Early on in his new live album, Prince admonishes his audience for what he thinks they may be expecting. “If you came here to get your Purple Rain on,” he says, “you in the wrong house.” He goes on to add that he’s not interested in what his audience knows, but what they are willing to learn.
That’s a bold statement from a once-relevant artist like Prince, who hasn’t had a hit in a decade. The general public, as a rule, doesn’t like to be taught things, and also doesn’t like to be reminded of how much they don’t know. America remembers Prince for Purple Rain, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, and that’s about it. They may remember his contribution to the Batman film, and might recall later hits like “Diamonds and Pearls” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” but doubtless most of the nation’s consumers are unaware that Prince has continued to make music during the last 10 years.
Not to feed the man’s ego, but if you’ve lost track of Prince since 1993, you’ve been missing one of the most dramatic and experimental transformations afforded by pop culture. More accurately, the type of musical reinvention that Prince has undergone has only recently been made possible by pop culture, specifically the internet. More than any of his contemporaries, the Minneapolis wunderkind has seized hold of the ‘net, gambling on it to float his artistic endeavors.
Prince calls his online home the NPG Music Club, and for years it’s been his primary form of contact with his audience. Not only is Prince aware that his audience has diminished considerably since his commercial heyday, but he encourages it, shunning the marketplace and refusing to compromise his vision. Most often, it works: the general public has left him well enough alone since he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and started releasing three-hour albums at regular intervals.
Prince isn’t content with just avoiding the public, however – he actively seeks to repel it. His major label “comeback” album, 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, was his weakest in many years, and conversely, his independently released 2001 record, The Rainbow Children, was a masterpiece. For the last 10 years, Prince has been all about his core fans, to the point of offering them whole albums through the NPG Music Club that are unavailable anywhere else, and giving club members the best seats at all his concerts. It’s as if he knows there’s only a select few out there who will get what he’s doing, and he caters to them exclusively. The internet has granted him the opportunity to piss off everyone else and still keep his career going.
The kicker is that he’s making the best music of that career right now, and very few people are hearing it. His transformation truly began in the late ’80s, when Prince began working with Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s ill-fated Doo Bop project. We’ve yet to hear the results of those sessions, which were among the great jazzman’s last, but it was around that time that Prince started experimenting with jazz fusion on the spectacular Black Album. Those experiments have fully bloomed on The Rainbow Children, on which Prince embraced the (for lack of a better term) blackness of his sound – part slamming jazz club, and part Baptist revival.
During the years leading up to The Rainbow Children, Prince quietly assembled an amazing band, including mindblowing drummer John Blackwell and sax player Maceo Parker, who played with James Brown for more than a decade. He finally took that band on the road last year, and the results of that tour are documented on his first-ever live record, One Nite Alone…Live. Never one to do anything small, Prince has packed three CDs full of terrific music and packaged them in a lovely box, along with a thick booklet. If you want an excellent primer on where the man is now musically, as well as further evidence of his sheer undiminished ability, this thing is well worth your $50.
But if you’re looking for the hits you remember, well, as the man said, you in the wrong house. The focus is on jazz-funk improvisation here, and Prince’s band rivals Parliament Funkadelic in that respect. Disc one opens with the title track of The Rainbow Children, an 11-minute fusion workout that gives Prince the chance to shine on guitar. (A quick side note – Prince remains one of the most underrated guitarists currently working, jamming with the fire of Hendrix and the melodic agility of the best jazz players.) He follows that up with the mellow “Muse 2 the Pharaoh” before launching into the 12-minute improv assault of “Xenophobia.” At this point, any hopes you may have of hearing “Little Red Corvette” should be dashed.
Disc one goes on to showcase his extraordinary band, and near the end he pulls out some golden oldies with “Strange Relationship” and “When U Were Mine.” Then he sucker-punches you with politics on “Avalanche,” a deceptively smooth piece about racism and slavery. Some may not be used to political statements from Prince, and this one is couched in ill-fitting light jazz, marking it as one of the few failures of his later output. Still, Renato Neto’s piano solo is terrific, and Prince is in fine voice, letting his chilling falsetto carry the tune.
The politics return on the much more successful “Family Name,” which opens disc two. A striking rant about the subjugation of surnames during slavery, the song practically explodes with energy. The band rips through “Take Me With U” and “Raspberry Beret,” Prince’s one concession to his hit-machine past, before careening into “The Everlasting Now,” a sweaty funk exercise. (They recently performed a truncated version of this on The Tonight Show.)
Most of disc two, however, is taken up with a lovely medley performed by Prince himself on piano and voice alone. This is as intimate and unadorned as the man has ever allowed himself to sound, and it’s fascinating. Here is “Adore,” and “Diamonds and Pearls,” and “Starfish and Coffee,” and “Free,” all coming off as classics reborn. Here too is Sinead O’Connor’s hit “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince wrote, sounding like a lost child returning home. The medley culminates with “Sometimes It Snows in April,” an underrated gem, and it’s almost a shame when the band comes back in for the mammoth “Anna Stesia.” But not much of one, since that song is given new, fully organic life.
Much has been made of Prince’s newfound spiritual side, and it’s in full evidence here. “The only four-letter word you’re gonna hear tonight is ‘love,'” he says at one point, and he keeps his promise – One Nite Alone is strictly PG. The later material includes songs about theocratic order, accurate knowledge of Christ, and above all, the enduring love of God. It’s interesting to note, however, that this is not a new development. Prince has been singing about God all along, balancing it (as he still does) with songs about sexual union. Most striking is “Anna Stesia,” from 1988’s Lovesexy, which concludes (both the song and the concert) with the refrain, “Love is God and God is love, girls and boys love God above.”
As fitting a closer as that is for the new Prince, he’s not quite done. One of the benefits of membership in the NPG Music Club this year was an invitation to an after-show party, where the band took the stage again for a loose, funky jam. One Nite Alone includes a third disc recorded at these parties, called The Aftershow…It Ain’t Over, and it’s here that the band really cuts loose. Guests Musiq and George Clinton show up to lend a hand, but aside from those interludes, It Ain’t Over is one hour-long groove, and a stunning one at that. It’s the icing on an already tasty cake.
Through it all, what stands out most is how well Prince has managed the transition from brash young upstart to elder statesman. He’s in a far better and more confident place than, say, Stevie Wonder was at this point in his career, and all the signs point up. Just three years ago, he was wearing glittering blue body suits and sounding ill at ease with his place in the world. Now he’s tricked out in suits and hats and self-assuredly doing what he does best – playing great music. There’s nothing tentative about One Nite Alone – rather, it’s a document of an artist secure in his talent and his vision. Now more than ever, he’s worth listening to.
See you in line Tuesday morning.