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DR: It’s been 15 years since I first saw The-Artist-I-Refuse-to-Stop-Calling-Prince perform at the Warner Theatre during the Controversy era. I was in elementary school and there I was, watching my pint-size, green-eyed heartthrob feign masturbation on his guitar neck while flying around the stage in a trench coat, 4-inch heels, bikini briefs, and leg warmers. In ’83, I can remember going to buy black lace gloves after his 1999 tour with the Time and Vanity 6. And I still vividly remember that bed rising up from the middle of the stage, and him mounting an imaginary (woman?) and feigning sex. The last time I saw my little sex god, in 1984 at what is now USAir Arena, I got the greatest high when he performed with Sheila E. and the Revolution. Even Apollonia had me hyped. So last Friday, as I stood in the cold, waiting to get into the ticket office, I wondered if the energy would be as strong, the sexuality as raw, and—excuse me—the ass as tight.

HB: Prince started making records at a time when most kids his age were trying to decide what college to go to. By 1979, his eponymous second album fixed his place in the R&B firmament. And though at age 9 I didn’t exactly catch the true meaning of “I want to be the only one you come for,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover” remains one of my favorite songs. Prince’s career peaked in 1984 with the earth-shattering Purple Rain. People wondered how he would top this success. He never did.

It wasn’t really until ’88 that he began to fall off. It’s been almost a decade since then. The buzz on Emancipation was that it was Prince’s funkiest record since 1999, and while it has more funk than “The Artist” has given us in ages (it’s hard to be funky when the Man got you chained), it’s not devastatingly good, which, after all the hullabaloo, it really ought to be.

“Call the police! Somebody call the police! These guys threatened to kick my ass! All I want is one ticket!” An overly anxious white male is getting a little too hyper about trying to get a ticket from a burly-ass brother who has nothing more for him than a death threat: “Man, 400 years are over. You can try that whining-to-the-police shit on Wall Street, but it don’t work here.” The big dude is right, and the police tell the guy to move on. The scalper is selling to the highest bidder—and the guy screaming for his life ain’t coming up with enough loochie. One guy offers the scalper $400. A fan briefly contemplates selling his own to pay the rent. Another pair put out $250 apiece. Meanwhile, the scared white guy is still pressing for a ticket. And this time big bro’ scalper informs him he’s on the verge of a beat-down if he doesn’t step off. Prince’s “Love One Another” charity concert is turning into a kickassfest outdoors. I’m ready to go inside.

The hype surrounding this new release was matched only by the hype surrounding the concert. The $50 tickets sold out in 15 minutes. Preconcert Prince sightings were rampant. Rumor had it he would perform at the Tricky concert the night before. The next day people said he stepped to the mike and did a rap. (I was there, and that wannabe MC kid was not Prince.) Then they said he was going to jam at the Black Cat after his Constitution Hall performance. As if.

Compared to the tickets, the new album seems like a bargain, at $25 for three CDs. But sometimes you get what you don’t pay for. The fact is, Emancipation has so many tracks there’s bound to be something you like—and something you don’t. If Prince had limited himself to two CDs, this joint would be the bizomb! Freedom is a good thing, as the Purple One now likes to say, but so is self-control.

At 8:50 p.m., the cardboard figure of The Artist propped in front of the microphone is removed. Screams erupt. The lights go down, and minutes later Prince pimps onstage donned in the infamous tight pants, an oversize hustler-style hoodie jacket with that symbol emblazoned on the back, sunglasses, and the many-inches-high-heeled white boots that he walks in better than I do in my sneakers. “D.C.!” he belts in a rough tenor. “Everybody’s here! This is the jam of the year!” He flies up one of the ramps that line both sides of the stage and is close enough for his fans in the side balconies to touch him. The crowd is hyped. He breaks out into a fierce groove before giving a shout-out to D.C. radio personality Donnie Simpson. No one is in his or her seat. I even see a few gray-haired septuagenarians bopping up and down.

Some of the best songs on Emancipation are the covers. That he would include four of them on a record is surprising. And releasing “Betcha By Golly, Wow!” first showed savvy but didn’t give fans any clue as to what Prince was up to—he who had changed his name to a non-name, he who had declared that the industry was stifling his creativity, he who needed to come out hard if he wanted to maintain his rep.

“La, La, La Means Eye Love U” [Sorry, someone else is using the eye glyph—ed.] is another classic soul song he delivers smoothly. “Eye Can’t Make U Love Me,” made famous by Bonnie Raitt, is an achingly beautiful song he interprets well. And he deserves much dap for his version of “One of Us.” I thought the song was corny when Joan Osborne sang it, but Prince Princifies it—more rock in the guitars, a little more soul in the vocals, nuanced phrasing—even changing the word “slob” to “slave.”

Eventually the huge coat is shed and we see he’s sporting a black T-shirt with his wife Mayte’s picture printed on the front. Brown-skinned, braid-sporting guitarist Kathleen Dyson is tearing shit up as Prince looks on, shouting, “Yeah, girl!” When “Purple Rain” echoes over the speakers, the crowd completely loses it. He breaks into a guitar solo that makes me just want to cry. He mutters a gracious “thank you” when we ferociously applaud his virtuosity. Modesty after all these years. He bounds up the ramp again in those heels, and I swear he’s gonna outright bust his ass, but of course he never does. I love the man to death, but in all honesty I have kinda been waiting for him to trip…at least stumble…

While few have smoother onstage moves than he (recall the “Little Red Corvette” video), Prince’s latest release is not so flawless. The worst offenders are hiphopesque songs like “Mr. Happy.” It’s bad enough that he employs the generic Scrap D, who also raps on the pitiful “Da, Da, Da,” but The Artist then adds a rap of his own. No, he did not say, “This is 80 proof/Guaranteed to get your girl loose/If she douche.” He’s from Minnesota. What does he know about rap? And I ask you, does “Scrap D” sound like the name of someone who can really flow?

“Damned If Eye Do” starts off sounding like the theme to Full House played by Bon Jovi and Huey Lewis and the News. Then there are the “techno/house” songs. “New World” sounds straight ’80s—in a bad way. “The Human Body” is a good song but gets destroyed by Z-100 radio-remix overlays. I expect Prince to be more original and up-to-date. He should follow Madonna’s lead and let a skilled DJ like Junior Vasquez do his remixes.

It’s a pure jam session now. He has returned to the stage wearing a white silk pajama top over his tight pants. He is giving love, and oh, is the crowd loving him back. Gone is the heavy makeup, the bikini briefs, the somber expression he used to wear. He smiles a lot, he flashes his wedding band, he touches his fans’ extended hands. He even pulls an audience member onstage and, yes, girlfriend did catch hold of that ass. Lucky her. The strains of “17 Days” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” bring the crowd to a frenzy. But when he breaks out with “Do Me Baby,” adding riffs from “Adore” and “Scandalous,” shit gets buckwild. I can’t lie—I love the old stuff. Wait, whose big-ass head is this blocking my view? It’s the dude from outside—I see he finally got a ticket. He turns around when he sees my pen and paper. “I hope you’re giving this a great review….It doesn’t get any better than him.” I ask him how much he finally paid to get in. He pauses, “Cheap…a hundred.” I know he’s lying, but I smile and feel good that he got in without getting his ass whipped. Meanwhile, Prince revels in a mass seduction. “Would you let me wash your hair? Would you let me touch you there?” Even some men are screaming, “Yes!” He raises his long, flowing white shirt up over his behind. “Is your man fine? Has your man got an ass like mine?” That’s it. My night is made. I don’t need to see anything else. He’s still got it.

No one ever had to tell Prince how to drive a woman insane—the name change and marriage haven’t made him forget. CD No. 2 carries the bulk of the slow songs, and not a single one is weak. From the getcha-mack-on “One Kiss at a Time” and the melodic “Soul Sanctuary” to the monogamy-celebrating “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife” and “Let’s Have a Baby,” it’s all lush and lovely. Technology fiends will appreciate “My Computer” from the third disc, with its “Welcome…You’ve got mail” AOL sample.

And he still knows how to deliver a good dance groove. The midtempo “In This Bed Eye Scream,” dedicated to former bandmates Wendy, Lisa, and Susannah, sounds like old-school Prince. “Joint 2 Joint” features tap dancer Savion Glover and a hilarious interlude at the end: “Great,” he deadpans. “Now you think I’m your soul mate. You don’t even know what kind of cereal I like.” Prince has an obvious knack for classic soul. He’s pushing 40, and he’s discovered the joys of domesticity. Scrap the rappers and techno beats and give us a solid, nothing-but-hits record. It seems he’s heading in that direction, but we’ll just have to wait until the next album comes out to see for sure.

“Prince is dead! Long live the NPG!” The Artist roars as he steps back on stage to ear-splitting applause for his encore. “Freedom is a beautiful thing!” he shouts gleefully. It is. It’s doing wonders for him. His presence is infectious and upbeat. I must admit that my favorite new groove of the night is “Face Down,” a take-no-prisoners jam informing folks to bury him face down “so motherfuckas can kiss my ass”—obviously a tribute to Warner Bros. His definite future hit “Sleep Around” blasts through the house a few minutes later, and the party continues. After giving each band member a spotlight solo, things begin to wind down. Chants of “NPG in the motherfuckin’ house!” echo throughout the forum. At 10:50 p.m. Prince disappears, leaving the audience wanting so much more, and me realizing he hasn’t lost a damn thing after all these years. CP