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Prince: The Most Inscrutable Cocktease In The World

by Carol Cooper

Prince
Come
Warner Bros.

1-800-New-Funk
NPG/Bellmark

If you hear the sound of a gauntlet slapping the floor, it's only the echo of Come (Warner Bros.) and 1-800-New-Funk (NPG/Bellmark) hitting the racks of your local record retailer. Both are excellent albums, and each arrives at the "wrecka-stow" from theoretically competing labels. I mean, the guy folks used to call Prince has put WB on notice. In February, while trying to resolve some ongoing contractual disputes with his friends at Warners, he released a single through the black-owned independent label Bellmark. Now, still resentful over pressure to dump the Paisley Park imprint and make more predictably commercial music, his royal badness returns in the wake of a comprehensive greatest hits package that all but buried his baroque symbol album and drops his two most accessible and ideologically cohesive LPs since Dirty Mind.

Like a lot of the man's black fandom, I consider Dirty Mind (1980) the album I resisted most at first but ultimately loved most. It consolidated the persona that rocketed Prince to megastardom; that of the evasive, manipulative cocktease. It's because he knows exactly what turns us on that he became so determined to give it to us in carefully rationed, pimplike doses, calculated to keep his audience in a constant state of aggravated anticipation. The handcuffs, masks, and chains featured in his videos long before they showed up in Madonna's are the mark of the s/m master -- and the former Prince seems to have finally figured out that even the most devoted masochist needs more frequent and familiar forms of satisfaction than he saw fit to dole out. He's had a long enough career to know that if you leave a fan jonesing too long for a specific aural caress, you'll come back to find another lover holding her head.

Which brings us to Come, aka Dirty Mind Revisited. Wrapped in a stark black and white cover adorned with cryptic mirror writing about "the Dawning of a New Spiritual Revolution," Come is the same potent cocktail of sex, race, perversion, and politics that delighted and shocked us 14 years ago -- only this time executed by a live band rather than a bank of synthesizers. This more collaborative style of recording can't help but reflect on a man who previously preferred to work alone. "Letitgo," the leadoff single, is unabashedly confessional -- almost apologetic -- about this sort of behavior, and vows to do away with all the old, annoying Princely habits -- "I wanna just let it go/Lay back and let my feelings show." If "7" suggested the soul's triumph over the seven deadly sins, then more literal-minded songs like "Race" and "Papa" invoke the end of white supremacy and cyclical child abuse. "Solo," a bizarre Gershwin-esque aria for voice and harp, was co-written with David Henry Hwang, the author of M. Butterfly. I can think of no finer tone poem for the alienation and melancholy that the rest of Come seeks to exorcise.

Stylistic echoes of Sly, Curtis Mayfield, and P-Funk are scattered throughout these arrangements -- not in the usual spirit of one-upmanship, but in the spirit of communion. Drawing from these sources tends to make the new material more direct -- lyrically and musically -- than when whole albums were full of Beatles-esque self-indulgence and gratuitous psychedelia. The vocal approach throughout is also moiré emotionally open, from the Impressions-istic falsetto of "Dark," to the Tower of Power chattiness of "Race." You may not always agree with what he has to say, but you understand it perfectly. This candor and clarity is something else we've been missing since the days of Prince and Dirty Mind.

Probably better remembered for its ode to oral sex than for its equally passionate anti-draft ditty, Dirty Mind was the perfect Black American answer to the world-weary decadence of British New Wave. Before rap was accepted as radio music, Prince was the dirtiest, most arresting stuff you could hear over commercial airwaves. But as his singles grew less explicit and funky, he lost ground to new forms of outrageousness -- the Bobby Browns, Ice Cubes, and Dr. Dres of the world. Here was a man who would do anything (even lie in print about the racial background of his parents) so the white media wouldn't keep him penned in the r&b "ghetto" -- only to find the ghetto triumphant on the pop charts after all!

The nadir of this particular irony was his subsequent struggle to incorporate rap vocals into his post-Revolution era bands. It took several collaborations with George Clinton for him to relearn that a truly sexy motherfucker can get just as much mileage out of a carefully modulated chant as from an authentically percussive rap. Which is why "Come," though anchored to some goofy jingle bells in the rhythm track, is the most seductive virtual sex act penned since "Erotic City." "Pheromone" even steals a tiny lick from that former classic, then dives libido first into scenes of bondage and voyeurism that are the next best thing to being there. If Warner Bros. can't sell truckloads of this stuff, a more substantial defection to Bellmark might be in the offing.

*

PERSONALLY, I WAS NEVER A FAN of Bellmark's first NPG single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Unlike all the people who bought it, I found the sentiment and melody too insipid to hold my interest. But The Beautiful Experience maxisingle managed to change my mind by rearranging, reformatting, and remixing the tune into variations for almost everyone. Its radical diversity illustrates the creative dilemma that pushed Prince over the brink into symbolic suicide. Unable to get all his ideas out at once under the routine constraints of album marketing strategies, he constantly has to choose between frustrating his audience or himself when putting together each LP. For proof, look to the B-sides CD of the recent 3-disc hits package. Here lie 20 of the most diverse-sounding compositions since the Bowie retrospective; 19 of them flawless. Had their writer presented them to WB as a single album project, one can imagine the nervous confusion of the promo department looking for a "logical' sequence of viable singles.

No such problem plagues 1-800-New-Funk, which, in spite of nine different acts, features plenty of track-to-track continuity. As seamlessly soulful as Warren G, this is jeep-beat music at its finest, something you can drive around to all day without fiddling with the search function. White soul singer Margie Cox updates classic Motown on "Standing at the Altar"; "MPLS" by Minneapolis will remind many of the original Time. Mayte's "If I Love U 2night" is the best song Janet Jackson never recorded, yet is not rendered trivial by the punchier r&b stylings of Mavis Staples, George Clinton, or the Steeles.

In all fairness to Warners, nothing this solid ever came out on Paisley Park when it was nestled in the bunny hutch; only the instrumental combo Madhouse made consistently listenable product. But with the feature Of his corporate identity on the line, He Who Chooses To Remain Nameless isn't jacking around anymore. The time of the cocktease is over . . . no more messin' about. 1-800-New-Funk is the G-rated stuff for the Bible Belt, while Come is there for the hardcore funkateers. Yet both are aimed like heat-seeking missiles at the same demographics driving the sales of R. Kelly and Boyz II Men.

Because he wants us all to worship him again, hooky songs, credible vocals, and a broad stroke of the tar brush are all a part of his new religion. At New York's Palladium last month to do two benefit concerts for Dance Theater of Harlem, he used the informal altruistic atmosphere to preview the juicier bits of Come. Most surprising both nights were the duets and guest stars. Marvin Gaye's little girl Nona, purportedly the current Royal Consort, has two songs on 1-800-New-Funk, including the antigun, antigang duet "Love Sign'. Its anthemic hook enjoys a sassier delivery on record than Nona gave it onstage, but one still marveled how it neatly distilled the mood, style, and dilemma of modern outlaw youth into a single lucid couplet -- "Gotta make love and have a little fun/Throw up the love sign and everybody drop the gun" At the Palladium, The Glyph allowed himself to be joined on stage by not one, but two fellow black rock guitar gods. When Lenny Kravitz and Vernon Reid joined their host in a version of "Mary, Don't you Weep," people started looking around for Jesus. First our born-again princeling presses the flesh of mere mortals at a Tower Records appearance, and now this! Surely life as we know it is coming to an end. Debuting a compact stage set that resembled nothing so much as a female's reproductive organs, a kinder, more gracious purple elf gave birth to his current alter ego that night.

But no reincarnation is permanent. Reformed or not, there will always be something imperious and fickle underneath that carefully processed "do that wants to behave like a character out of H. Rider Haggard. Right now he wants to be our lover. But for how long?

Published in: Village Voice, August 30, 1994

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