Is this becoming a habit?
That's the question Prince raised Saturday morning when, without warning, he released a new album, "HitNRun Phase Two," on the streaming-music service Tidal. As its title suggests, the 12-track set follows an earlier album, "HitNRun Phase One," which Prince had made available in similar fashion in September — proof, it would seem, that this legendary control freak has shed his once-famous disdain for the unruly Internet.
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But a newly favored means of delivery isn't the only thing that feels familiar about "Phase Two." Taken together, the "HitNRun" records represent a larger echo of the two albums Prince put out in 2014, one mostly electronic ("Art Official Age"), the other rawer and more guitar-based ("PlectrumElectrum").
Maybe this double-shot system is how Prince, as prolific as he's ever been, intends to roll from here on out.
Works for me.
A proudly organic companion to the EDM-inflected "Phase One," Prince's latest album shows that he hasn't lost his interest in (or his knack for) the creeping funk and lush R&B balladry he was making in the early 1990s on records like the great "Diamonds and Pearls." That set inaugurated his on-again/off-again relationship with the elaborate backup band he calls the New Power Generation, and the group returns for "HitNRun Phase Two" following Prince's recent collaborations with 3rdeyegirl and the producer Joshua Welton.
In "Look at Me, Look at U," the players embroider a sturdy bass figure with separate saxophone and flute lines. "Xtraloveable" uses bright horns, chattering guitars and vintage-sounding synthesizers to build a busy, ebullient disco track. "When She Comes" adds accordion to the mix for a gorgeously detailed ode to a woman who can conjure "a limoncello ballet, a psychedelic cabaret" in her lover's mind.
Yet it's not all so ornate. "Stare" strips down (in more than one sense) with Prince adopting the royal "we" to remember when he "used to go onstage in our underwear" over a minimal groove that calls to mind "Sexy M.F." — at least until it quotes the indelible guitar riff from "Kiss."
Even if he didn't enjoy it, which he clearly does, that kind of self-reference would be hard to avoid for Prince, given the enormity of his catalog at this point. (Indeed, "Phase Two" repurposes several tunes Prince has issued in various configurations over the last few years, including "Screwdriver," an appealingly lewd garage-soul rave-up.)
But one reason the album has the vitality it does is Prince's determination to look outward even as he pulls from within. "Baltimore," the album's powerful opening cut, first appeared on Soundcloud in May in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody.
"Peace is more than the absence of war," Prince sings before warning that "we're gonna see another bloody day." Then he offers a solution, one more concise — and far more politically charged — than he's gone for in the past: "Let's take all the guns away." It's all the more moving for how warmly optimistic the song remains.
Other tracks signal Prince's engagement in the modern world in more lighthearted ways, as in the springy "2 Y. 2 D.," about a fellow performer "too fine for 'Idol,' too smart for 'The X Factor.' "
Coming from the guy who wrote "Nothing Compares 2 U," that's a throwaway line, no doubt about it; perhaps that's what happens when you start pumping out two albums every year. Yet Prince sings it with real spirit, an artist freshly charged up four decades into his career.
His habit is clearly feeding him.