I’m not one of those people who jerks off to Purple Rain. I prefer 1999. I think “Little Red Corvette” is superior to “When Doves Cry.” I think the Love Symbol album is better than Sign ‘O’ The Times. Prince’s post-‘80s output has been largely hit or miss, and the hits haven’t hit hard enough for me to forgive the misses, of which there are plenty. The most recent is 2004’s Musicology, a comeback record half manufactured by a concert tour/album sale gimmick and half facilitated by an industry eager to resurrect an icon, any icon, uninvolved in a child molestation scandal and a public who, no matter how hungry they are to tear their idols down, are just as eager to grant him or her a comeback. Add to that Prince’s omni-influence in urban music today and a renaissance of the purple kind was all but inevitable.
Like Madonna, who hasn’t really ever gone anywhere (despite Prince’s public plea from relative obscurity for her to join him in his war against Warner Bros.), Prince revisits the past on his follow-up 3121, reinventing his previous glories rather than creating something completely new. It’s nothing to scoff at, if done well; after all, these are two artists who have redefined pop music many times over in their 47 years on the planet. And like Madge’s most recent effort, faith—which seems to be the alternative of choice to self-destruction for middle-aged pop stars these days—creeps in during the album’s second half. The acoustic/synth hybrid “The Word” and “Beautiful, Loved And Blessed,” a duet with Támar (who takes up vocal duties throughout the album), are no “7” but they’re pleasantly reverent without being overly preachy.
The bare, “Kiss”-esque stripper anthem “Black Sweat,” which fits in comfortably with today’s electro-funk trends but manages to not sound desperate, is so effortless that it makes you resent the years Prince didn’t deliver the goods even more. He resurrects his female alter ego, Camille, on the album’s title track, a call-to-orgy at the rented West Hollywood mansion pictured throughout the CD booklet, but the party just isn’t as sexy or inviting as it used to be. Prince starts to show his age on songs like “Lolita” by making a reference to “Frank and Ava,” as opposed to, say, “Brad and Angelina” or—okay, “Frank and Ava” isn’t so bad, but the point is that it’s not just the synth line that sounds retro here. While the hooks don’t reach out and grab you the way you long for them to, and though the lyrics aren’t as smart as we’ve come to expect from a composer who once claimed to literally write songs in his sleep, 3121 is a wholly listenable and consistent(ly funky) addition to the catalog of one of music’s pop pioneers.