Prince – HitNRun Phase Two (Universal)
Prince is dead. Long live Prince.
The final album from His Purpleness debuted on the streaming service Tidal in January, and got an official release a week after his death. This is no Blackstar, which was David Bowie’s final masterpiece, recorded while he knew he had a terminal cancer diagnosis and intended to be a final artistic statement; indeed, Bowie died three days after its release in January. HitNRun Phase Two, on the other hand, is just another day at the office for Prince. This is who Prince was at the end of his life: his innovative and weirder days long behind him, a man comfortable in his own skin who just wants to write some new jams that pay ode to the jazz, rock and soul he grew up on. It’s Prince on autopilot—which for the most part is still good enough to take most modern icons to school. His guitar skills, his acrobatic vocals, his distinctive harmony arrangements, inviting his potential lovers to take a bath with him—here are all the trademarks that remained constant no matter what sonic skin he inhabited.
But because this is Prince, our standards are understandably high. So when he tosses off a rote rocker called “Screwdriver” (chorus lyric: “I’m your driver, you’re my screw”)—that song has been floating around for three years now, and should have been left alone—or attempts a lame come-on like “We’ve got groovy potential,” it’s more than obvious the legend is phoning it in. One of the better tracks, “Xtraloveable,” dates back to a demo from the early 1980s.
The album opens with “Baltimore,” a song written, recorded and released in May 2015 after the death of that city’s Freddie Gray in police custody, eight months after the shooting of Michael Brown in St. Louis sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Prince was never much for politics (“You say you want a leader / but you can’t seem to make up your mind,” he sang in “Purple Rain”), outside the apocalyptic nuclear paranoia that underscored his earliest work (“1999,” “Ronnie Talk to Russia”). At the beginning of his career, he deliberately instructed his record company to portray him as mixed race and not to market him as “black,” which was encoded in Purple Rain, where his fictional mother was Italian. But in the last year of his life, Prince was a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, playing a free concert in Baltimore after the riots, and then this song appeared: explicitly name-checking Gray and Brown, the video featuring footage of protests.
What’s odd is that the song itself is anything but a fiery protest song, or even a lament like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—or indeed, Prince’s own “Sign O the Times.” Instead, it’s an upbeat, gospel-tinged pop song with a string section and lyrics like, “We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’ let’s take all the guns away.” If you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake it for an unusually good civic tourism jingle.
Prince confounded all of us—even his hardcore fans—throughout his career, so it’s not the least bit surprising that he did so right up to the end. More telling than his final album will be what makes its way out of his vault in the years to come. (April 28)
Stream: “Baltimore,” “Stare,” “Xtraloveable”