(What’s the Unicode for “Love Symbol”??)
Just when we started to move on from Bowie…wham. It’s been a brutal 12 months for music, and frankly things are probably going to get worse in the upcoming years. How strange to think that three of the biggest stars of the 80’s, a decade generally thought of as “not all that long ago”, a decade whose trends we still imitate endlessly, are now gone. Of course we knew of Michael’s and Whitney’s problems all too well, but Prince was different, a man who somehow figured out how to be free of the flaws of being human. The guy simply didn’t seem to age – he had the looks of a man twenty years his junior, enough stamina to play three-hour shows on a nightly basis, and maintained the same insane work ethic for almost four decades. Plus, there was just so much to who he was, and what he did. You think the dude can sing, well, have you ever seen him play guitar? You think his own tunes were great, but how about all the songs he wrote for others? Or the dozens of supposedly brilliant albums that he just never saw fit to release at all?
There’s the thing with Prince though – yeah, the dude had more talent in his pinkie toe than schlubs like myself have in their entire body, but I can’t help but notice I don’t remember him putting out a hit record in my lifetime, or even one that garnered decent reviews across the board. I’ve got a good collection of his early albums, pretty much the same records everyone’s talking about now, but I never was really motivated to continue on beyond that. I rooted hard for the guy, but not enough to actually want to spend money on an album that by all accounts nobody was going to listen to after a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s unfair, since the man’s talent didn’t diminish otherwise, and I know how early works can overshadow the later stuff. But in this case, I trusted the people who knew.
That said, I was always interested in Emancipation, a 3-disc set spanning exactly three hours, an album made to celebrate both his marriage to Mayte and his release from his Warner Brothers contract (fittingly, one of WB’s major gripes with Prince was that he was trying to release too much music at once). See, this is the Prince that I knew – the one who wrote “SLAVE” on his cheek, the one who changed his name to a symbol, the one who deliberately held back his best songs so WB couldn’t get ahold of them. We joked a lot about this guy in school, but more than that we didn’t really understand him, for he was an eccentric whose peak of popularity was our entire lifetimes away. Yeah, Emancipation may have a lukewarm reputation like most of his 90’s-and-beyond albums do, but lets face it, every three-hour long album does. I mean, has there ever been a truly successful triple album in rock history? Somehow I got the impression that Prince’s real comeback was buried somewhere in these 36 songs, if only his fans were willing to put in the time to find it – this was, after all, his second album of ’96, third if you count the soundtrack he did for Spike Lee’s Girl 6.
So understandably most people didn’t know what to make of this, not that I do either. The natural reaction is to find the great single-disc album lurking in here, which is understandable since there is no reason for this thing to be three hours long. There aren’t any extended cuts (a few approach 8 minutes), the songs don’t link together, and even though each disc has its own sort of feel to it you may as well just throw the whole thing on random. It’s a three-hour album because Prince wanted to make it so, same as he might want to bring a camel into the recording studio, throw his amplifiers into the pool (cuz they might sound neat in there), or take an entire afterparty to a rollerskating rink at 1 AM. Nobody’s ever made an R&B triple album before, so naturally Prince had to make one.
You are encouraged to make your own single-disc set of course, but Prince didn’t make that easy either; there’s loads of good stuff, but no obvious standouts, no key tracks to tie anything together, and no real duffers either. Instead it’s the kind of album that reveals a different set of highlights each time through, maybe depending on the order you listen to it. For instance Disc 3 sounds a lot better when you listen to it first instead of as the last leg of a marathon, and some of those ballads on Disc 2 hit a little harder when divorced from all the other ones. This album probably should be listened to on shuffle, since Prince put a lot of similar sounding stuff next to each other. In order, the three discs are focused on New Jack-R&B, ballads, and house/hip-hop, but there’s a lot of genre hopping along the way.
So, let’s start from the beginning with “Jam of the Year”. Nah, just kidding, I’m not going to do that. Usually I’m at least five listens into an album before writing about them on here (and often a lot more), but given that I’ve only picked this up upon hearing of Prince’s death I’ve only been able to give it the ol’ thrice-over, taking notes of the better stuff, which has changed each time. The songs themselves are really quite good – in general the funkier and nastier the better, though he tends to mostly keep it in his pants this time. Sure, Disc 2 is full of slow-burning sexjams, but they’re more “kiss you from your head to your toe” and less “pull your guts out onto the carpet”. Prince was in a good place in his life, not only free from his contract, but newly married and a father-to-be, dedicating a number of songs to his unborn child (who sadly died shortly after birth). Unfortunately this translates to a lack of fire on the album, which is understandable given the insane amount of material he was producing at the time. It’s not like these songs are lazily made, either – there are tons of effects and little production tricks, and he even pulls out a multi-sectioned funk epic smack dab in the middle (“Joint 2 Joint”). In all 28 different musicians appear here, including Kate Bush on “My Computer”, a fact that you would probably not gather listening to the album (she’s way in the background).
This album is also notable for including four cover songs, which Prince previously had not done – he was always on the other side of that relationship. I will say his take on “La La La (Means I Love U)” is the best I’ve ever heard, but on the other hand “One Of Us” is a song that probably shouldn’t be done by anyone (it also comes at a point where you’re waiting for the album to be over). The other two (“Betcha By Golly Wow!” and “I Can’t Make U Love Me”) are good though, two of the better tracks on the album. Of course it’s not like the covers are needed to break up the flow; the album’s pretty diverse outside of the slowjam-happy second disc.
Without hearing more of Prince’s later discs, I can’t really speak to how this fits into his catalogue, but I can say this – it’s pretty good. Biggest challenge outside of the length would be the repeated use of 90’s-style drum programming – you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when you hear it. For comparison’s sake I thought Michael Jackson’s take on this sound was more interesting, but considering that this album alone contains about as much music as Michael released the last 20 years of his life, I think that can be forgiven.
Recommended tracks: Jam of the Year, Get Yo’ Groove On, Damned If I Do, Mr. Happy, Soul Sanctuary, Dreamin’ About U, Joint 2 Joint, Slave, New World, La La La (Means I Love U), Sleep Around.