When Prince says “it’s going down, y’all, like the wall of Berlin” at the end of 3121‘s title track, his twenty-fifth album (no kidding), you really feel for the guy. The peak of his popularity long since gone, Prince had moved back into his signature sound with 2004’s Musicology in an attempt to restore his former glory, and this record follows suit to more success. But does Prince realize that most people who watch MTV weren’t even born when the Berlin Wall came down?
Prince raps on “Incense and Candles,” and I guess the ’80s trend is kinda still around; certainly the minimalist style that Prince pioneered is strong in the charts. He even mentions a cell phone on “Satisfied” (remember car phones and communism?). But 3121 still can’t help but sound like twenty years ago. Even at its best, and it gets pretty damn good, such as on the stark “Black Sweat” and the rock single, “Fury,” the record still sounds like it’s stuck somewhere in the past.
There are a few truly disappointing tracks, mostly due to cliché rhymes and flat choruses. “Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed,” is early-’90s consciousness with a boring beat and dull lyrics. “Love” is three minutes too long, and the beat kind of sounds like Usher or something else that ain’t Prince. Quite often artists who have been around awhile try to sound like the charts in order to stay relevant; the Stones are probably the kings of this. But it’s a mistake, not because they shouldn’t evolve, but because truly great artists never sounded like the charts to begin with. Prince never sounded like the ’80s, he sounded like Prince, and in turn defined the decade’s sound to a large degree. When he mimics new styles, it’s even more disappointing than when he mimics himself.
After his show-stopping performance on Saturday Night Live last month reminded the entire world that Prince was not just a soul icon, but also a legendary guitar player, there’s little to say about the cemented reputation of one of the great R&B artists. But from this perspective, it’s inevitable that his new work will be compared to his old, and in a catalog that contains at least three must-own records (1984’s Purple Rain, 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, and 1980’s Dirty Mind) and five or six more near-classics, 3121 becomes a record that has no purpose but to satisfy the most obsessive of fans. For everyone else, it’s nice to know Prince hasn’t hit the bottom like other aging artists of his stature (Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder come to mind). But it’s a solid record such as this that makes you wonder if it’s even possible for an artist of this magnitude to actually satisfy the expectations of a constantly evolving audience.
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