Happy 15th Anniversary to Prince’s twenty-eighth studio album Musicology, originally released April 20, 2004.
As a Prince fan, you were always spoiled with music. Like funky clockwork, a new purple offering would appear almost annually (and sometimes more frequently) for you to devour and immerse yourself in. But with this constant stream of music came a wax and wane of popularity in the general public. People knew the Purple Rain album, they knew the Diamonds and Pearls album, but they were less familiar with albums like The Rainbow Children or N.E.W.S.
And for the purest of purple heads, that was kind of how we liked it. We loved Prince being applauded for his genius and we enjoyed seeing his hits make an impact on the musical landscape, but we also loved the lesser-known output and almost reveled in its obscurity. So it would come to be that any time Prince released an album of wider appeal and commercial success it was always deemed as his “comeback.”
This was very much the case in 2004 when Prince released Musicology and toured heavily in support of it. For many, Prince was back.
For us though, he had never been gone.
Granted, much like Diamonds and Pearls many years before it, Musicology was a little more of a concerted effort by Prince to remind a wider audience just how good he is. Backed with his finely tuned New Power Generation in their umpteenth incarnation, Prince was putting the focus back on “real music played by real musicians.”
My first exposure to Musicology came during Prince’s 2003 Greatest Hits tour of Australia where merch was emblazoned with the lyrics to the unheard title track. During these shows Prince would drop “Life ‘O’ The Party” and “On The Couch” into the set list. Several months later when the album dropped, those t-shirt lyrics and seemingly obscure inclusions now had a funky context to be laid within.
The title track is a tour de funky force with Prince establishing his “real music” ethos. Extolling the virtues of the funk he grew up with, Prince name checks James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone, and Earth, Wind & Fire as he kicks “old school joints for true funk soldiers.” Part celebration of the past, part review of the current state of musical play, “Musicology” houses a funky bass and guitar hook against a solid groove designed to shift feet and raise spirits. The track closes out with a channel surfing radio tuning into a vast array of purple hits. It acted as a reminder, if such a thing was needed, as to why people drew en masse to Prince in the first place (and hinted to the impending tour).
Continuing the party vibe set by the opener, “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” follows with a dirty funk groove that details a gigolo’s tradeoff between high finance and high love. Like “Life ‘O’ The Party” a few tracks later, “Illusion” is a playful refresher of classic Prince party jams. “Life ‘O’ The Party” in particular reminds one of “Partyman” from Prince’s acclaimed Batman outing.
That’s part of the appeal and to some extent, the letdown of Musicology with the album feeling like a Greatest Hits package of songs you haven’t yet heard. It’s like Prince is deliberately pulling from the vibe of his back catalogue to remind you just what he is capable of and cashing in on the appeal that still holds.
Songs like “Call My Name” fit into the sleek slow rapture of his sexiest ballads a la “Insatiable,” and “On The Couch” is a gospel tinged torch song in the same vein of “Adore.” Prince isn’t so much re-treading though as he is refreshing and reminding.
And like all great Prince albums, there are some absolute standouts. “A Million Days” is a tightly constructed rocker that bubbles under the surface as it progresses through quiet storm melodics before exploding with power and force. Rumored to have begun its birthing during 1995, the song has a definite rock-opera appeal that blossomed on the tracks from The Gold Experience album of that era
And the double punch of funk in “The Marrying Kind”/“If Eye I Was The Man in Ur Life” segue twists and turns with a mix of soulful funk and rock opera flurries that has Prince seducing, teasing and consummating as he winds his way through the track. With “If Eye…,” Prince trades off a dramatic staccato in the chorus against a free-flowing verse that melds into one of Prince’s best compositions in years. Each passing verse adds to the punch, hitting hard with accents and runs providing the song with the perfect balance of instrumentation, enough to fill out the track but not to the point of overpowering it. Brilliant production.
Likewise with “What Do U Want Me To Do?” Prince is back at his most Princely. I’ve always argued that no one works a drum machine and elicits such emotion from it quite like Prince. And this is a prime case in point. It has all the hallmarks of a Prince beat: the flanging rim shot, and offbeat bass drum accents and tighter-than-tight snare. And contrasting against Prince’s uber sexual persona of his earlier releases, the lyrics show a sense of emotional maturity as the song builds the concept of fidelity as opposed to giving into carnal yearnings.
Prince also returned to his social awareness stance with tracks like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Dear Mr. Man.” “Cinnamon Girl,” perhaps Prince’s most controversial song in recent years, tells the tale of a Muslim girl living in a post 9/11 world, as a victim of racism. Catchy like any of Prince’s pop-rock tracks, it was musically the most radio friendly track on the album, but perhaps lyrically it was too political for most to accept.
“Dear Mr. Man” echoes the social awareness vibes of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” with a slow burn soul as Prince reflects on the ills of modern living and the plight of the less fortunate set against the hypocrisy of the powers that be and their apathy towards to real plight of the poor and working class. This is Prince at his finest (and most pointed) lyrically, however just as the track begins to build in momentum it just as soon fades—a little too briefly to really make an impact on the listener.
Closing the album out, the cool breeze of “Reflection” —whilst a lovely song in its own right—felt like an odd choice to end the album on. As a result of the abridged “Dear Mr. Man” before it and this easygoing track, the album feels like it is petering out rather than building to a more deserving crescendo. That said, as a song it’s wonderfully written and kicks back with a chilled-out vibe that floats on nostalgia without getting too soppy. And once again I find myself waiting for the song to resume after the final line “and watch the cars go by….”.
A well-rounded, well-crafted collection of songs, “Musicology” served its purpose by springboarding Prince back into the mainstream, resulting in his most successful album sales in years (thanks to a controversial coupling of CD with tour ticket), his most successful tour in many years and garnering two Grammy Awards for his efforts. With cuts like “Musicology,” “A Million Days,” “If Eye I Was The Man in Ur Life” and “Dear Mr. Man” present, it’s hard not to see it an enjoyable listening experience to this day. It’s a musical journey of familiarity, dotted with musical reminders. But for the listener that never strayed from Prince’s prolific output it was, perhaps, less rewarding. It wasn’t the boundary pushing music we had come to expect, and perhaps demanded too much of. But if you had lost your purple way, it was a welcome call back to the fold.