Prince deftly brings back his old groove in new album

Music Review

March 21, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Can you really call it a comeback? Prince has never gone anywhere. So what if in the past decade, his albums were painfully bloated, convoluted affairs that only his most devoted fans cared about? He spent a big chunk of that time fighting bitterly and publicly with Warner Bros. (the label that nurtured his early career) over the ownership of his music. The eccentric, pint-sized superstar paraded around much of that time with the word "slave" scrawled across his face - an undeniably overdone gesture.

Fortunately, Prince has come around, seemingly finding inner peace by way of the Jehovah's Witnesses and, in the last two years, producing tighter, more exciting music. Still, despite his own "chaotic and disorderly" output, others have brilliantly copied or extended elements of classic Prince. Raphael Saadiq, Rahsaan Patterson, D'Angelo, the Neptunes, the Roots - they have all kept the Purple One's glorious sound intact while he wrestled with issues public and private.

On the artist's new album, 3121, which lands in stores today, Prince snatches back his own formula, infusing it with energy and vibrant textures. It's the follow-up to 2004's Musicology, which netted a Grammy nomination, sold 2 million copies and spawned one of that year's biggest tours.

On 3121, whose title the pop genius refuses to explain, Prince doesn't reinvent himself or radically expand his musical scope. But the album still bests its predecessor. Where Musicology felt old-fashioned and a little stiff, 3121 is decidedly progressive and relaxed. The moods shift smoothly, making the record cohesive. Yet each song stands on its own. Industrial beats with squiggly synths give way to satiny, acoustic, after-dark love songs.

Prince is having more fun this time around. Lyrically, he's sly, a little playful. Despite his openly devout spiritual leanings, Prince, 47, hasn't completely abandoned his lascivious ways. He's very much the seducer, but the act is mostly done fully clothed. Prince is no player these days.

In "Lolita," whose groove recalls 1978's "Soft and Wet," the pop superstar is tempted by a younger woman: "You're trying to write checks your body can't cash," he sings. Then he further breaks it down: "Lolita/You're swee-ta/But you'll never make a cheater out of me." That cut is followed by the Latin-tinged, strings-kissed ballad, "Te Amo Corazon (I Love You Sweetheart)." The arrangement is too subdued and slows the momentum a bit, but fortunately the song doesn't linger too long. (With 12 cuts, the album clocks in at only 53 minutes.)

Without feeling like a rehash, "Black Sweat," 3121's current single, recalls Prince circa 1987's masterful Sign `O' the Times. Tough, terse and lean, the track shows the artist at his sexiest but with a sense of humor.

Although 3121 is a fine album, midway through it, Prince switches to auto-pilot. Even then, the songs, namely "Love" and "Satisfied," are listenable and better than any single he released during his unfocused period. On "Fury," reminiscent of "1999," Prince rocks out and you know he'll incinerate this cut on stage. Also on the CD, he introduces his new protege, a pleasant if indistinctive vocalist named Tamar, with whom he shares the mike on the charming "Beautiful, Loved & Blessed."

Prince isn't breaking new ground on 3121. But it's evident that he's more at ease these days. He's churning out funk that feels classic and forward-looking all at once. But don't call it a comeback. Prince is just doing what he's always done - without all the drama and unnecessary layers.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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