If anyone has earned the right to record and release whatever he likes, it’s Prince. Not only did he release one album after another of undiluted greatness from 1979’s Prince through Sign O’ The Times (indulgent fans can stretch that run further if they like), he fought a long, public, occasionally embarrassing battle for his artistic independence. The result has been a tremendous outpouring of Prince music in the years since 1996’s Emancipation, a lot of it suggesting that he worked better with handcuffs on. The best moments from Prince: Phase II have come when he tried to shape his music into something like a proper album, as he did with Musicology and 3121, but even these sounded like he was simply treading water a little more enthusiastically than usual. Could he have worked so hard to say what he wanted, only to end up repeating himself? Lostusflow3r/MPLSOUND/Elixir does little to reverse this trend. A three-disc set available only through Prince’s website and Target, it offers a few gems and a lot of solid, unextraordinary music that will probably sound okay sandwiched between greatest hits on the next tour.
Not all of the music belongs entirely to Prince. Elixir showcases Bria Valente, whose sultry-but-dull vocals don’t foretell great things. (Prince presumably wrote and produced Elixir’s songs, but the local-band-like packaging doesn’t provide any liner notes.) Lotusflow3r, which shares a name with Prince’s new subscription web venture, has a slightly harder edge and, maybe not coincidentally, slightly more memorable songs. “4Ever” turns heartbreak into a scorching anthem, and a cover of “Crimson And Clover” makes it sound like the song was written with Prince in mind. Prince’s guitar works overtime on Lotusflow3r, often patching over some unfinished ideas; on MPLSOUND, the beats do the heavy lifting, often making the album sound like a throwback to the ’80s funk he helped define. One track, “Ol’ Skool Company,” makes that agenda explicit, while “Chocolate Box” and “Valentina,” a mash note to Salma Hayek by way of her toddler, deliver on it. The triple set boils down nicely with judicious iTunes filtering, and the $11.98 price tag doesn’t hurt. But like other once-prestigious brands who’ve struck deals with big-box stores, Prince now sells in bulk what he used to treat as a luxury item. His music remains stylishly functional, but wears out quickly.