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The Boston Phoenix Rave On

Prince finds his prince thing

By Michael Freedberg

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  It's been a very long time since Prince -- the Artist, whatever, but for purposes of this article we'll call him Prince -- has made music as funky and focused as the 17 tracks on Rave un2 the joy fantastic (NPG/Arista). That's what happens, though, when you go back to basics, as long as the basics at issue just happen to be your own brilliant creations in voice, riff, and lyrics. Playing just about all the instruments (as he's always done), and singing most of the voices, Prince revisits the snap of For You, the scream of Purple Rain, the Jimmy Smith-inspired organ fonk of 1999, and the image rebellion of "If I Was Your Girlfriend," triumphs all, in which he brought the essentials of rhythmic soul and jazzy funk to a point as sharp and subversive as anyone's.

But why now? What's happened here, that Prince has found his prince thing again? Cleaned and polished and free of contaminations? For all of a decade -- 1987 to 1997 -- Prince's music was sloppy and sentimental and awash in mixed metaphor and blurry complication. His songs had cataracts. His vocals badly needed a haircut.

Enter Rave un2 the joy fantastic, an album that sees clearly and sings baldly. The music on Rave is the same sound -- whip-snap funk, keyboard buzz riffs, bittersoft melodies -- that Prince wrote two decades ago for his back-up band, the Time. The wording is his original style, outside your sex but inside your head. The tone, too, is that mixture -- a kiss and a pinch, soft as a lip, sharp as a dagger -- that Prince has shared with no contemporary funk master other than Michael Jackson (think about it). From the braggadocio of "undisputed" to the catty funk of "hot wit U" to the bluesy paradox of "I love U, but I don't trust U anymore," Prince puts his techniques of ego, dance, and romance directly at risk, without any of the hand holding of orchestration or the safety lines of complication that cow far too much of today's pop music. There's no mistaking the motive (or the unique vision) of "hot wit U," in which Prince goes "wanna get U underneath the cream/and do the marshmallow/Ooh, . . . I wanna get U 2 do something/U thought U'd never do/like dance in front of my headlights/on a hot summer night . . . NUDE"; and there's no error in the coaxing and the confidence of his soft sharp croon. Neither is there any misreading the subtle satire that runs throughout "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," a pun and more than a pun on how even the tenderest love (and Prince's loving is all of that) is marketed in the celebrity age. (That Prince too is a celebrity is part of the satire.)

Prince returns to the basics of more than just his own musical past. And he puts his own signature on them as well. If "The sun, the moon and stars" sounds as falsetto as classic Philly soul, it should: the delicate voice, the high-octave sweetening, the cotton-candy melody go right back to the puppy-love fantasies spun by the Stylistics, Blue Magic, and the Moments almost 30 years ago, even as Prince's triplet beat provides an exotic touch unheard of in classic Philly soul. "Silly Game," however, feels like a Moments ballad pure and simple -- bittersweet and sweet at the same time.

"I love U, but I don't trust U anymore" reads like a Luther Ingram "If Loving U Is Wrong I Don't Want To Be Right" kind of deep-drawl, red-clay soap opera; but Prince sings it sophisticated, in Tori Amos style (!!), his voice a soaring scream, his hands lover-probing the piano. "ManOwar," too, argues its case with passionate hurt, for love not violence, in deep-soul terms emphasized by gospel choir and a falsetto duet between Prince and his guitar. "Baby Knows" takes Prince even farther down home, to blues rock, a harmonica intro, and a shuffle-and-guitar riff as nasty as anything Kid Rock ever longed to be -- as if Kid Rock could ever bring off lines like "She knows how 2 make U feel/like your stuff ain't brown 2nite/and her perfume . . . it smells like the weekend!"

That juxtaposition of stuff being brown and perfume smelling like the weekend pares all of Prince's art down to the bone: contradiction and desire, foulness and fantasy, wrong and right, the rocking and rolling that too often sounds more like a noun of stasis than a verb of action -- but not in the music of Prince. Rave is Prince the inspired paradox, the rhythm in action. That and no more. Rave has no place for the targetless, overwritten music that takes up space on today's pop charts. It goes directly to the heart of its matter, tells you only what you need to be told, does you the honor of assuming that you know what you want and so does Prince, and if he tells you, you will understand and respond. Which is precisely what pop music used to do, before the age of indulgent irony and surface celebrity came to pass.

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