Record review: Prince plays catchup on ‘Art Official Age’

by | Nov 3, 2014 | MUSIC

“Welcome home, class,” Prince announces as he stands before the chalkboard, preparing to introduce his new lesson/album, Art Official Age, to an entirely different generation of students, having rekindled his relationship with old flame Warner Bros after almost two decades.

“Welcome home, class,” Prince announces as he stands before the chalkboard, preparing to introduce his new lesson/album, Art Official Age, to an entirely different generation of students, having rekindled his relationship with old flame Warner Bros after almost two decades.

Moving backward doesn’t work for most people. Being staunch in style even derails the valiantly earnest. Everyone has been told at least once not to live in the past, but to move forward.

Yet, on the other hand, an identity can be lost when an artist progresses in a new direction, alienating core fans when they should’ve stayed put.

Then again, some flourish with throwbacks and returns to form, and some romances are better the second time around.

Art Official Age has a groovy yet shaky start. An awkward holding of hands. The title track (“Age” being replaced with “Cage”) is catchy after several playbacks; people would dance, but it sounds dated. Walk of shame or stride of pride? Depends on how far you have to go, and “Art Official Cage” is just once around the block, clocking in at 3:41.

I get the same feeling whenever a group of musicians do steampunk photo shoots or use texting and computer lingo in song titles and lyrics. It feels like counterfeit money to me. As genuine as games at a traveling carnival.

A Cosby sweater wearing rap á la Michael Jackson’s “Jam” drops mid-song and a cringe-inducing almost “Harlem Shake” shift in tempo finds Prince robotically repeating the song title until the track’s close, making everything feel as off-balance as a sobriety check. It feels beneath him. Like keg beer or gravity-bong hits. Prince makes trends, he doesn’t follow them. But “Art Official Cage” feels like he’s playing catch-up.

“Clouds” and “Breakdown” really don’t do anything for me either. Hearkening back to well-meaning Algebra teachers who awarded partial credit for work shown, even though the answer was incorrect. I think this happens to Prince a lot, given the benefit of the doubt for past glories, even a nod to weirdness. However, sometimes shit is just shit. But these aren’t flaming turds. He seems to be finding the wrong variables in these specific equations.

Things turn around by track four, “The Gold Standard,” with an intro reminiscent of the growler on “Bob George” from Prince’s Black Album/Funk Bible which was shelved in favor of the poppier Lovesexy and denied a proper birth until 1994. The guitar work is familiar. The faint hint of cheese is there. So is Camille. It sounds like Prince.

“The gold standard/Crazy amazing/Upper echelon of groove/ The gold standard/ Crazy amazing/ Turn it up and let your body move” can be recited in your sleep, but here again, the words can trigger an eye-roll. Though how many songs have become hits simply because of a good hook and a great beat? Seems like most people don’t give a shit about lyrics anyway. Just something to repeat. I don’t know what the guy is saying for parts of this track. So, I’m guilty. I like this song a lot.

It can’t be a Prince album unless we talk about pussy.

Getting it, maintaining it, and watering it like a flower hidden between a pair of limbs. Songs like “U Know” and “Breakfast Can Wait” find Prince channeling past successes like “Cream” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” but nowhere as explicit as his 80’s Dirty Mind and Controversy territory. It doesn’t all need to be slow-jam syrup. There can still be play in the bedroom. Here again the lyrics are almost laughable. However, this has got to be intentional.

“This Could Be Us” feels like a cousin of “Diamonds and Pearls,” and “What It Feels Like” features dominant, sensual vocal contributions by the Cameroonian singer Andy Allo. She appears in the shadows of several songs on the LP and hers is a welcome addition.

“FunkNRoll” production-wise sounds like a Busta Rhymes track, while the vocals give a head nod to “HouseQuake” from Sign ‘o the Times.

Art Official Age” stands up to Prince’s 90’s output. Though not as dark and wild as Come, or commercially accessible as The Gold Experience, and lacking a single as catchy as “Pussy Control,” “Sexy MF,” or “Get Off” or a list of several others scrawled on a three-ring binder, this is, however, his strongest output since 2003’s comeback album Musicology. Admittedly, that was not my initial opinion.

A dropout who came back to school expecting to teach a new class. Prince never dropped out though. Tutored some protégés. A sabbatical maybe, but maybe one which was too long. Or maybe he was there the whole time; waiting for our bus to arrive.

Or maybe not.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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