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Has Prince’s genius ever been in fuller bloom? Ever since he came up with that gambit to offer free CDs with concert tickets in 2004, he’s been on a roll. In 2007 alone, he’s given us a Super Bowl triumph, highly publicized residencies in intimate Las Vegas and L.A. venues, and the controversial giveaway of his latest CD (2.9 million of them!) with a London weekly. Clearly he’s at the peak of his powers — that is, as a wily survivor willing to try any new model of getting music out. Oh, you thought we meant his songs? Yes, there’s…that. With recent albums like 3121 and Musicology sounding like affably goofy outtakes collections, Prince’s brilliance as a self-marketer has grown in almost inverse proportion to his confoundingly shrinking ambitions as an artist.
But there’s a change in the winds with Planet Earth. It’s evenly split between melodic rock and classic soul, minus the daffy, George Clinton-type jams that’ve lately stood in for actual songs. You say you want the Revolution? Weh-ell, you know, he’s finally doing what he can to recapture some of that peak-era vibe. Ex-Revolutionaries Wendy & Lisa, long estranged from the maestro, make cameos; real drums mostly replace canned ones; and he unleashes all the guitar eruptions he’s been bottling up for years. Though we’ll never get another Purple Rain, it still feels right, in a lavender drought, to settle for something at least approaching another Parade (to name a late-’80s work only now regarded as unapproachably awesome).
There’s a sense of patience rewarded, hearing the feathery tremolo guitars and female backing coos in ”The One U Wanna C” — a slice of pure pop cut from the same pie as ”Raspberry Beret” — or the return of his Delfonics falsetto on ”Somewhere Here on Earth” and ”Future Baby Mama.” Of all his attempts at rapping, ”Mr. Goodnight” is the first that works, because it could pass for an early-’70s bedroom recitative. And the one time he lays down serious funk — on ”Chelsea Rodgers,” sung by band member Shelby J — it isn’t 3121‘s formless party improv but a terrific, full-on disco stomp.
Prince continues to get his lothario moves on, with the notable exceptions of the album’s bookending tunes, ”Planet Earth” and ”Resolution,” which go for globally conscious, peacenik profundity. The title track combines God and going green about as effectively as Evan Almighty. Still, when he cements that number’s anthemic aspirations with a ”Purple”-colored solo, it’s thrilling to know one of pop’s indisputable greats is really trying again — and might be taking the recording process as seriously as he takes disseminating his music. B+