Call Prince what you will, but don’t call him oblivious. As the economy continues to hold a bloody hanky to its consumptively coughing mouth, 2009 finds Prince giving as much bang for consumers’ buck as he can muster—provided they shop at Target, the only retailer where you can buy a physical copy of his latest release. The result, much like his inaugural post-“Slave” opus Emancipation, is a generous three-disc behemoth containing nearly a single disc’s worth of keepers. (Hey, if Prince is going to insist on making his distribution tricks more interesting than his music, I’m apt to lapse into crass consumerism masked as critical insight.) The triptych is divided into pop-rock (LOtUSFLOW3R), funk and R&B (MPLSoUND), and pet protégée of the year Bria Valente (Elixer). While Valente’s selection isn’t burdened with being compared to perhaps the greatest back catalog of the 1980s, it’s still essentially a silky, occasionally hypnotically downtempo bonus disc (“Something U Already Know” is about the most comfortingly unforced piece of songwriting I’ve heard from Prince since “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”), but fans are obviously going to focus on the two Prince-fronted discs.
Of the two, LOtUSFLOW3R is the ostensibly forward-thinking collection of pop hooks and guitar licks. But from the opening unison strains of “Boom” right through the patchwork sonic dweebery of “…Back 2 the Lotus” (a jam session notable only for the fact that Prince actually overlays, tentatively, a woman’s orgasmic moaning), I kept flashing back to the Foo Fighters’s Grammy performance with Chick Corea from a few years back, in which both talented entities ended up coming out of the collaboration sounding like a microwaved, gelatinous Phish—especially when Prince croons, “Baby, I don’t care what you learned in lovemaking school,” in the tragically-titled “Love Like Jazz.” It’s not exactly that I’m begging for innovation. In fact, I’m speaking as someone who thinks Prince’s most worthwhile piece of music committed to disc in the last decade is his medley of ballads performed with only piano accompaniment on the live One Nite Alone… set. But despite flashes of production brilliance (the hauntingly filtered guitar loop that opens “77 Beverly Park”), LOtUSFLOW3R only occasionally transcends the same anesthetized gloss that gummed up 3121 and Planet Earth, both of which feature stronger songs, not that you’d know it beyond all that polish.
I suppose I could be a little depressed that I much prefer the otherwise bass-ackwards retro-slumming of MPLSoUND, especially given that (a) Prince is no longer based in Minneapolis, (b) I am, and (c) on an individual song-for-song basis, the lyrical hooks are even shallower than they are on LOtUSFLOW3R (“I got a box of chocolates that’ll rock the socks off any girl that wanna come my way” and “Hey, Valentina, tell your mama she should give me a call when she get tired of running after you down the hall,” for instance). But beyond the recycled synth snare hits and spare, Parade-era orchestrations, Prince’s sense of humor shines through. Opener “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” sounds like a satire of both Prince’s own ego and the omnipresence of Auto-Tune, but also slips in a few “I was dreaming when I wrote this”-worthy couplets like “Slipped into the bathroom, there was olive oil in my hair.” He frets over a relationship ending before it even begins in “Here,” dropping hints that his hesitation stems from age difference…and then couches the song between both the mama-chasing “Valentina” and “Dance 4 Me,” which might as well be a tribute to Beyoncé. Prince is long past rewriting the book, but at least MPLSoUND gives him the opportunity to fill in a couple joking Mad Libs.