Happy 20th Anniversary to Prince’s Emancipation, originally released November 19, 1996.
Prolific | adjective | pro·lif·ic | marked by abundant inventiveness or productivity
Forgive me while I get all mathematical here, but if there’s one artist who needs the full force of mathematics behind him, it’s the late-great Prince. From his 1978 debut LP For You to the belated release of The Black Album in 1994, the average length of a Prince album was 50 minutes and 38 seconds, comprised of an average of 10.94 songs. Heck, we’re friends, right? Let’s call it 11, and that’s before we factor in B-sides, associated artists and that peskily elusive vault of renown. Prolific, right?
But on June 7, 1993, when he killed off his long-established moniker “Prince” and renamed himself after the unpronounceable glyph that had long gestated in the mythology of the artist, things changed dramatically. In the liner notes for the 1993 career-spanning compilation The Hits/The B-Sides, Alan Leeds hoped for the watershed moment to be compared to the introduction of Billy Strayhorn to Duke Ellington, that a new, rich seam of form would be struck, mined and served up for the world’s delectation. Whether that comparison was fitting or not is a conversation for another time. But there is one glaringly obvious consequence of the name change and freedom from what Prince saw as major label interference.
Taking the first four albums released under his symbolic moniker, the average album length swelled to a staggering 107 minutes and 53 seconds, comprised of an average of 22 songs. This was in no small part due to the mind-boggling 3 hours of music that he served up on 1996’s Emancipation. Prolific, right?!
Comprised of 3 discs of 12 songs each with a running time of exactly an hour, this was to be the ‘piece de resistance’ of this brave new world. Served up in partnership with EMI, it was to be the ultimate artistic expression. Matt Thorne in his weighty biography of Prince recounts an interview with Musician magazine in which the icon revealed that he had felt pressure in the past—both from himself and the label—to write hit singles. Emancipation though wouldn’t be like that, for here was an artist reborn and devoted to a pure wave of truth from the heart of a songwriter. That the results are mixed is of absolutely no surprise, after all there’s a reason why triple albums are rarer than roosters’ teeth.
One of the major sticking points for listeners was the production of the album. Co-produced by dancer cum drummer cum new best friend Kirk Johnson, it has a certain plastic, anodyne sheen that manages to render some parts of it neutered and devoid of texture. But blaming Kirky J is to avoid pointing the finger at The Artist himself. There were even thoughts of luring an external producer (Nellee Hooper was close at one stage) to steer the venture to the contemporary R&B heights Prince wanted. This tantalizing “what if” has divided fans for years. Some relish the thought of an outsider taking at least partial control of the boards, while others would place all their trust in the man himself to know what was best. His cruel early departure from this realm leaves the same fans divided about the contents of the ever-mysterious vault, as they threaten to spill out into official circulation.
But Emancipation was full of idiosyncrasies. Warned by Warner Bros. against recording cover versions, Prince made the perverse move of releasing one of the four covers as the lead single. Would anyone else herald a burst of almost unprecedented productivity by releasing a cover as a single? No matter how deliciously sincere and expertly executed ’Betcha By Golly, Wow’ was, it seemed an odd decision, but one (being frank) not entirely out of character.
Perversity aside though, the seemingly inevitable plays out over the mammoth three hour playing time: some hits, some misses and enough moments of genius to remind you Prince was still lurking beneath the symbolic name. In fact if you venture into the darkest recesses of Prince fan sites, you’ll find one of the parlour games of choice is picking your tracks to make one 12 track album. The variety on offer is startling and therefore ultimately divisive. For some, the hard swingin’, horn heavy “Courtin’ Time” is joyous and proof of his extraordinary versatility, whilst others bemoan it as self-indulgent, cheesy fluff. Like the troublesome tearaway he’d always been, he united and divided listeners in equal measure.
Strangely enough, the opening disc has a very loosely defined character (although things are never that straightforward with Prince). It boasts a smorgasbord of styles which don’t always work as intended, raging from the aching, quiet storm, late night groove of “Somebody’s Somebody” through the downbeat autobiography of “White Mansion” before finally ending up at the Wendy and Lisa tribute “In This Bed Eye Scream.” Between these highlights are some real clunkers though. “Mr. Happy” makes you anything but and “Get Yo Groove On” is the 467th tired rehash of his generic call to the dance floor.
The second disc has much more heart. Predominantly a paean to his wife Mayte Garcia, it boasts a more consistent standard than the other two discs. The delicious “Soul Sanctuary” flows delightfully into the lowkey snap of “Emale” which in turn swirls into the twin charms of “Curious Child” and “Dreamin’ About You.” That he follows that sequence with the batshit crazy “Joint 2 Joint” with its percussive tap dancing (courtesy of Savion Glover), lyrics mumbled through breakfast cereal and poetry samples is just one of the reasons why he is such a genius.
Disc three is another disc of seemingly disconnected songs, without a cohesive thread. But since when did that stop him? The militaristic drums of “Slave” predates Destiny Child’s “Lose My Breath” and “Face Down” is a delightfully belligerent bit of funk aimed at his detractors. When you add in the melancholy of the Kate Bush aided “My Computer” and the slow burning lament of “The Love We Make,” it almost makes up for the woeful “Da Da Da” and those ill judged forays into dance music early on in the disc.
However the most curious thing about this gargantuan offering is that hardly any of these songs were ever played live after the initial burst of performance. One, maybe two snuck into later tour setlists, but for the most part they sat like Miss Haversham—all dressed up and nowhere to go. For what was proclaimed to be an epoch defining moment for Prince, its shelf life was as short as any album before, or indeed since.
Three key factors may have played a role in this state of suspended animation. First came the tragic passing of Prince’s only son (a child whose fetal heartbeat featured on “Sex In The Summer”). Then came the dissolution of his marriage to Mayte who was the romantic muse for much of the album. And finally the collapse of EMI in acrimony shortly afterwards. Anyone of these three events would have stopped most people in their tracks, but all three in close succession? That was more than enough to cut Emancipation down in its tracks.
But by then its job was done. The shackles had fallen away and the album as catharsis was complete. It was back to business and on to the next one.