Happy 2nd Anniversary to Prince’s Art Official Age, originally released September 26, 2014.
"Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive..."
What was the most shocking moment in popular music during 2014? No, it wasn't Pharrell's ubiquitous feel-good single "Happy" spending 10 weeks at No. 1, and it certainly wasn’t Miley Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball in her birthday suit. I'm talking about the late-great Prince returning to Warner Bros. Records nearly 20 years after his infamous falling out with the label and delivering his 37th studio album Art Official Age, a 13-track affair that finds him reveling in many of his signature sounds from the '80s.
In 1994, Prince sacrificed his hard-earned place in the limelight—and, for a time, his birth name —to fight for complete artistic freedom and ownership of the music he created. Since Warner Bros. insisted on waiting the industry-standard two years between major releases and believed that the albums were their property, Prince gave them multiple albums to fulfill his contractual obligations. After a two-year public dispute, Prince was finally free and elected to release a series of records independently and through one-off licensing deals.
On April 18, 2014, City Pages launched a press release announcing that His Royal Badness and Warner Bros. had rekindled their musical partnership with some new exciting projects. "A brand-new studio album is on the way, and both Warner Bros. Records and [I] are quite pleased with the results of the negotiations and look forward to a fruitful working relationship," Prince declared in the press release. As he prepared for his big comeback, many wondered if Prince had enough creative fuel in the tank. Well, in the words of comedian Kevin Hart, they were "gonna learn today!"
The hyperactive album opener "Art Official Cage" travels across a vast musical landscape at a breakneck pace, from Daft Punk-style EDM and operatic pop to '70s slap-bass funk and dubstep. In this updated lyrical sequel to "Uptown," Prince encourages the masses to embrace their uniqueness instead of conforming to what society says they should be. As a result, the handlers of the "artificial cage" see Prince's act of rebellion as a threat, so they capture and waterboard him like a terror suspect. "We need you to tell us what you know" is repeated to him scornfully followed by a muffled "Let me go!"
"Clouds" is a blissful R&B/pop number highlighting the importance of love and affection as opposed to seeking validation via mainstream media. The album's loose sci-fi narrative establishes itself here: Prince has awoken from a cryogenic slumber and is learning to adapt to a musical and cultural terrain unfamiliar to him (guided by UK vocalist Lianne La Havas). With its elastic bassline, feathery synths, and soaring guitar solo near the 3:45 mark, "Clouds" harks back to the classic Prince sound. The vulnerable ballad "Breakdown" chronicles Prince's deepest insecurities such as lost love and his former bachelor lifestyle. The somber musical arrangement works well with his vocal dynamics that go from soft and subdued to an all-out screaming confession.
Complete with brass stabs, Latin percussion, and thick disco beats, "The Gold Standard" is a relatively tame groove compared to his Rude Boy funk workouts of the 1980s. Prince advises today's Selfie generation that "you don't need to be rude, you don't need to be wild" to have fun, which is ironic coming from someone who performed in bikini drawers and a flasher's trench coat. A few resurrected elements of The Black Album appear here for the deep-rooted fans, one of them being the “Bob George” vocals.
"U Know," a slow jam built around a looped sample of Mila J's "Blinded," has Prince delivering his best attempt at rapping about romantic misunderstanding and spiritual crisis with an unbelievably lush chorus. Fun fact about Mila J: she performed, at the age of seven, as one of the young dancers in Prince's 1991 music video for "Diamonds and Pearls.”
"Breakfast Can Wait" is admittedly cheesy, but Prince knows the secret to selling material like this is to play it completely straight. Breakfast food is used metaphorically to represent a moment of intimacy between him and his lover before she leaves for work. The instrumentation conjures up memories of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" from Sign o' the Times (1987) with its smooth blend of drums, synths, and bass guitar with marimba and finger snaps peppered in. The mood is sexy but not dirty and manages to fit in a surprise cameo from another '80s alter-ego, Camille.
We move firmly into the trance-inducing ballad "This Could Be Us" with a quiet storm arrangement of synths, heavy drums, and percussive elements similar to "The Beautiful Ones." Taking the popular Internet meme "This could be us, but you playing," and building a love song around it is something only he could pull off.
Although "What It Feels Like" may not be one of the most fondly remembered songs on the album, listeners have come to recognize the value of the bouncy production, vocal chemistry with Andy Allo, and Biblical references to David and Saul. In the context of the record, it fits perfectly and wouldn't feel out of place on Prince's triple-disc record, Emancipation (1996).
In "Affirmation I & II," La Havas reads a few lines of dialogue that float above gorgeous harp strings before the gospel-infused "Way Back Home" begins. It starts out sluggish at first and slowly builds into one of the most telling moments of Prince's career. "Most people in this world are born dead, but I was born alive," he says, "I was born with this dream, with a dream outside my head that I could find my way back home." While "Anna Stesia" remains the gold standard of Prince's heartfelt confessions, "Way Back Home" just might be in line for the silver medal.
Up next, we get "FunknRoll," a mishmash of Bay Area hip-hop, quirky sonar-like effects, and a screaming guitar solo near the end of the dance track. While this song is divisive among the hardcore fans, nobody can accuse Prince and his all-female backing band 3RDEYEGIRL of being unwilling to take their music in new and intriguing directions.
If there's any song on Art Official Age that evokes Prince's genius period, look no further than "Time." Prince and Andy Allo share their mutual feelings of romantic fulfillment over a vaguely militaristic drum beat. The cosmic synth riff swelling in the background represents the constant yearning and exploring nature as they sing in unison, "I think it's 'bout time / That I got time / Alone with you." Prince's outstanding skills on the bass guitar will surely give you the funk face on a seven-minute ballad that doesn't overstay its welcome.
The album's concluding track "Affirmation III" is a sweeping reprise of "Way Back Home" with a dazzling combination of strings, angelic vocals, and poignant words of encouragement from La Havas. "You've probably felt many years in your former life / You were separate from not only others but even yourself," she says, "Now you can see that was never the case / You are actually everything and anything that you can think of / All of it is U."
Given its relatively obscure status, Art Official Age should wrangle a smile from even the most jaded of Prince fans with its "half retro-revival, half new school refinement" approach. The impact of co-producer Joshua Welton is undisclosed but songs like "Time," "Way Back Home," and "U Know" put Prince miles above the competition, even at this stage in his career. Upon its initial release, Art Official Age skyrocketed to No. 1 and No. 5 on the U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and U.S. Billboard 200, respectively.
In his review of the album, The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman describes Prince as "something understandable and fully human... He's in his 50s, grappling with loneliness, aging, creative inspiration, self-doubt, a shifting cultural landscape, and love." Art Official Age may not be in the same weight class as Purple Rain, Sign o' the Times, or 1999, but it does take the best parts of Lovesexy (1988), Emancipation (1996), and 20Ten (2010) and roll them all into a uniquely new concept that feels classic and contemporary, all at the same time.