Never let it be said that Prince doesn't retain the capacity to both dazzle and baffle. Through 36 years in the spotlight and one of the most influential of his generation, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson still pushes like he's gunning for fresh fame and acclaim.
With each effort, a consistent flow of art since his 1978 debut, "For You," the 56-year-old seems intent not just on challenging his muse but also on silencing the critics, feeding his public and reminding his musical offspring that he's still here, that he's still Prince and that when he commits his sharpened mind and dexterous digits, he can mess you up, make you shake your head in disbelief.
Further evidence of his derring-do permeates his two new and distinctively varied albums, "Art Official Age" and "PlectrumElectrum." Releasing simultaneously Tuesday, the dueling records are a homecoming with a label, Warner Bros., that ferried Prince to worldwide fame but that he later implied owned him as a slave. Combined, the albums reveal a muse blissfully free of constraints.
At their best, songs suggest an explorer freshly refueled by the Mothership and eager to roam. Tracks burst with aural delight while honoring their creator's noble weirdness — at one point during his rant against cloud computing, "Clouds," Prince zips 45 years into the future after a period of suspended animation — and sense of humor. For example, this "Tic Tac Toe" refrain: "Like a bunch of blind people playing tic tac toe / Who knows where the zeros and the Xs go?"
But the records also reveal his flaws: Prince errs on the side of bounty, is blind to the occasional clunker and still fancies himself a talent scout when he has his pick of could-be collaborators.
The full-lengths are at odds thematically and sonically: "Art Official Age" flows with synthetic beats, fake hand claps, futuristic bleeps, chipmunk-style vocals, rap, modernist R&B and a brand of digital seduction that Prince does better than anyone. The other, "PlectrumElectrum," rocks hard and with great distortion, and it seems a kind of negation of "Art Official Age." At various times, "Plectrum" sounds like a response to the work of the Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix and Gary Clark Jr. Both albums share a song, "Funk n Roll," which Prince performs two ways.
Though the rock record has its moments and is ferociously played, its songs are relatively flat. If you're looking for a freaky good time, "Art Official" is your ticket.
Doubt Prince can still bring it? Cue up that album's "Breakdown," your new favorite sad Prince-wails-like-he's-losing-it ballad, replete with laser-gun sounds. I can already imagine actor-comedian Maya Rudolph mimicking Prince's stutter-phrased, falsetto-peaked line, "waking up in places that you would never believe." The not-so-coy seduction of "Breakfast Can Wait" is a musical riff on the funny story that aired on "Chappelle's Show" involving Prince, sibling comedians Charlie and Eddie Murphy, entourages, late-night basketball and early-morning pancakes.
If your response to the first minute of "Art Official Cage," the opening track on "Art Official Age," is slack-jawed disbelief, you're not alone. Prince introduces the album with a 129 beats-per-minute disco-house thumper. Exactly one minute in, the now-cliched sample of a blaring air horn arrives out of the blue, like a party-starting Diplo has just burst into the studio for an ecstatically dumb cameo.
The future-freakiness of that jam moves like a compact, electro-botic Prince version of "Bohemian Rhapsody," with oddball U-turns, a synthetic bass-drop, a guitar solo, Prince vocoder, the sound of our hero being water-boarded (!), a string quartet and mini-movements that spin into double- and triple-time blasts. It's a glorious mess, all in a song that clocks in at less than four minutes.
Other revelations? "The Gold Standard" proves Prince can nail a hard, synthetic funk jam better than inheritors Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake and as powerfully as at any time in a career of classic groovers like "Kiss," "Housequake," "1999" and "Life O' the Party." His glistening cry can drench a ballad with juiciness. "U Know" is as curiously modern as similar efforts by upstarts like Miguel, the Weeknd or Frank Ocean.
The rest of that record is shockingly heavy, sonically sophisticated and filled with enough musical loop-to-loops as anyone has a right to expect from Prince, each eight measures a new epiphany. The aforementioned "Breakdown" is as searing a love letter as anything he's done since he split with Warner Bros. in the mid-'90s. It's an instant classic Prince ballad.
"PlectrumElectrum," though, illustrates that Prince isn't as gifted an editor of his rock work. It stars his new outfit 3rdEyeGirl (Prince, Hannah Ford Welton, Ida Nielsen, Donna Grantis). As a backing band, they're unimpeachable, as Prince himself sings on "Fix Ur Life Up": "A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band of boys."
He and band move through riffs, guitar solos and drum fills with a compact tightness that shouldn't surprise; Prince is a legendary taskmaster. The problem, though, is that half the songs, most obviously "White Caps," don't pop, don't scream for replay and should have landed on the cutting-room floor. In fact, of the dozen rock tracks, only the middle third keeps a consistent roll and could be arguably included on a Peak Prince mixtape.
It's tough to criticize Prince for offering such a welcome bounty, even if some of it's so-so. After all, who among the '80s superstars remains as relevant? U2? Madonna? Bruce Springsteen? I'll take the flawed, weird Prince rock of "PlectrumElectrum" over a conservatively bland U2 or Springsteen album any day. And I'll take an exquisite Prince R&B album like "Art Official Age" over pretty much anything else released this year.
"Art Official Age"