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Prince’s Flawed ‘Diamonds, Pearls’ : PRINCE: “Diamonds and Pearls”, <i> Paisley Park / Warner Bros.</i>

Remember . . .

* Back in 1980 when Prince challenged sexual and social taboos with a bold, inventive album, “Dirty Mind, that established him as the most liberating figure in pop since David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” days a decade earlier?

* And back in 1981 and 1982 when he followed “Dirty Mind” with two more works--"Controversy” and “1999"--whose sex ‘n’ salvation themes continued to tease your imagination?

* And back in 1984 when Prince--once booed off the stage at a Rolling Stones concert because the rock audience ignorantly thought he was a throwback to disco--found a way in the “Purple Rain” album to reunite rock’s black and white roots?

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* And in 1985 when Prince redeclared his musical independence by moving away from the safety net of the “Purple Rain” pop-rock mainstream to follow his own artistic impulses with the sweeping, psychedelic-tinged “Around the World in a Day” album?

* And in 1988 when Prince’s spiritually minded “Lovesexy” album was so intimate and revealing that it made perfect sense for him to appear nude in the cover photo?

For anyone who remembers those moments in Prince’s extraordinary career, it’s easy to see why this album is such a disappointment.

Prince’s recent hollow performance on the MTV awards show was no fluke. The man who was at the absolute creative center of pop in the ‘80s may be working with some different elements musically--including a new band and a rap sidekick--but he has lost what was his most important characteristic: his daring songwriting edge.

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“Cream,” the sensual new single from the collection, is a tasty pop treat that should give Prince a quick hit, and the feel-good perkiness of “Walk Don’t Walk” may give him a second. Plus, “Jughead"--a dance number in the dopey “Do the Bart” tradition--should be a club sensation.

Generally, however, Prince, who once seemed obsessed with breaking down barriers, now seems so content to remain within his own fences that he appears at times on this album to be grazing. The music is frequently catchy and clever, but rarely passionate or essential.

Prince still relies on a lot of flesh and fantasy imagery, from the heavenly visions of “Thunder” to the boudoir heat of “Gett Off,” but it seems more obligatory than inspired. That’s why it’s hard to recall as many selections in Prince’s entire previous output that are as much in need of tighter editing than you find on this single, 13-song album. Time and again, songs run on after your interest in them has waned.

“Diamonds and Pearls” and “Insatiable,” ballads of romantic devotion that should be among the album’s most convincing songs, end up the most contrived. Sample line from the latter:

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2 night we video

No one will ever know

We’ll erase the naughty bits

I’ll show my . . .

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If you show your . . .

“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” seeks to revive the topical social commentary of “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” but it lacks the earlier song’s originality and bite. At one time, the idea of giving a Prince album just two stars would have been unthinkable. Now, it may even be a bit generous.

Rating: * *


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