[READ THIS FIRST.]
Since he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, what should one call "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince?" "The Artist?" "Symbol Man?" "Fred?"
After listening to Emancipation,his first release since his separation with Warner Brothers, the answer is clear - call him Prince, 'cause he's not made music this good since he was still using his birth name. (Since he and I are not on speaking terms - see if I ever return his phone calls again - I'm choosing to call "him" Prince. If he doesn't like it, he can always e-mail me.)
When Prince first announced that he was releasing a three-disc set, some people snickered that he truly had gone off the deep end, seeing that his popularity and sales had gone down the proverbial toilet. Some reviewers may have cringed when given the assignment to review this same set. After barely making it through Come, not having the courage to listen to The Gold Experience and never bothering to purchase Chaos And Disorder, even I was a little apprehensive. But my fears were soon erased.
The first disc/tape (all three tapes/CDs have 12 songs, and are exactly 60 minutes long) starts off a little weakly with "Jam Of The Year," which has a good melody line despite its cocky swagger. After that, the gloves come off, and Prince returns to a form I haven't heard since I dropped $20 on a bootleg copy of The Black Album. He lays down the funk in a way that would make George Clinton jealous, and he can still croon a ballad like the best.
"Get Yo Groove On," "Right Back Here In My Arms," "We Gets Up"... the onslaught never stops on the first tape. Even the cover of "Betcha By Golly Wow," a song I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to forget, is livened by Prince's close-to-the-bone rendition.
In fact, probably one of the few weaknesses in Emancipation is the heavy reliance on cover songs. No less than four are found among the three tapes. While Prince does a respectable job on "I Can't Make U Love Me" (c'mon, can't we drop this damned stupid habit of using pictures for words?), it breaks no new ground, leaving Bonnie Raitt's version as the true version.
When the light-swing of "Courtin' Time" kicks in, you know that Prince is having fun performing and exploring some musical roots here. If anything, the weirdness that permeated many of Prince's last few records is thrown out the window, leaving the music... and nothing but the music. One also tends to forget how talented this guy is, playing almost every single instrument and creating incredible layered vocal tracks.
Disc two, like each tape in the collection, starts off weak with "Sex In The Summer," a song featuring a sample of Prince's then-unborn child's heartbeat from an ultrasound. (Sorry, Prince - I know that track is one of your favorites!) Once you're past that, the fun continues with "Emale," one of two computer-based songs on Emancipation. Tape two is the prettiest of all, with cuts like "The Holy River," "Soul Sanctuary," "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife" and others. Undoubtedly the most beautiful song here is "Curious Child," a song which I wish had been longer.
Disc three contains the few throwaways that could have been cut from the work. "Slave" and "New World" just do not go anywhere, nor does Prince's cover of "One Of Us," made (in)famous by Joan Osborne. But the weakness passes quickly, and Prince again pumps some quality funk and r&b into the mix. "Face Down," "Sleep Around," "The Love We Make" and the closing title track round off the album superbly. By the time the last note sounds, it's hard to believe that three hours have passed. It takes a rare breed to make time pass that quickly, and Prince has succeeded.
Call him whatever name you think the symbol stands for, but don't call Prince out just yet. Emancipation proves this little guy has a lot of life left in his musical career, and only now is he ready to prove it to the world. (If only the sales would prove it; while it debuted rather high, the album has steadily been slipping down the charts.) While I have no plans to put away The Black Album just yet, Emancipation will be right next to it on the shelves. This is a return to form that should not be missed, and is my choice for the best album of 1996.