapping paranoia making everyone sick of Big Brother, a lot of artists did this.  Dave Matthews Band's 2005 "Dreamgirl" ruined an otherwise sweet song by injecting a political non-sequiter into it and then moving on just as quickly.  Prince ties it all back together, saying, "Let 'em watch.  Don't let 'em change U, Eye'm not."

"Call My Name" covered by Morgan James
She tried for two years to get Prince's camp to approve her cover.  She finally got him to hear it; he approved it instantly.

"Cinnamon Girl" is not Prince covering Neil Young's classic song (that many assume to be) about a Mexican or Native American woman, but the atmosphere set could easily be straight out of Neil's catalogue with Crazy Horse.  The lyrics share a romanticized fiction about a Muslim girl with the same optimistic disposition as Cynthia Rose confidently facing her new found adversity in a post-9/11 world.  Musically edgy, lyrically defiant, yet uplifting ... it is a curious departure for Prince's writing that shouldn't work sandwiched between bluesy R&B and experimental electro-funk beats.  This song will not be for everybody, but everybody should hear it at least once if only to appreciate it from a musically academic standpoint.  It is a testament to his ability to take over a style and make it uniquely his own.  "Cinnamon Girl" lost its Grammy Award bid to John Mayer's "Daughters" for the 2005 Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Music Video for "Cinnamon Girl"

"What Do U Want Me 2 Do" is exactly what you would expect from a mid-tempo Prince ballad.  No more, no less.  It is pleasant and fits the album well, but it just doesn't grab your attention the way others do.

 "The Marrying Kind" and "If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life" should never be listened to separately.  These two act as a suite, there's even a reprise of the arpeggiated riff from "The Marrying Kind" before the jazzy outro to "If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life."  Basically, they tell the tale of trying to get out of the 'friend zone' in a funk/rock/jazz/R&B kinda way.  Editing snafu: the intro to "The Marrying Kind" is on the end of "What Do U Want Me 2 Do," and should have been its own segue track.

"On The Couch" should have been attributed to 'The Four Princes.'  The studio cut is pure Temptations, Four Tops, Four Seasons, and so on.  Another apology song, but trying to get into a different place.  Not so much forgiving, but more for getting.  It segues directly from the previous suite adequately, but can feel like too much of the same thing.

In "Dear Mr. Man," Prince takes on the elitism of politicians.  All politicians. Spoken not from a place of racism, but classism - you're either in with the handful of those talking out the side of their necks, or you are being used and ignored by them - a perspective I wish more people would understand.

"Reflection" is smooth, candidly self-examining R&B.  It feels like Prince opening up to you and only you about what goes on inside his head more successfully than just about any other song in this vein.  I remember reading an article around the time Musicology was released that seemed like one huge apology to all the people Prince felt he had slighted.  Cementing that idea, he performed the song with Wendy Melvoin on Tavis Smiley's show.  "Reflection" was Prince opening up and showing us that he had the same internal human struggles with day-to-day life as the rest of us.  It may be the most honest fiction he ever wrote.

The Virtual B-Sides

In the 80's and most of the early 90s, Prince released non-album b-sides with his singles.  With the Musicology body of work, he tried that again ... sort of.  Most of his b-sides were recorded around the same time as the album, but for one reason or another didn't really fit in with the material.  These three are all assumed to have been recorded in early 2004, but that is purely speculative.

"Magnificent" was billed as the virtual b-side to "Musicology."  It sounds similar in style to "What Do U Want Me 2 Do," and could conceivably been in contention for the same spot on the album.

 "The United States of Division" went along with Cinnamon Girl, and actually made it onto a limited pressing.  It pits funky hard rock verses against a disco-tinged chorus.  It is enjoyable, but if put on the album itself would have detracted from the overall effect.  It is probably one of the most aptly named pieces of music - it is exactly what you would expect.

Primarily just Prince and his piano, "Silver Tongue" was the virtual b-side for "Call My Name," which only received the promotional single treatment.  It was co-written with Nikka Costa, a frequent satellite act around Prince's live shows during this era.  Of the three, this is the one most deserving of a true retail release.  The performance is intimate and the lyrics are compelling.

"Silver Tongue"

  FINAL THOUGHTS ... 7.5 out of 10.

 The disjointed nature of the first half and the hapless way the album was sequenced holds the record back.  Certainly worthy of acquiring for your collection.  If piece-meal acquisition is your route, listen to the samples through either iTunes or Amazon before buying because of the diverse nature of the music, but you really should just do the whole thing.

This makes the rounds all of the time, but this performance really is magic.  During rehearsals, and for awards shows you really never get much rehearsal time, one of the younger guitarist members of Lynne's ensemble kept doing the solo in place of Prince.  Whether it was nerves or excitement, who knows.  Prince never actually got to play the solo in rehearsal, so producers weren't exactly sure what was going to happen during the gig.  Some have attributed his just appearing out of nowhere as a last minute notion of Prince being Prince, but that was showmanship.  Nobody really knew what was going to happen other than Prince + guitar solo.  However, if Prince was out there the whole time not on mic, people would be more interested in what he was about to do rather than appreciate Steve Winwood playing with the semi-reunion of Traveling Wilburys' Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and George Harrison's son, Dhani Harrison - a moment that often gets overlooked.  And at the end, when Prince throws the guitar up -- it never is seen coming down, and even people that were there right in the thick of it have no idea where it went.  The symbolism of him ripping it up, then giving it up to George is a great moment.

Read the artists memories of the event here.  It brings I smile to my face every time, especially his interaction with former Average White Band and then-heartbreakers drummer, Steve Ferrone.  I'm not ashamed to say I get a bit teary around the 4:45 mark seeing the sheer joy on Dhani's face as he seems to take in the gravity of Prince soloing on his dad's song.

Friday, March 3

3121 (2006)

You can listen 2 a different Prince project every week for a year.  Going backwards, we're down to 2006 with 3121: The Music.  Don't U Wanna Come?

When the album was released, it was immediately at the top.  #1.  It knocked the juggernaut that was High School Musical out of the number one spot - which if you can recall back that far was no small feat.  A mere three months later it was certified Gold (that's 500,000 units sold for those that don't know.  3121 nabbed 5 Grammy nominations, including best R&B album.  Overall, the record has a decidedly latin timbre sprinkled into the majority of the tracks giving it a unique layer and helping it stand apart from the rest of his body of work.

Prince f. Sheila E., Wendy & Lisa
Brit Awards 2006 / 15 February 2006: London, ENG - Earl's Court Two
Te Amo Corazón / Fury / Purple Rain / Let's Go Crazy

For all you numerology enthusiasts out there, the title alone will be satisfying.  It was the 31st album attributed to the man to be released (though arguably his 50-somethingth album), and it was released on the 21st of March (3/21).  3+1+2+1 = 7, a number that had figured prominently in Prince's world for at least 15 years.  It could also refer to Psalms 31:21, which thanks God for helping endure a stressful urban environment (more or less, depending on which translation you prefer).  This last one is fairly probable due to Prince telling a BET crowd to read Psalms during a performance of the titular song during their 2006 Awards show.

He had christened his rented LA home "3121," even going so far as to scrawl 3121 on the exterior.  3121: The Residence was where the party was at.  Repeatedly.  L.A.-style A-list house parties with a signature, decadently Prince flavor.  For these and other rental agreement infractions, the owner, then-Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer, was prompted to sue Prince for damages to the property.  Rock stars, amiright?  Ice Cube even did a remix of "Black Sweat" for use at the parties.

Prince albums, like everyone else's, often go through several revisions.  As with all things that come out of Paisley Park, there is evidence of a bit and rumors of a lot more.  "The Dance" dates back to just before the turn of the millennium, existing in some form that we may or may not have heard yet. The tracklist also originally included "The Morning After" and a song we only know by its title, "Streets of Panama."  The two were removed to include "Fury" and "Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed."  Several other songs known to have been recorded during this period surfaced on Planet Earth (2007) and the LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND/Elixer set (2009).  Because Prince was always writing and recording, and not always with a specific project in mind as a destination, it is hard to know what was recorded because of aimless inspiration and what was intended for a given project.

Prince, Támar, & The New Power Generation
Good Morning America
Get On The Boat / Redhead Stepchild / Let's Go Crazy

3121: The Vegas Show
Actually labeled Per4ming Live 3121, Prince joined contemporary entertainers such as Celine Dion and Britney Spears in following the tradition of Sinatra, Newton, and Rickles in taking up a residency in a Vegas show room.  Prince took over the Rio Hotel & Casino from 8 November 2006 through 29 April 2007.  Prince primarily headlined the 3121 weekends and booked performers he liked for Wednesday nights.  He played a total of 75 sets himself between the two venues:  3121 (the main venue), and 3121 Jazz Cuisine (a joint-venture restaurant where the jazz-heavy sets were decidedly more in line with Vegas' historical image).  Rather than resting on his laurels and crowd goodwill established by the longevity of his career, he took the opportunity to show off what he was doing now rather than do a greatest hits revue.  Of course the hits were played, but they weren't the focus.  His still fresh Jehovah's Witness transformation inspired reimagings of classic song, "Sexuality" became "Spirituality" and "Gett Off" replaced 23 positions with 23 inscriptions ... some alterations were better than others.

3121: The Movie
Yup, that was going to be a thing.  The 'trailer'/'making of documentary' had resurfaced in the past 10 months and was available on YouTube until recently.  The 'trailer' really didn't show much of anything of substance beyond interviews of the director and actors saying they weren't sure what was going to happen, etc.  It seems to have been a concept that nobody but Prince fully understood.  Execs passed very quickly.  It was then recut into being a LOtUSFLOW3R movie that was supposed to be released via lotusflow3r.com, but was removed prior to the membership launch.  The assumption is that it was in the vein of his '90's television specials:  music videos with loosely coherent story segments between them.  One viewer who saw it as LOtUSFLOW3R described the plot as a semi-autobiographical film like Purple Rain was, where the backbone was plausibly close to reality but the story layered on top of it was highly exaggerated.  The plot was his brother and employees taking advantage of/stealing from him while he was chasing a beautiful woman.  The 3121 iteration of the film had different segments, but was by all accounts just as haphazardly cut.  It's a curiosity for the purple masses that will likely never live up to the mystique it has attained.  The vast majority of those music videos, like the film, are not in heavy circulation even in the shadows.


3121: The Music
In the vein of "Paisley Park" and "Calhoun Square," "3121" sets the tone - Prince's place was the only place to be.  Prince is telling you his crib was the place to be, without caring one way or the other if you came - he was going to party anyway.  Avant garde funk at its finest.  This is a fine example of Prince's unique ability to be completely recognizable for making his voice unrecognizable.  STUDIO RECORDING LESSON:  doubling the artist's vocals can give emphasis.  Doubling vocals is essentially stacking multiple takes of the same sung/spoken line on top of each other to create a duet or choir of voices.  No voice blends with an artist's quite as well as their own.  Doubling vocals can add emphasis, emotion, subtext, or even just build a chord if they are harmonizing.  Prince employs this technique a lot, but with a twist that breaks many 'rules':  he adds effects to his vocals beyond reverb and echo.  Wah pedals, purposeful distortion, and more create an unexpected sound that grabs the listener and commands them to pay attention.  Stacked on top of an edgy beat that makes it hard for a booty to just sit there, "3121" let it be known that the Prince of yore was still here and still pushing the envelope.  That envelope pushing was deservedly nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance and lost to Gnarles Barkley's Top 40 sensation, "Crazy," which Prince would cover multiple times during his 3121 Las Vegas residency.

Prince f. The Twinz
American Idol [Season 5 Finale] / 24 May 2006: New York, NY - Kodak Theatre
Lolita / Satisfied

"Lolita" is a high energy, synth driven club dance tune about a young girl making advances on Prince.  But instead of implying that it could be on the table to accept the way "2 Y. 2 D." seems to, this is more 'Young woman, thank you for your interest.  We can agree that this would be fun, but this isn't going to happen.  I can show you a good time in other ways, though.'   Oddly, Prince performed a truncated medley of this song and traditional Motown-esque soul ballad "Satisfied" for the American Idol finale two moths after the albums release, posting a simple message of '1st Corinthians 10:14' on the front page of the NPG Music Club website prior to his performance.  The verse says to shun idols.  Prince had been resistant to doing the show up to that point, and the performance certainly wasn't given his full effort.  Take from that what you will.

"Te Amo Corazón"

"Te Amo Corazón" is a bossa nova jazz guitar tune with a slow funk arrangement.  It was released in December 2005 building on the rumor that an album from Prince was coming soon without specifically mentioning it.  The orchestra was arranged and provided by long-time collaborator, the late Clare Fischer.  The song is the earliest released recording to include drum and bass work by husband and wife rhythm section Joshua and C.C. Dunham.  Sadly, the Selma Hayek-directed music video cannot be found on YouTube (but follow that link and you'll see it).   

Music video for "Black Sweat"

Nominated for two Grammy awards, for Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, "Black Sweat" was a simple song that lies somewhere between "Kiss" and "Sign O The Times" musically with a West Coast hip-hop overtone, which may be part of what drew Ice Cube to make his own remix of the song.  The dance number never really got the attention it wanted on the radio, except in Japan.  It was originally debuted as a solo blues piece during the acoustic portion of Prince's Musicology Live 2004ever tour.

"Incense And Candles"

If you take it on Matt Thorne's recommendation in his book, Prince: The Man and His Music, this is the weakest song on the album (I would avoid that book.  Though informative, he wrote it with a weird chip on his shoulder).  "Incense And Candles" is sonically one of the most interesting tracks Prince had cut in years.  The beat is an unexpected variety of percussion and odd instruments; the groove is pure sex: entrancing, captivating, and sensual.  While it may be more experimental than many are used to, the experiment does not get in the way of a good song.  Some of the lyrics are a bit awkward as Prince's forays into rapped lyrics are always hit and miss, but this hits more than misses. 


"Love" is a shining example of Prince's ability to progress modern trends to new elevations beyond their plateau.  Lyrically, it seems to be one side of a conversation between a couple examining their relationship.  This should have been the second single from the album, it is commercially accessible and danceable electropop was back in fashion for everyone.  The acoustic version, if you can find it, was released as a 3121 Jam of the Week, has more heart and depth to the vocal performance.

Music video for "Fury"

A heavy, guitar-driven rocker, "Fury" was the song Prince seemed to push the most on televised performances at the time.  The guitar work and mixing choices on the recording are excellent.  A lot is left to the imagination in "Fury."  It narrates a sensationalized version of a high-profile break-up that implies more than it says.  Not entirely unique in Prince's catalogue, it is not told from the first person - it is wholly a story being told by an observer - and as such feels less personal.  The stage that it sets is as if "Eye Hate U" and "Shhh" from The Gold Experience had a baby that grew up to be this song.  

"The Word"

"The Word" is a mid-tempo call to action.  It me be the most perfect track of the era, combining all of the elements to Prince's eclectic signature sound in one package:  programmed drum patterns that engage rather than exist mingled with live percussion, intense guitar soloing, low-key-yet-thought-provoking lyrics, a groove you can move to or chill to as you are so inclined, soulful horns, non-traditional mixing choices, affected vocals that have purpose, and experimenting with breaking the conventional rules of panning musical elements.  Lyrically it is very spiritual, but not so much that it becomes preachy.

"Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed" f. Támar

"Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed" is the last overtly spiritual song on 3121.  It was nominated for the Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals Grammy, losing to John Legend / Joss Stone / Van Hunt  reimagining of Sly's "Family Affair."  Mixed almost as an introduction of Támar to the world, the duet play off of each other splendidly.  Her honeyed vocals both in front of and behind the mix accentuate every note to perfection, unfairly setting a very high bar for the shelved Milk & Honey album [which is examined below].

"The Dance (Osunlade Sensei Mastermix)"

"The Dance" has never been among my favorites, but it does resonate with a lot of people.  Originally released in a different version through the NPGMC website and on The Chocolate Invasion (both will be covered in 2 weeks), the mix that ended up on 3121 gives a completely different feeling.  The original, which was recorded around the turn of the century, was more self-empowering - like Whitney singing "It's Not Right But It's Okay," and had a more contemporary R&B approach akin to Babyface or Brian McKnight.  It is this version that created my first impression, it seemed very much like a throw-away number to me with a musical arrangement that felt forced and at odds with the lyrics.  The 3121 re-recording incorporates the haunting orchestration used beneath the 'Water In Your Bath' poem from Under The Cherry Moon to create a more conflicted mood that suited the content of the song more appropriately, equal parts hopeful longing and unfocused anger.  The slow groove builds from uncertain footing to pushing the conflict.  "The Dance" is not one of Prince's sweet relationship songs, it is a self-examination of a relationship going through the motions and is far more interesting the more you listen to it and let the music wash over you.  

The remix by Osunlade (who you may have heard of as Yoruba Soul if you are into remix tracks) included here is the only version I could readily find to share with all of you, sadly.  As far as club mixes go it is par for the course, not his best work by any means, the conga at the beginning sets up an interesting idea but then is looped for the entirety of the song; when the club beat kicks it, it does not variate much.

Prince & the New Power Generation f. Sheila E. & Maceo Parker
Alma Awards / 1 June 2007: Pasadena, CA - Pasadena Civic Auditorium
The Word / Get On The Boat / The Glamorous Life / A Love Bizarre [vamp only]

Prince knows how to close an album and leave the listener salivating for more, and so 3121 rounds off with Prince enlisting Maceo Parker's horn and Sheila E.'s auxiliary percussion skills on the apocalyptic funk workout, "Get On The Boat."  Espousing a matured version of the statement behind "1999," Prince wants to save you from destruction rather than party like its the last one.  Musically, it is what Prince has been saying with his songs since 1978, "Why fight when we can dance?"  "Get On The Boat" easily holds its own against other dynamite closing numbers and serves the finale role on this album to a "t."

FINAL THOUGHTS ... 9 out of 10
100% get the full album.  There's so much that is right with this record; it's funny, sweet, demanding, honest, and above all else creative.  In my opinion, this was Prince's last true opus.  The entire package is great, even the couple of songs I don't particularly care for are inventive enough to not prompt a skipping.  If you need to get it a la carte,  you really can't go wrong with any choice.

Any retrospect of 3121 would be remiss if it didn't cover his pet project of the era ...

Milk & Honey by Támar
The unreleased companion album to 3121.

Ashley Támar Davis reappeared in Prince's world in 2005 and lasted through the end of 2006.  'Reappeared' because she actually sang on a mid-90's outtake titled "On Your Own."  You can hear in her blind audition for the Voice why Prince gravitated toward her, there is potential there to be beautifully soulful.  Too often, though, you are left with the same reservations as Adam and Pharrell -- there's an exceptional talent, but she lacks something intangible that would have truly catapulted her above the rest.  

Támar Davis
The Voice 2016 Blind Audition

On Milk & Honey, that potential is never fully acted upon.  She fit into niches already filled by the likes of Sharon Jones, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, and a host of others.  It's a common story in the industry, there's always someone who shines brighter.  Támar didn't exude the confidence of Lauryn, nor the underlying sadness of Mary J.  Her soul didn't seem to come from experience like it did for Sharon, and her artistic side just didn't seem as effortlessly natural as Erykah.  The attitude didn't seem as genuine as Janet, the music less personal than Corinne Bailey Rae.

2006 was a hard year to be an emerging artist.  You either knew what worked, or experimented and failed into oblivion.  Commercially, the seven years prior had been very homogenized across all genres.  It had been made acceptable for average consumers to 'cross the streams' between genres, making them not just into hip-hop or alternative or metal or R&B, but connoisseurs of all.  That's a hard thing for millennials to understand, and even for some Generation Xers to recall - music audiences used to be very segregated.  During this time, Pop as a genre began to absorb the hits of other genres.  It was not unheard of to hear Madonna, Marilyn Manson, and the Dixie Chicks on the same station.  

Nearly every song on Milk & Honey is about a relationship, and not usually a healthy one.  Many of the tunes contain a musical passage that is perfection, but more often than not it leaves the build-up on the table, frustrated and unsatisfied.  There are good songs buried at the end of the record, and there are songs that seem to try too hard to channel other popular entertainers of the time leading you there.  This would have been better shopped around as a bonus EP to 3121 with about half the tracks.  Because half of them are so good and are not what was put in the front, it makes you wonder what other gems they might have recorded that are just packed away in the vault.

As with all Prince side projects, songwriting credit is dubious at best.  Even when submitted for copyright, his works have been known to be credited to individuals who may have never even touched the song in the studio (a good chunk of work by The Time) and songs that were completely redone by others ("Kiss") were attributed solely to Prince.  The full album is attributed to Prince and Támar Davis with both receiving shared writing and production credits.  This body of work, however, ranks among the few that I actually believe Támar had a hand in crafting a lot of the music.  There are enough elements that are atypical of a Prince arrangement that signify someone else's influence was certainly there, to what degree is the real question.

"Closer 2 My Heart" is a very generic opening song, it doesn't grab the listener.  It sounds more like a teenager's perspective than a grown woman worthy of your time.  "Milk & Honey" is always on the cusp of exploding into a great song, but never quite gets there.  Támar is singing about how much she loves her man, but it comes off as clingy and needy instead of endearing.   

"Can't Keep Living Alone"

The first true highlight of the album comes with "Can't Keep Living Alone."  The song would be a perfect monologue piece in a stage musical, where the heroine learns to take a chance on herself and face the uncertainty.  It is a journey that starts out unsure of itself and by the end swears to change.   For a while I kept expecting this to pop up on a soundtrack to a Tyler Perry movie to further the exposition along in the third act.  Then I learned that Támar has been performing in Perry's stage shows for some time now.

"Holla & Shout" seems like it can't decide whether or not it was a blaxploitation take on Britney Spears and Madonna or an homage to a Janet Jackson that never truly existed.  Its monotonous club beat has a somewhat catchy chorus but lacks any chemistry or connection with the audience.  Her take on "Kept Woman" is the second song worth your time and is more endearing than Bria Valente's passionless recitation.  This version has an underlying sadness that betrays the positive face it tries to portray.  Támar expresses that subtext beautifully, like a secret she can't bear to share with anyone but really needs to for her sake.

"Kept Woman"

When it starts, "Holy Ground" seems like a skipper but stick with it.  The out of context foreign language sermon and some other bland arrangement choices hold this song back, but it has some excellent moments with the classic synth effects and the chorus.  Then it just stops awkwardly after going on for about two minutes longer than it should.  It is always on the verge of being good, but doesn't quite get there.  The version of "Beautiful Loved & Blessed" that appears on Milk & Honey is only vaguely different than what was put on 3121, and not deserving of inclusion here.  If the accompaniment was more in line with the reprise there would be enough differences to warrant a second version.  This cut was released as the b-side to "Black Sweat," think of it as a radio edit.

"Holy Ground"

The second half of the album is definitely worth checking out, and almost redeems the shakiness of the first half.  Following this is the third gem, "Redhead Stepchild."  An intense angry rocker that sort of comes out of nowhere, aside from the dog growl/command before the final chorus and the shout of 'Reeeeeedheeeaad' at the end, there isn't a thing wrong with this track.  The problem with this track is that it sticks out from the rest of the album because it is of a genre so opposite.  One out of six songs and it wouldn't have seemed out of place.  One out of 12, it's literally the redhead stephcild of the album.  The problem really was in the title, it gave a connotation from the start that would have been acceptable in the '90's but the PC generation would have given it a wide berth.  Musical elements would be lifted and later incorporated into "We Live 2 get Funky" in later years.

"Redhead Stepchild"

"All Eye Want Is U"

Channelling Erykah Badu, "All Eye Want Is U" builds on the momentum of artistic realization.  Had this been what they led with, she may have blossomed a career back then with artistic credibility.  Easily the best track on the record, this should have been the stick to measure the rest by.

"First Love"

Almost like a response to "Can't Keep Living Alone," "First Love" could easily come from the same musical.   Some minor changes would have made it better, like omitting the whispered 'First love' from before the first verse, but they are forgivable because the rest of the song is great.  Just chock it up to the homogenized aesthetic of the era.  "Sunday In The Park" is the last great song buried in the back half of the album.  Segueing directly from "First Love," it finishes the character journey started on track 3 with resignation to change, continued on track 5 realizing that you faltered, and then finally recurring on 10 seeing your past clearly for the first time.  Támar gets closure with this song.

"Sunday In The Park"

And I wish that were the end, it would have been more complete of a statement.  "Beautiful, Loved & Blessed (Reprise)" was 100% unnecessary.  The musical differences would have been appreciated on her version of the actual song if only for differentiation, but this tag to the album ... ugh.  It's generic self-congratulatory tripe that no one needed, and kills her credibility when she says she studied singing "Franch" ...

FINAL THOUGHTS ... 4 out of 10.
The greatness that exists here comes too late.  By the time consistent quality arrives, most would have stopped listening combined with the fact that it's too easy to draw parallels between each song and another contemporary artist.  I can see why labels would have passed with this specific body of material in this order.

Check out "All Eye Want is U," "Redhead Stepchild," "Can't Keep Living Alone," "First Love," and "Sunday In The Park" in that order.  If you are still feeling it, then "Kept Woman" and stop.  "Beautiful, Loved & Blessed" is not different enough to necessitate a look, in fact, the average person would be hard pressed to tell you what is different about it from the 3121 version. The interesting parts of the other songs are not enough to save them.   

As a bonus, here is one of the thirteen concerts from the 2006 Támar Tour.  I enjoy her stage presence, youthful enthusiasm, and genuine joy at what she is doing, but it does showcase her lack of that undefined quality that separates the stars from the pack that she just didn't have at the time.  Should Támar be performing near you, whether in a Tyler Perry production or otherwise, check her out - you won't be disappointed.

Támar f. Prince (& The New Power Generation)
3 February 2006: New York, NY - The Nokia Theatre
1: Closer 2 My Heart / Dancing Room Only / Sunday In The Park / Milk & Honey /
I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) / Love Changes / When A Man Loves A Woman
2: Redhead Stepchild / Stay With Me / Rocksteady > Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough >
What Have You Done For Me Lately > Partyman / Play That Funky Music > Love Rollercoaster
Encore: Drown In My Own Tears > I Want To Take You Higher