When a famous musician dies unexpectedly, there’s often a commercial bonanza on their unreleased or unfinished material. This makes sense in ways that are mostly crass: There’s an opportunity to capitalize on a swell of interest, particularly if it’s an artist whose commercial peak was in the rear view. When Prince died in April 2016, his death left many stunned, and also presented an exceptionally complicated potential case of the scenario just described. Prince was the keeper of perhaps the most obsessed-over collection of unreleased music in history, his famed “vault,” a trove that attested to both his superhuman productivity and an approach to releasing music that was, even at the height of his fame, unorthodox.
In his 58 years, Prince probably created about 15 lifetimes’ worth of music, but it was always a mystery how he decided when to release what, what he’d give to other artists, and what he chose not to release at all. That mystery was part of what made him Prince—but after his death, it wasn’t unreasonable to fear that an unguarded vault would lead to unscrupulous raiders flooding the market with music that was never intended to see the light of day.
This is all a way of saying that reviewing Welcome 2 America, the first posthumous LP made up of entirely unreleased material from the late genius, is a complex proposition. The whole enterprise of criticism rests on the idea that once an artist voluntarily puts art into the world they surrender the right to dictate how people engage with it, emotionally, intellectually, and otherwise. A work like Welcome 2 America, which Prince recorded in 2010 and then decided against releasing, strains the ethical logic of this premise.
Luckily, this quandary doesn’t end up as vexing as it might have been, because Welcome 2 America is excellent; it’s a funky, lithe, and ebullient work that includes some of the best music Prince made this century. Welcome 2 America is also, importantly, a finished work: It’s not a bunch of demos, discarded takes, and studio noodling haphazardly dressed up like a unified whole. It’s tight, cleanly cohesive, and it sounds totally incredible. I don’t know what Prince’s reasons were for shelving this work, but quality control could not have been among them.
Welcome 2 America has already drawn attention for the politicized nature of its lyrics, which find Prince surveying a country that elected its first Black president only two years earlier but is now revving up to sweep the Tea Party into office in the midterms. “Hope and change, everything takes forever/ truth is a new minority,” he laments on the song’s title track; “We can live underwater, it ain’t hard/ when you never been part of the country on dry land,” he sings on “1000 Light Years From Here,” a song that seems to deliberately invoke Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away.” There’s a keen interest in history as well: “Keepin’ it Franklin, Benjamin Banneker was never born a slave/ And if George Washington never told no lie, maybe we’d all be saved,” he sings on “One Day We Will All B Free,” a nice bit of wordplay that pulls together two founding fathers and the 18th-century Black polymath Banneker in the same breath.
But nothing about Welcome 2 America feels preachy or ponderous—if anything, the precise details of its political conscience feel purposefully, even playfully oblique. The Prince heard here is the same Prince that once ended a stark rumination on the moral rot of Reaganism with an offhanded invitation to baby-making and a brainstorming of possible names. In large part, this is because the music is so infectious and alive. Welcome 2 America was recorded with a band that included Tal Wilkenfeld on bass, Chris Coleman on drums, and Morris Hayes on keyboards, and features extensive contributions from vocalists Shelby J., Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo, who often function more as co-lead vocalists than traditional backup singers. “Born 2 Die” is sticky, slithering funk, while tracks like “Hot Summer” and “Yes” offer energetic blasts of New Wave-tinged rave-ups and punky dance-pop. The high point, to my ears, is “1000 Light Years From Here,” a sparkling piece of dreamy, mid-tempo soul that showcases Prince’s peerless guitar abilities. It’s a performance that sounds like Nile Rodgers, Curtis Mayfield, and Keith Richards wrapped up into one person.
As someone who doggedly tried to keep up with Prince’s work in the 21st century—a pursuit that was both expensive and sometimes exhausting—one recurring frustration was a noticeable drop-off in songwriting quality. For the first two decades of his career, Prince was, to my mind, one of the greatest songwriters of the rock-and-roll era. As I wrote back in 2016, I don’t think anyone has ever written a song better than “Little Red Corvette”; there are probably 30 other Prince compositions that are just as good. But it never felt like he lost the ability to write great songs as much as he lost interest in things like structure, concision, formal shape, and the time and attention that each requires.
Thus one of the most pleasant surprises of Welcome 2 America is how tight the writing is. These are songs with crisp hooks and inventive, transporting bridges, compositions of real shape and dynamism. I wouldn’t rank any of these songs with the very best of Prince’s earlier work, but for a guy in his early fifties, much of what’s here feels razor-sharp, a composer fully engaged with his own craft. (Welcome 2 America also offers a new entry in Prince’s consistently fascinating oeuvre of covers, a rendition of fellow Minneapolitans Soul Asylum’s 2006 song “Stand Up and Be Strong,” rewritten as “B Strong” in Prince’s version.)
If the lyrical concerns of Welcome 2 America often feel distinctly of its moment, not a whole lot else about it does. There’s little evidence here that Prince was attentively listening to pop and R&B radio circa 2010, nor is there any of the trend-chasing that occasionally made its way into his turn-of-the-century work. Every time I thought I heard a flash of contemporary “influence”—a dab of Ne-Yo here, a sprinkle of The-Dream there—I quickly realized that what I was actually hearing was the long tail of the Purple One himself. These are artists who sound like Prince, not the other way around.
If Welcome 2 America had been released in 2010, I doubt it would have seriously threatened, say, Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber on the album charts, or sparked some career-altering pop comeback for its maker. That era of Prince’s career was long behind him, a condition that he seemed perfectly at ease with. But the album is a potent and welcome reminder of what we had when he was with us, a small treasure left behind by a singular artist, and there will surely be more of those to come. Prince never chose to release Welcome 2 America during his life, but in his afterlife, it sounds beautiful.