Prince returns in royal form with new album, 'Musicology'

by Mark Sweeney | 5/10/04 5:00am

No artist from the 1980s combined commercial success with lasting musical influence more fruitfully than Prince. Albums like "Dirty Mind," "1999," "Purple Rain" and "Sign O' The Times" have spawned innumerable imitators, as nearly every contemporary hip-hop and R & B performer has borrowed something from the Purple One's repertoire.

However, after a string of excellent records in the early and mid-'80s, the sales and quality of Prince's work dwindled. By the late 1990s, Prince had become a mere afterthought, though his musical style lived on particularly in such popular artists as Outkast and the Neptunes.

This year's "Musicology," his first major-label release in five years, finds Prince departing from the increasingly experimental and challenging path his recent work has followed and instead delivers an accessible mainstream sound that harkens back to his prime. For those who adored his hit albums, "Musicology" is a welcome return to his trademark blend of funk, rock, soul, pop and dance elements.

The album's title track begins the 12-song collection. This tune, which has recently entered the rotation of the music video channels, is a light, funky track that sets the tone for the rest of the record. The buoyant, cheerful attitude that Prince exudes in the music and lyrics demonstrates his willingness to dispense with his recent serious musical explorations to return to crafting memorable party music.

Following in this same jovial vein is another up-tempo selection, "Life O' the Party," which contains the hilarious Michael Jackson reference, "My voice is getting higher / and I ain't never had my nose done / that's the other guy." Yet, Prince doesn't even spare himself from some tongue-in-cheek insults in this track, singing, "I don't care what they say / 'He don't play the hits no more / plus I thought he was gay.'"

"Cinnamon Girl" harkens back to the effervescent pop of his earlier hits like "Raspberry Beret" and includes some of the more engaging guitarwork on the album.

The ballads fit in nicely with the up-tempo numbers. The smooth soul of tracks like "Call My Name" and "On the Couch" sound like they could belong on a Stylistics LP from the 1970s.

The aspect that distinguishes this release from many of Prince's albums of the last decade is the tight songcraft. Only one song lasts over five minutes, yet Prince does not let the time restrictions impede on his famed songwriting ability. Every tune is a fully constructed oeuvre that illustrates a high level of care and acumen on the part of the songwriter.

The tone and lyrics of many of the songs -- particularly on the album's pleasant closer, "Reflection" -- show how Prince has not only matured as an artist but as a person. Here Prince sings about settling into a married life and contemplating the days gone by, singing, "Tell me do you like my hair this way? / Remember all the way back in the day / When we would compare whose Afro was the roundest?"

He also embraces the family life that now dominates his personal life in the song; this must have been the first instance that Prince sings, "Did we remember to water the plants today?"

Yet, despite his relatively tranquil personal life, Prince still shows he can break out his guitar to rock out in the grungy "The Marrying Kind" and the funky stomp of "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life." Prince's vaunted versatility -- often described as the perfect combination of James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix -- is particularly evident on this collection of songs that, while diverse, never feels scattered or disorganized.

The factor that especially makes the record an enjoyable listen is Prince's carefree, and oftentimes humorous, tone on the funkier tracks, and his sincere and unabashed love-stricken view on the sentimental ballads.

In addition to the writing, the music remains typically excellent throughout, further distinguishing this album from much of what rules today's music charts. Prince infuses the musical creativity of his classic influences into a modern fabric, creating a work that is both retro and fresh.

Despite all the positives, this record still cannot compare with such classic releases as "Purple Rain." The relentless experimentation and originality present in his early-'80s work is largely missing from "Musicology." Also, the laid-back feel of much of the music leaves out much of the fiery virtuoso flourishes on many of his prior songs.

However, to the listener this is not at all a problem, as while the record lacks the feel of a masterpiece, it is a consistently satisfying collection that shows Prince still remains an outstanding pop songwriter and performer. Additionally, the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee proves he exists not only as a distant influence on today's music scene, but continues to be a relevant and creative force.