We’ve been in the “narcissism of small differences” phase of Prince’s career for so long now that, yes, the fact that he’s made amends with the label that he once claimed had turned him into a slave does in fact register as a major sea change and not just another publicity stunt. If nothing else, the lead-up to the release of Art Official Age (and, in textbook “one for you, one for me” fashion, the debut album for the all-caps-happy neo-protégés 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM) has showed just what kind of buzz a little old-fashioned promotional muscle could do for an artist who in recent years had taken to bundling his albums inside copies of British tabloids. A few exclusive interviews here, a few breakfasts cooked for rock critics there, a feigned live Facebook Q&A for the target demo, and suddenly people undeniably care about Prince again.
It’s been nearly 20 years since The Gold Experience, and every album since has been called the best Prince album since that album—only back then, they were comparing The Gold Experience unfavorably to the artist’s bona-fide landmarks from the previous decade. Far from an upward trajectory, the wash-rinse-repeat routine has, in retrospect, felt like a free fall into diminishing expectations. Would Prince realigning his compass with the presumed pop instincts of the big bad commercial label finally add some lasting credence to that dreaded “since”? Or even eliminate the need for it altogether?
As a statement of intent, the derivative opening track, “Art Official Cage,” is about as discouraging as it gets, at least musically. Prince comes out swinging, ironically characterizing his latest material as a neo-emancipation (“Eye woke up in the city in a bit of a rage/Trying to free my mind from this art official cage”), even though the title itself slyly insinuates that he’s acting like some sort of sleeper cell inside WB’s house of “official” art. Only in that sense does the production’s Amp Energy-chugging, stomach-churning, Black Eyed Peas-derivative, EDM-anthem thrust make any sense whatsoever. From the stadium-reverberating claps and the ADHD tempo right down to the down-pitched boogeyman party interjections, “Art Official Cage” is a page ripped right out of Usher’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” The only thing Prince didn’t do was match that song’s “Uptown Girl” lifts with snatches of his own “Uptown.” Of course, that would be too backward thinking, and on Art Official Cage, Prince refrains from even his trusty old Linn drum effects.
As it turns out, though, “Art Official Cage” is as much a red herring as “Sign O’ the Times” (which inversely bummed listeners out before kicking into “Play in the Sunshine” and “Housequake”). Sure, Camille or some distant cousin makes an appearance or two, and he can still fill out a distinctively naked-sounding slow jam like a g-string fresh out of the dryer, but Art Official Age’s main takeaway is that His Royal Badness has started to make peace with being past his prime. Beyond that, actually. Prince being Prince, he boasts about it in tracks like “Breakdown,” where he looks back with nothing resembling fondness on his hard-partying past when he was the “first one intoxicated, last one to leave,” a subdued sentiment albeit still delivered in a climactic series of shrieks. On “FunkNRoll,” a song dear enough to him to appear on both this and PLECTRUMELECTRUM, he tells the crowd to put down their smartphones and dance with all the tact of a grandfather castigating teens at the Thanksgiving table. And on the too-shiny seduction suite “Clouds,” the proudly elder statesman takes his ingénue along for a downright puzzling ride: “Bullying just for fun, no wonder there’s so many guns, maybe we’re better off in space.” Hoo-kay.
“Part visionary, part embarrassing” has been Prince’s baseline for as long as anyone who cares about him cares to remember—and cares not to compare the ratios. Yes, he’s coasted on his massive talent even when the songwriting well seemed to have run dry. (Well, the new songs, anyway. The bootlegs prove he’s sitting on a back catalogue of tunes that would be enough to keep him going long past retirement age.) But rarely has he explicitly admitted to desperately needing listeners’ attention beyond their “extra time.” Where a number of Art Official Age’s promised new directions from the man wearing a sunglass lens over his third eye predictably strike out, the few moments where his perspective from age tips over into intimate, confessional detail make all the difference in the world. “Any person or object whatsoever that requires your attention is something that has veered from its path and preordained destiny of total enlightenment” is the spoken intro to “Way Back Home,” a simultaneously plaintive and urgent ballad that moves Prince from claiming all he ever wanted in life was “to be left alone” to possibly alluding to the tragic death of his newborn son: “Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive.” Wisdom doesn’t always come from experience, but if returning to the womb of a record label is what it takes to bring forth more introspective moments from one of pop music’s most guarded personalities, fans have every right to be thrilled at him finding his way back home.