Prince, ‘HITNRUN Phase One’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
Is it possible that when we look back on Prince’s 2015 album HITNRUN Phase One years from now, what we remember won’t be the peppy, admirably experimental album itself but the new golden (and purple) age it helped usher in?
For one thing, the Minneapolis, Minn.-bred genius might be getting back into his typical super-accelerated release schedule. After a four-year break between 2010’s (still not released in America) 20Ten and his two 2014 albums (Art Official Age and PLECTRUMELECTRUM), we didn’t even have to wait a year for this one. Music’s most famous lone wolf also seems to have found an honest-to-goodness studio collaborator in newcomer Joshua Welton, who earns his second production credit on a Prince record here. He's been credited as an influential force behind the album’s exotic, EDM-influenced sonic palette.
Most importantly, and we’re being hopeful here, it seems Prince might have made his peace with the internet, which he declared “completely over” and something that “can’t be good for you” back in 2010. It was an odd stance for an artist so notoriously discontent with the music industry’s traditional distribution system to take, partially because he spent the first half of the 2000s running one of the most interesting membership-based music distribution sites on the web with the NPG Music Club.
Think about it. After spending years expressing frustration at not being able to share the fruits of his latest all-night recording session with the world right this second, a magical machine appears that allows him to do just that. But after a few years of sharing new tracks and minor gems (granted, maybe not the ones we were all wishing for) from his fabled vaults directly with his fans, for typically perverse reasons we mere mortals may never fully understand he decided to turn his back on this brave new digital world, and focused on distributing his new records along with newspapers or concert tickets instead.
Actually, that last line is a lie, it’s very easy to guess what Prince was missing in that equation -- the marketing muscle and reach of his former corporate partners. “The World” vs. “His Fans.” The labels may have meddled with his plans too much, but they also made sure his music had more of a chance to be heard by the masses and not just the loyal hardcore fans that would eagerly lap up their hero’s ballet or jazz albums while spending their nights trying to convince themselves that Tony M. could sorta rap.
Happily, Prince seems to think he’s found both the freedom and support he craves in the form of the new Jay Z-led music streaming service Tidal, which purports to pay higher royalties than its competitors, and which we’d wager ponied up a nice check in return for the exclusive rights to stream HITNRUN Phase One for his fans and its surrounding publicity.
So, finally, onto the album itself. It’s experimental, but not in the pushing-the-whole-music-world-forward manner of masterpieces such as Purple Rain or Dirty Mind. Instead, we’re treated to the sound of an acknowledged, restless master incorporating some modern touches into his own work, and judging by the especially magical “Like a Mack,” doing so after enjoying a few Bollywood movies.
Some early critics have labeled the EDM influences that dominate the album’s first half cliched (“It's like Prince discovered Skrillex and is partying like it's 2009,” said one), but to these ears it seems more like a wily cat playing with a new ball of yarn than one hopelessly chasing a laser pointer. Even if none of the songs on this album are as concise, fully-formed or immediately appealing as “Clouds” or “U Know” from the aforementioned Art Official Age, as a whole the 16-minute-shorter HITNRUN holds your attention better from start to finish.
Of course, it’s a blast to hear Prince break out his multi-instrumental wizardry in this new setting. The bass solo he delivers in the last minute of “Shut This Down” ranks right up their with previous high marks such as “La, La, La, He, He, Hee” and “The Daisy Chain,” for example.
The biggest problem in the early going is actually the lyrics. Typically, that’s one of Prince’s strong suits, but he abandons his usually poetic ways and gets locked into his rare but dreaded oversimplified bragging and boasting mode on otherwise engaging tracks such as “Ain’t About to Stop.”
Besides, with the exception of the throbbing, hiccuping “X’s Face,” the album’s second half finds Prince treading in more familiar territory, such as the sleek, dance floor burner “FALLINLOVE2NITE” and the dramatic “Dirty Diana”-meets-“Darling Nikki” guitar showcase “HARDROCKLOVER.” The two closing tracks are also the most mellow -- the infectiously bubbling love song “1000 X’s and O’s” and the trippy, lucid dream of “June,” which could be seen as the long-awaited, more downbeat successor to 1987’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
So on its own, HITNRUN Phase One is definitely worth checking out even if you're just a casual Prince fan. There are also some tantalizing hints that this album may just be one piece in a still-to-be-revealed puzzle or the beginning of a new method of releasing music for Prince.
For one thing, look at the "Phase One" tacked onto the end of the name -- unless he pulls a George Michael on us, that's a pretty good hint that a "Phase Two" is on the way, right? There are also several clear connections to last year's Art Official Age -- the new album's cover art is basically just a cartoon version of the previous record's cover, and different versions of the song "This Could B Us" appear on each set. Similarly, "Mr. Nelson" on HITNRUN is a primarily instrumental track that pulls disjointed spoken word segments from its predecessor's "Clouds" in such a way that even those familiar with the former song may not understand the connection. Perhaps this is the start of Prince leaving the possibly outdated stand-alone album format behind in favor of something more fluid.
Prince has also promised to release a new or previously unreleased song from his vaults each week via Tidal -- a bass-popping funk rave-up named "Stare" and the video for an acoustic kiss-off named "Indifference" have already been posted. Granted, the Purple One has proven to be just as quick to abandon new initiatives like this as he is to start them, but let's hope he's finally found an acceptable way to release his best new music as quickly as he's proven he can make it.
It's the collaborative relationship with Welton that really sets the imagination of Prince fans running wild. It's hard to imagine each and every one of us hasn't fantasy-booked at least one all-star team-up featuring the Purple Yoda. (Here's mine: he covers all of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, with Jack White producing.)
It's not that our hero needs anybody's help to make exciting music -- a good deal of HITNRUN Phase One shows he's got a lot of ideas left to explore -- and obviously, there's a world of difference between empowering a previously unknown in-house studio partner and say, letting Questlove choose the band and songs for the next Prince album. Most likely, this is about as far as this experiment goes. But suddenly, he's back to making interesting records at breakneck speed, and for the first time in a while, at least the possibilities seem endless again.
See Worst to Best: Every Prince Album Ranked