Prince’s “Comeback”

Debunking the critics’ take on Musicology.

The press for Prince’s Musicology has almost all emphasized the idea that he’s back. * The Boston Globe says Prince has made “a welcome return to form” while the Daily Telegraph, reaching for new adjectives, calls the album “a copper-bottomed, no-caveats return to form.” Jeff Jensen, in Entertainment Weekly, proclaims, “Through it all, there still existed the hope that a talent called ‘genius’ time and again could return to form. That moment finally seems to have arrived.”

In fact, Prince never genuinely went away. He tours regularly, and he’s still a stellar live performer. The years 2002 and 2003 were the only ones since 1977 that he hasn’t appeared on Billboard’s album charts. Yet his albums have been increasingly overinflated and wobbly, the last 10 have missed the Top 10, and he’s cracked the Top 40 pop-singles charts only twice since 1995. Hence, it’s comeback time. But we’ve seen precisely this rhetoric about Prince before. When 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic was released—the last time that one of his new albums appeared on a major label—the headline of a review in Salon read, “Call It a Comeback.” The headline of Anthony DeCurtis’ Rave write-up for the New York Times countered, “The Artist Is Back—But Don’t Call It a Comeback.” Going further back, Melody Maker called Diamonds and Pearls “a major return to form” as long ago as 1991.

It’s worth analyzing what all these appraisals presuppose: the idea that, at some point, Prince fell off and that there’s some kind of Platonic ideal or perfect form to which he can return. Where did his decline begin? Probably with 1989’s Batman soundtrack—the slapdash “Batdance” may have been a No.1 hit single, but you don’t exactly hear people yelling for it at his shows. The excitement about his new records since then has been more about what he’s already done than what he might be up to next. Understandably, he both does and doesn’t want to spin his new publicity blitz as a return to his prime. (In 1999, a Fresno Bee article reported, his publicist called journalists covering Rave Un2 to make sure they weren’t writing a “comeback” story.) Given his legendary ego, Prince can’t declare that his indulgences of the past decade or so were missteps; on the other hand, he has to do something to woo back former fans who’ve gotten burned to one extent or another by Come, Chaos and Disorder, Emancipation, Crystal Ball, The Vault … Old Friends 4 Sale, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, The Rainbow Children, N.E.W.S—and let’s not even get into the New Power Generation discography.

So, he’s making a sideways move: presenting Musicology as a master’s educational return to the values of the “old school”—that ideal form from which pop music has strayed (and, only by extension, his own work). “I see it as my duty to school young people coming up,” he told Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago. (“My voice is gettin’ higher and Eye ain’t never had my nose done,” goes a much-quoted line from ” Life ‘O’ the Party.” No, Prince, of course there’s nothing eccentric or vain about anything you’ve ever done.) The chief virtue of the new album is that it sounds pleasingly like the records that made Prince famous. But those same records didn’t reprise the sound of his earlier successes. From 1982’s 1999 up through 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, every album he made was an enormous surprise and a dramatic departure from what he’d done before. “When Doves Cry“ and ” Raspberry Beret“ and “Kiss“ and ” U Got the Look“were nobody’s homage to the old school: Each overturned received ideas of what a hit single could sound like.

The essence of Prince’s art was shock—not, primarily, sexual frankness. (He’s certainly blatant—”I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth,” he murmured in “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”—but it’s “sincerely” that’s the really jolting bit.) In his mid-’80s prime, he tweaked the instruments and voices on almost every song he released to sound unlike anybody else’s. His lyrics and singing were full of electrifying flashes of weirdness and lust; his mixes were so spare that every element prickled the skin when it arrived or left. Who pulls off that kind of shock on the radio these days? OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Missy Elliott’s “Work It” both come to mind, and Missy and OutKast’s André 3000 are both unmistakably in Prince’s debt.

But their hero, sadly, has an embarrassing blind spot where hip-hop is concerned—he once argued that “the rapper’s problems usually stem from being tone-deaf.” Michaelangelo Matos remarks in his new book on Sign O’ the Times that Tony M, the rapper in Prince’s group in the early ‘90s, “sounded like something Prince won at an arcade.” The title track of ” Musicology” claims that “if it ain’t [Public Enemy’s] Chuck D. or [Run-D.M.C’s late DJ] Jam Master Jay … they’re losin.’ ” That may be part of the reason Musicology is so un shocking: Hip-hop took over the make-it-new impulse in pop music around the same time that Prince lost his capacity to surprise, and its best artists and producers were inspired by Prince himself, but he’s not paying attention. (“Take your pick: turntables or a band?” he asks. Why not both?) Musicology’s call for a return to “the feeling music gave ya back in the day” is actually nostalgia for the moment before hip-hop stole his crown. He’s returned to the form of that moment—but his original greatness came from never retracing his steps.

Correction, May 19, 2004: This article originally distorted a line from a review of Prince’s Musicology by Washington Post critic David Segal, truncating it to suggest Segal had written that the album “feels like a comeback.” Segal’s full sentence reads, “So Musicology feels like a comeback even if it isn’t.” ( Return to the article.)