First Impressions: Prince, “Art Official Age”

princeIn his fantastic memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Roots bandleader ?uestlove opines that the song “Housequake” marked the very last time Prince truly surprised anybody—and that was way back in 1987. That synopsis is true enough, unless you found yourself surprised by the Purple One’s exclusive Target distribution deal from a few years back, or to see him show up on an episode of The New Girl, and it encapsulates the basic post-2000 narrative surrounding Prince—namely, that he has long lost his zeal for exploration and discovery, for the freakish and the new, and has settled into a comfortable groove as a craftsman, churning out albums that are sometimes satisfying and sometimes boring but never unexpected, and never sounding like anything more than sturdy Prince LPs.

It’s true enough that nothing released this side of “Housequake” and its parent album, Sign ‘o’ the Times, has scaled the same heights as that landmark, nor even touched such classics as Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, or Parade—and Art Official Age, the latest in a long line of Prince comeback albums, does nothing to change that. To write it off simply for failing to live up to those classics is not only an uncharitable view, though, but also a slightly misleading one: Remember that Prince’s glory-days weirdness resulted in no small amount of brilliant music—he was, for a time, untouchable—but also a lot of baffling and frankly frustrating moves, albums where all the songs were placed on a single CD track, albums where unbearable soap opera dialog weighed down the otherwise enjoyable music, unfortunate stabs at hip-hop and triple-disc sets that missed their mark as often as they hit it.

To call Art Official Age a supremely well-crafted, sturdy Prince album, then, is not necessarily to damn it with faint praise: It’s not anywhere near as exhilarating as Purple Rain but it is, in truth, more enjoyable, appealing, and addictive than many of the albums he’s released since that time—including many of the quote-unquote weird ones. To boot: Even if it lacks in surprises, the album hardly lacks in tight grooves, memorable lyrics, strong songwriting, and consummate production. Prince may well be a buttoned-down professional these days, and that may be the last thing any of us ever wanted him to become, but if he’s lost most of his weirdness, he hasn’t lost his impeccable craft. The resulting album, when taken on its own terms, is immensely satisfying—more so than nearly anything he’s released since 2000; a far cry from his classics, yes, but also a far cry from the tepid 20Ten or LotusFlow3r albums, or even Planet Earth.

The terms on which we should take this album, incidentally, are as a straight-up R&B album, and as far as that goes, it’s really without peer, at least in 2014. Ignoring hip-hop altogether—just as well, since it’s always thrown him for a loop—Prince has constructed a killer set of old-school slow-jams and funk tunes, unmistakably traditional in their craft yet sounding sleek and modern at the same time. There is even, in truth, a bit of Prince weirdness in some of the lyrics, and in the vague sci-fi theme that surfaces from time to time; that kind of thing has become such a part of him that it’s hard for it to register as all that outlandish, but it certainly gives this set character that similar albums might lack.

And all of this, really, is enough: Prince is no longer charting new realms of inner and outer space, but if he can still make funny, sexy, and utterly groovewise slow jams like “Breakfast Can Wait,” or even a jumpin’ “Housequake” update like “The Gold Standard,” well, that’s ample material for a strong, memorable Prince record. It may not be surprising, but that hardly makes it unappealing.

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