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There’s a reason Prince has strutted back into the mainstream as a saint, a superhero, a savior, and it has everything to do with a little thing called the Michael Jackson Line. The line marks the place at which a musician’s output, no matter how thrilling, can no longer be enjoyed—be it dancingly, ironically, or even karaokingly—because said musician has gone completely fuckin’ bonkers. Crack-is-wack Whitney Houston has crossed the MJL, Kurt-cursed Courtney Love has one stiletto over, and Pete Townshend is in serious trouble if he ever decides to do any more “research.”
No artist, however, has teetered on the MJL for as long as Prince. It’s been tough to watch. From taking a Sharpie to his chiseled li’l cheek to renaming himself a squiggle of doodle-pad art to putting on a string of avant-shitty concerts, the 45-year-old Paisley Parker has spent the past decade threatening to take the joy out of—and inject new meaning into—“Let’s Go Crazy.” With the Gloved One moonwalking through a morass of scabby nose jobs, suspect sleepovers, and accusatory kiddies, we need Prince, the true King of Pop, now more than ever. I didn’t like losing Off the Wall, but saying goodbye to 1999 would be devastating.
For whatever reason—maybe he just got tired of Andre 3000 nicking his shit—Prince seems to be playing (relatively) normal again. In February, he shook his teeny bum with Beyoncé at the Grammys. A few weeks later, he turned in a mesmerizing solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards. The wee genius is even letting a slave-driving major label, Columbia, distribute his music again—another reason why he hasn’t whipped up this kind of pub since he introduced the world to Apollonia’s boobies.
It’s the much-welcome new Musicology, though, that let’s us know he’s ours again. In fact, I’ve never been so excited to welcome a Jehovah’s Witness into my home. If the Minneapolis icon’s latest is closer to good than great, most of the 12 cuts—intricately layered and sounding clean, tight, and wonderful—will remind you of his biggest hits. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, and that’s a good thing: Prince thinks too much anyway. This album—a psychological comeback, if you will—is a sleek, hooks- and horns-driven promise that he’s not finished funking up for the greater good. Unlike 2001’s The Rainbow Children, Musicology isn’t meant to make you ponder the Sensual Everafter; it’s meant to make you shake that ass. This time, Heaven can wait—at least until the set-closer, the gently metaphysical, mostly acoustic “Reflection.”
Kicking off the album with a mid-thrust “Oooh!” Prince is certainly in cocky good spirits. In a bit of ’tween-song, rap-cocky horseplay, he fiddles with a radio dial and can find only his own songs, including “Kiss” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” classics he’s been reluctant to acknowledge in the recent past. And in the middle of the sublime title cut—a grooving shout-out to heroes James Brown and Sly Stone complete with “Sex Machine” guitar lines, sassy brass outbursts, and the boast that “We got a Ph.D. in advanced body movin’”—he commands, “On the one, y’all!” It might sound as if he were directing a massive band, but that’s the braggy gag right there: Check the liner-note lyrics and you’ll find “All instruments and voices by Prince.” Maceo Parker shows up on a few tracks, and backing gals Candy and Chance help out here and there, but most of the cuts were created by just one man—a man who works a mixing board better than just about anyone. Musicology is danceable, yes, but the Funky One didn’t let the grooves drown out the details, which surprise with almost every new listen.
Much has been made of the fact that the newly married, churchgoing Prince has cleaned up his act, and the fresh stuff is indeed family-friendly compared with such X-citable numbers as “Gett Off,” “Cream,” and that much-debated bit of masturbatoria, “Darling Nikki.” But even without the coital play-by-play, he’s still the sexiest M.F. around. “Life ‘O’ the Party” is basically a continuation of Sign “O” the Times’ “Housequake,” music for a thoroughly modern Mardi Gras with a so-low badonkadonk beat and Bourbon Street horn fills. “Cinnamon Girl,” about a Middle Eastern hottie made miserable by the current political climate, is from another time and place altogether—the time being 1982 and the place Ridgemont High, where New Wave and SoCal rock blended just fine. And “A Million Days”—Musicology’s top candidate for a bust-out hit—is a safe but richly soulful breakup ballad featuring an out-of-nowhere guitar solo that proves our man can still get his Hendrix on.
Even when extolling the virtues of betrothal, Prince keeps things frisky—though not so frisky that anything’s gonna end up on the bootleg-video circuit. “The Marrying Kind” whips playas into shape, a slinky-sleazy keybs-fueled warning shot that if a man doesn’t treat his lady well, Prince will: “She’s gonna miss U at first/But then she’s gonna buy me things/That’s when I’m gonna lay her”—wait for it, wait for it—“Across my piano stool and sing 2 her.” “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?,” by contrast, offers no-harm-no-foul soft-jazz musings and a hands-off admonition to a wanton groupie: “I got a woman/U got a man/So we got to do what’s right/U’d get beheaded in other lands.”
Musicology is rife with such funny lines, and it’s the album’s good humor that is probably the most surprising aspect of Prince’s return. The funniest song here—and maybe in his entire catalogue—is “On the Couch,” in which the notorious stud-puppet actually begs his spouse to let him out of the family room and back into the bedroom: “Don’t make me crash/Without Ur kiss/Tossin’ and a-turnin’/With every inch of me yearnin’.” You feel for the guy, sure, but these days, safely sacked out on the sofa is a fine place for him to be. He gets the Jennifer Convertible; we get to keep “Little Red Corvette.” CP