Transposing a lyric from one of his classic singles, Prince might ask, “If I were your comeback, how shall I come?” Surely fans would be divided about how to answer, judging by the wide responses to his previous attempts at posing that same question. Some of his more fair-weather fans (those who bought only Purple Rain, Dirty Mind, and maybe one of the Hits discs) seemed to prefer more conventionally solid song-crafting and self-conscious musings on those standby Prince-isms (sex and God) that characterized 1995’s The Gold Experience or patches of the wildly overextended Emancipation (released in 1996, it was his first post-Warner Bros. album). On the other hand, the real die-hards, the ones who count “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “When You Were Mine,” and “Anna Stesia” among their favorite Prince songs (to be specific, the NPG Music Club’s target demographic) seemed more content to follow Prince down whatever strange and obscure path he’d lead them. To them, the acoustic folk-funk fusion of The Truth (included as the fourth disc on the Crystal Ball outtakes collection) or his ostensible Jehovah’s Witness truth-telling on The Rainbow Children represented at least a side of Prince that was truly excited about something again, instead of being trapped in his own larger-than-life back catalogue.
And so, given the wide-ranging and conflicting sects of expectations, it’s all the more amazing that Prince’s Musicology (released in conjunction with his “last chance to hear the hits” concert tour and, indeed, handed out to ticket-holders) has been hailed by nearly everyone as—at long last!—Prince’s true return to pop relevance. (Surely, the Passion-ization of pop culture couldn’t have anything to do with the sudden destigmitizing of the religious devoutness that torpedoed Rainbow Children for some listeners, right?) Musicology’s lead single is the mellow funk guitar-drenched title track, which sees Prince seemingly backing away from the jazz noodlings that he indulged in on the hate-it-or-haven’t-listened-to-it N.E.W.S. to admit that, yeah, “Let’s Groove” and “September” are worth respecting as tight musical influences, too. Elsewhere, he coyly suggests that being a JW hasn’t forced him to fold up shop on below-the-belt concerns on “On The Couch”: “Love Jones is on the TV again, baby, eye wanna go down south.”
Even as Prince’s lyrics and singing are reassuringly wry, Musicology’s biggest failing is that his production and arrangements occasionally fall into that same Teflon-smooth, over-polished sound that characterized the least interesting tracks on The Gold Experience. “Life ’O’ The Party” might be blessed with wickedly funny lines like “Eye don’t care what they said—’He don’t play the hits no more, plus eye thought he was gay,’” but the indolent hip-hop-unto-samba rhythms seem a lot less organic than the innovative beats he crafted in his prime. (Heck, even relatively unsung songs like Come’s dark “Papa” and Emancipation’s house anthem “Sleep Around” moved and thumped with more vigor than this would-be party jam.) But those lapses are the exception; and he’s still pulling new tricks (such as the spare, Dizzee Rascal-esque introduction to the clever “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”) at the same time as he cheekily plays with his old sound—“If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life” uses the devastating piano chords that anchored “The Beautiful Ones,” and “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” sounds like “Dorothy Parker” flipped back forward again…which is appropriate given that it inverts the earlier song’s sexual outcome, too. No artist with the stature of Prince’s can withstand the scrutiny being labeled a “comeback,” and perhaps Musicology’s biggest asset is that, unlike The Rising or Supernatural (to name two other recent comeback albums), it doesn’t sound like it’s really trying to reach for the self-inflated magnitude the label requires. It’s second-tier Prince to be sure, but for many that might be a relief.