Six years before his death, Prince’s career was in a peculiar position. He had restored his unimpeachable reputation as a live performer, bolstered by his half-time appearance at 2007’s Super Bowl and his extraordinary 21-night stand at London’s O2 Arena the same year. But his recording career doggedly refused to follow suit. It was in a better state than it had been a decade before – when Prince seemed content to release endless collections of instrumental jazz-funk jams to an audience that had shrunk to diehard fans – but his much-touted albums Musicology and 3121 had never quite recaptured the glory of his imperial phase.
He seemed locked in a cycle of underwhelming releases – Planet Earth, Lotusflow3r, MPLSound – distributed via newspapers and deals with big-box retailers. Things bottomed out with 2010’s 20TEN, which didn’t even warrant a release in the US, and in the UK was given away free with the Daily Mirror. In fairness, it got one laudatory review, proclaiming it “his best album in 23 years” and “as good as anything that anyone has done”. Alas, said review was by Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. It was genuinely depressing to see the once uncontested, no-further-questions genius produced by 80s pop getting his best response from someone who had been paid to be nice about him.
Under the circumstances, you could be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed that the latest posthumous Prince release isn’t one of his legendary unheard albums – not 1986’s Camille, nor the original, house-influenced version of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, nor 1998’s reunion with the Revolution, Roadhouse Garden – but a collection from 2010 that Prince didn’t consider worthy of putting out.
Lack of interest is likely to turn into bafflement once you play it. From its opening title track – stark, slow-motion funk in which Prince casts a weary eye over the state of the nation, a spiritual younger cousin of Sign o’ the Times – it gradually reveals itself to be of completely different quality to anything he deigned to release at the time: a collection of largely brilliant, socially aware songs. It’s often inspired by early 70s soul, most notably golden-era Curtis Mayfield: the shadow of the gentle genius looms particularly large over Born 2 Die, both in its sound – a dead ringer for the tender funk of Right on for the Darkness or Little Child Runnin’ Wild – and its empathic lyrical depiction of a doomed character.
The album’s lyrical tone isn’t without precedent in Prince’s contemporary oeuvre: 2009’s Lotusflow3r contained Dreamer and Colonized Mind, the former a tough funk-rock track about racism, the latter nothing special beyond the fact that its lyrics foreshadowed the rise of the alt-right. But it’s more carefully done here, and more effective because it’s set to better music. Running Game (Son of a Slave Master) offers a better explanation of Prince’s objection to the relationship between Black artists and a predominantly white music industry than simply writing SLAVE on his cheek; 1000 Light Years from Here sets its fantasy of an enlightened undersea utopia to rapturous string-bedecked pop-soul; the glittering glam-soul hybrid of Yes fits the song’s revolutionary zeal; the closer One Day We Will All B Free is just fantastic.
It isn’t perfect. The staccato 1010 (Rin Tin Tin) is interesting, but slight, while a piano-led cover of Soul Asylum’s Stand Up and B Strong pales by comparison to the more soulful balladry of When She Comes: it seems to have earned its place in the tracklisting less on its quality than as a demonstration of Prince’s ability to absorb any music, even past-its-sell-by-date post-grunge rock. But it’s still the best album Prince made in the last two decades of his life. Or rather, thus far: maybe there’s other music of this standard, from this era, lurking in the vault.
Which begs the question: WTF? Why did he leave this in the can? Perhaps it was just Prince being Prince: you don’t have to delve too deep into his story to find examples of behaviour that seems completely inexplicable by normal standards. Perhaps, behind all the bluster about sticking it to the music industry, he knew that giving your albums away with the tabloids or flogging them in Target somehow devalued their contents and was holding back the really good stuff.
In the long run, it makes a weird sense for it to appear in 2021. For one thing, its contents haven’t dated: they seem heightened by a more tumultuous era than that in which it was recorded. And Prince’s stock as a recording artist was low in 2010. Welcome 2 America might have changed that, but equally it might have been overlooked by a public weary and wary of being told he was back to his best. The posthumous cult of Prince guarantees more attention, focused more keenly, than it would have received 11 years ago: attention it fully deserves.
This week Alexis listened to
Peggy Gou ft OHHYUK – Nabi
Vocals in Korean, music a gorgeous homage to the early 90s with distinct tang of Foxbase Alpha-era Saint Etienne.