There are only two camps of people in this world: Prince apologists and Prince fault-finders. With the arrival of Prince’s new albums, Art Official Age and Plectrum Electrum, both sides are calling on their members to fall in line. As the reviews start pouring in, there will likely be loyalists who claim these albums to be Prince’s best since Sign O’ The Times, as well as the skeptics who refuse to dole out praise for either record. This case of extremism has plagued Prince ever since the ’80s ended. Starting with Graffiti Bridge and stretching up to the present, Prince’s so-called patchy period has lasted twice as long as his golden era.
That means each Prince release post-Lovesexy has had the same hefty question foisted upon it: Will this be the album that bookends this period? And in a startlingly predictable fashion, the apologists have often boldly answered, “yes” even in the face of extreme cases—like 2007’s unpleasant Planet Earth—while naysayers have insisted that Prince’s reign ended with the cassette tape, and that his new music is overrated by nostalgic audiophiles. This type of behavior is predictable given the size and scope of Prince’s early successes, and by comparison, his towering pile of so-so subsequent efforts. Though, to measure any album’s worth by such all-or-nothing metrics is bad practice. In this case, it pins Prince to the past and denies the albums the right to exist in the isolation of the present moment. And when considered in isolation, in this moment alone and none before it, Art Official Age, in particular, despite moments of turbulence, soars to great heights indeed.
That’s not to say that Plectrum Electrum is devoid of bright moments. Hannah Ford Welton’s mellow, steadfast drumming on “Whitecaps” is mesmerizing as are her semi-sweet vocals on “Stopthistrain.” In fact, Plectrum Electrum is arguably the more listenable of the two releases. It takes a no-nonsense approach to funk and for the most part plays near the shallow shores of rock ’n’ roll’s enormous waters. And while this rule-abiding behavior makes for a good album devoid of any outstanding issues, it also inhibits the album from being great. It’s smart but not brilliant, listenable but ultimately forgettable.
Thankfully Plectrum Electrum’s minimal impact is made up for with Prince’s solo effort: Art Official Age—an album so hot and memorable it scorches the ears upon first listen. It is a tour de force in style, production, and innovation, and it’s ushered in as such when Prince welcomes his disciples back home. “You’ve come a long way” he states as his electronic orchestra builds a Tiësto-esque soundscape around him. This is Prince 2.0. “Art Official Cage” might have funk in its DNA, but it’s dressed in EDM. With a relentless four-to-the-floor beat and a smattering of strange, futuristic sound effects—including air-horns, running water, and laser beams—“Art Official Cage” is the least focused track on the album. It sounds more like the theme song to a UFO landing than anything else, but luckily the remainder of the album doesn’t stay so far out in orbit. With “Clouds” Prince tunes back into the funk and homes in on the album’s central theme: the diminishing of human relationships caused by the excessive use of technology, or as Prince puts it, “When life’s a stage / In this brand new age / How do we engage?” It’s a funky rap against broadcasted emotional expressions that avoids turning into grumpy-old-man music by suggesting a better way forward—“You should never underestimate / The power of a kiss on the neck / When she doesn’t expect it”—instead of pleading for a return to the past. A smart lyrical choice that makes all the difference in separating Prince from other grandfathers of rock ’n’ roll who struggle to learn new tricks.
Despite a few quality clubbangers, it’s the ballads that shine brightest on Art Official Age. “This Could Be Us” features Prince’s faultless falsetto and a lithe piano line working in tandem to create a high-pitched, crystal-clear sound. On “Breakdown” Prince continues to pluck notes from his upper register as he sings about a breakup with a kind of humility and fatigue that is refreshingly down to earth. Lyrics like “I was sorry, so sorry for the things I used to do” ground Prince in plain human emotions, the likes of which he hasn’t explicitly referenced since he took on the roll of the embarrassed and unwanted lover in 1992’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
Songs like “U Know,” “What It Feels Like,” and “Funknroll” act as buffers between the balladry, and could easily pass as singles written and produced by artists 30 years Prince’s junior. All three songs feature in-vogue elements of modern R&B. The isolated boom, snap, snares of Miguel come alive on “Funknroll,” while traces of Justin Timberlake’s signature welter of seductive sounds are detectible on “U Know” and the stark, ethereal orchestration of a Weeknd composition hides in plain sight on “What It Feels Like.” Ultimately, “U Know” is the strongest of the three tracks, because Prince plays around more, deploying the popular elements of modern R&B but also recognizing their malleability and sculpting them into a new sound, replete with warped warbles and dizzying tempo changes. This is meant not so much for today as it is for the future—a fitting song for a man who has always been considered ahead of his time.
So far ahead in fact that sometimes it can be disorienting, as Prince expresses on the confessional track, “Way Back Home.” Here again, Prince feels corporeal instead of otherworldly. He admits to aging and feeling out of touch, then protects his bruised ego by insisting that he was “born alive” in a world where most people are “born dead.” But being so kinetic in a passive world can be isolating, as Prince cops to when he sings, “All I ever wanted was to be left alone.” Left alone to roam around in his dreams in order to “find his way back home,” a destination that is difficult for Prince to pin down.
Ambiguity, more than anything, seems to have inspired “Way Back Home” and much of Art Official Age. In his lifelong quest to understand the essence of truth, love, and life, Prince has made many discoveries, each one leading to another rabbit hole rather than a final destination. Somewhere along this quest something inspired Prince to pivot, make nice with Warner Bros., and seek answers in new places—in new collaborations (partial credit for this record’s success must be given to co-producer Joshua Welton), in more down-to-earth lyrics, and in more modern soundscapes. All of which led to Art Official Age being a stellar album that functions more as an ellipsis than a period. This album is an indicator that Prince is still pulling levers and asking questions. In singing about what he is seeking—be it a lover who won’t abandon him or a place that feels like home—as opposed to what he has found, Prince frees himself from the past, unmoors from the future, and reenters the present. And in the cradle of the moment, with all of its unknowns and unsolved issues ahead, Prince has finally recaptured a sound that is both evolved and accessible to cynics and evangelists alike.