From the beginning, Prince has been a master of concept. Arriving on the Minneapolis music scene in the late 1970s, the teenage singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist was regarded as an R&B whiz kid in the vein of Stevie Wonder, and celebrated for creating full-blooded recordings by himself in the studio, layering instrumental tracks—bass, drums, piano, guitars, vocals, everything—all played by himself. Questing to stand out in the long shadow of Stevie, Prince got conceptual. As Touré explains in 2013's I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, the almost eerily self-possessed young artist applied himself wholly to two new ideals. First, to represent, as Prince said verbatim to a friend at the time, "pure sex"—at all times, in all ways, to all people. Second, crafting his every move to create maximum controversy.
His achievement of this second goal was particularly dazzling. After placing himself naked on the back cover of his self-titled second album (sitting astride a winged white horse, no less) failed to achieve the desired shock, Prince moved on to the one thing more challenging than a totally naked man: a man in women's clothing. Our young genius was sporting heels and hose and not much else under his signature porno-perv trench coat on the cover of 1980's breakthrough Dirty Mind. The grooves on the album held tales of desperate three-ways, consensual incest, virginity-preserving cunnilingus, and the pain of getting kicked out by someone you still want to stick it in, all over a spare, squirrelly, new-wave-inspired funk that would serve as the blueprint for Prince's music ever after.
Now it's 34 years later, and Prince has just come forth with another concept, or at least a gimmick, releasing two new albums—Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum—on the same day. Such "two albums at once!" ploys have an iffy track record. Guns N' Roses tried it and did fine, Springsteen tried it and got burned, and now here's Prince, who follows the Springsteen model of two unrelated, stand-alone releases. In Prince's case, one is a seriously good new Prince album, and the other is a mildly pleasurable lark. Both, however, debuted in the Billboard Top 10. (Viva la dying industry!)
Plectrumelectrum is the lark. Recorded with Prince's "all-female touring band" 3rdEyeGirl, it's a rock album along the lines of 1996's Chaos and Disorder, with crunching guitar riffs and rousing sing-along choruses. A number of tracks are recognizable from the touring Prince has done with 3rdEyeGirl over the past couple years. At the 2013 show I saw at the Showbox, Prince's delight at rocking out with his new young band was obvious and contagious, in a way that made the new songs unobjectionable among the revived classics.
Left to stand on their own on record, these songs are revealed as the aforementioned mildly pleasurable larks. It doesn't help that Prince has always been parsimonious with his affiliated acts, allowing them one or two standout singles on deliberately hindered albums. (The first three Time albums and Sheila E.'s debut were all restricted to six songs each.) Compared to those acts, 3rdEyeGirl are allowed to roam free, and their record holds a dozen songs. Still, one's an instrumental, several are sung by not-Prince, and very few hit and stick. Ultimately, it feels like more of a tour souvenir than a full-fledged album, and props to Prince for getting such a thing near the top of the charts.
Art Official Age, however, is the real deal: a forward-thinking, expertly executed Prince album on par with such late-phase standard-bearers as 2004's Musicology and 2006's 3121, and, to my ears, stronger than either of those strong albums. Having spent the past 30 years proving his prowess in every popular musical style he puts his mind to, Prince draws on a well of musical mastery he can deploy however he sees fit. On Art Official Age, he devotes himself to crafting an inventive, playful world of 21st-century R&B, starting with the glorious electro-beated opener "Art Official Cage" and moving into a smooth, sunny mode reminiscent of his exceptional 1996 release Emancipation, where the occasionally klutzy hiphop beats he'd been playing with since Diamonds and Pearls gave way to classic soul smoothness.
"You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck when she doesn't expect," sings Prince on the second track, "Clouds." It's a far cry from 1999's "I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth," and rightly so: Prince is 56, and a devout Jehovah's Witness, and his prosaic sex talk makes him sound like a good husband, rather than a world-humping sex freak. It's enough to make you swoon.