When Prince staged a colorful 2004 resurrection (Musicology ”sold” over 2 million copies, thanks to an ingenious ploy of bundling a CD with every ticket purchased for that year’s top-grossing concert tour), he achieved something resembling renewed cultural relevance. Playing mostly smashes from his prolific career and impressing a new generation with his enviable instrumental chops, the tour made a convincing case for why the art of showmanship sans pricey effects and grotesque production numbers should be preserved. And two decades past his commercial peak, Prince also proved that there’s still no other artist who can simultaneously captivate and baffle an arena with such an arresting arsenal of humor, charisma, weirdness, and undeniable talent.
But lest there be any confusion, the masses were actually celebrating a peerless stage performer and combustible musical force, not the return to form of an ex-hitmaker. Musicology hardly constituted a bona fide comeback disc; its derivative, retro-tinged tunes barely made a squeak at radio, and simply buckled in concert when sandwiched between classics like ”Kiss” and ”Let’s Go Crazy.” Apologies, O Purple One — having once raised the pop-music bar means you get away with less than the rest.
And so comes his umpteenth disappointment — 3121, a messier, more self-indulgent affair than its predecessor. At least Musicology had a coherent point to prove: that Prince could make real music with real instruments as the old-soul masters — and he — used to. Sonically, this new disc feels like a random sampling of 12 tracks from his unedited unconscious. Zigzagging from a distorted synth-funk groove on the title track to the abominably boring slow-dance ”Te Amo Corazón” to the Muscle Shoals-style gospel-blues of ”Satisfied,” it finds Prince striking his familiarly cocky I-Can-Do-It-All pose.
Only he can’t do it all anymore, at least not on record. While his electro-soul stylings are regularly referenced by the likes of OutKast and the Neptunes, Prince hasn’t figured out how to reach back into his ’80s bag of tricks and create something that feels contemporary in the way those disciples have. Instead, tracks that might have rocked in 1986, like the guitar-heavy romp ”Fury,” feel perilously caught in a time warp somewhere between cool-dated and wack-modern. Only the new single ”Black Sweat” does a laudable job of referencing O.G. Prince while still reminding the industry’s young ‘uns that he’s got more mojo in just one of his meticulously plucked eyebrows than all of them combined.
But that’s not to imply said young ‘uns couldn’t help him make something truly great. Maybe let Andre 3000 and the Roots’ ?uestlove put some sizzle on those used-to-be-fresh, middle-aged-man beats. Because when left alone with his own limitless potential, Prince can’t resist getting in his own way, as evidenced by ”The Dance,” an overblown Latin-shuffle melodrama loaded with every superfluous bell, whistle, clap, and string sound at his disposal. And while the song climaxes in some passionate, cord-shredding screams that recall Purple Rain‘s orgasmic symphony ”The Beautiful Ones,” it’s a contrived moment. One that epitomizes why 3121‘s tired tracks aren’t worthy of Prince’s prodigious gifts. C+