Happy Anniversary to Prince’s 39th and final studio album HITnRUN Phase Two, originally released December 12, 2015.
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During an impromptu Q&A session on Twitter last year, @_dirtydiana97 asked the late-great Prince “is there a HITnRUN Phase 2 coming out someday?” His response: “WB [Warner Bros. Records] HAS IT ALREADY. PETITION THEM 2 RELEASE IT.”
While the announcement of a new album sparked interest for some fans, others weren’t exactly thrilled due to Phase One’s soulless attempt to keep up with the new kids on the R&B block. Needless to say, when Phase Two appeared on TIDAL without so much as a lick of pre-press, many people went in with low expectations. Fortunately, the album (much like its cover designed by London-based artist Martin Homent) evoked a sense of warmth and nostalgia that matched its vintage-sounding grooves.
Inspired by the tragic death of 25-year-old Black man Freddie Gray, the folkadelic album opener “Baltimore” carries a heartfelt plea for a change in America’s rampant gun epidemic. “Absence of war, are we gonna see another bloody day?” Prince and YouTube singer Eryn Allen Kane ask in their spirited vocal exchanges. “We’re tired of crying, and people dying / Let’s take all the guns away.” The mournful guitarwork, glossy horns, and whimsical strings result in a crescendo of “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace” showing that Prince always has his finger on the pulse of the country from his Paisley Park mansion.
The cutesy strumalong of “Rock n’ Roll Love Affair,” featuring his protégé Andy Allo, is Phase Two’s most overtly ‘60s-inspired moment with hushed vocals and airy synths drawing inspiration from his past classics “1999” and “Take Me with U.” The slinky funk/rock number “2.Y.2.D. (Too Young to Dare)” offers up a few saucy lyrics you wouldn’t expect from the high-heeled Jehovah’s Witness (“Her legs so long, she never climbs stairs / She’s old enough to do you but too young to dare”).
The jazzy “Look at Me, Look at U” (which could’ve fit right in on Prince’s 2001 spiritual opus The Rainbow Children) celebrates women as though they’re royalty in his eyes. “Modesty aside, whoever made you should be praised,” he croons. “Ain’t no need to hide, every glass should be raised.” The soulfulness, melody, and swagger all feel like classic-period Prince. The momentum picks up with “Stare,” a top-drawer slice of funk with The Purple One at his bass-thumping best, horns in all the right places, and classic samples of “Kiss” and “Sexy Dancer” thrown in with a coy wink.
Speaking of classics, Prince returns to his storied Paisley Park vault to blow the dust off the early ‘80s tune “Xtraloveable.” Originally written for Vanity 6’s debut album in 1982, the song leaked out and made its rounds on the Internet amongst bootleggers for decades. Then, in 2011, he released a newly-recorded version with a slower, hefty composition that garnered a lukewarm response to fans and critics alike. Fortunately, the latest version that appears here retains much of its original essence with a more pronounced horn section and trunk-rattling bass.
The sparkling R&B gem “Groovy Potential” beams majestically as its light-as-air bop recalls Michael Jackson (“Rock with You”) and R. Kelly (“Step in the Name of Love”) at their sunniest. The slow-burning “When She Comes” is something akin to “Do U Lie?” from Prince’s 1986 soundtrack Parade with a stunning falsetto wrapped up in a sweet accordion melody.
Fronting his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl, “Screwdriver” finds Prince in full-on Guitar God mode. He infuses Dirty Mind-era lyricism (“I’m your driver, you’re my screw”) with loads of brattish attitude comparable to The Clash or Sex Pistols in their glory days. As the lone rock track on the album, some may feel “Screwdriver” doesn’t belong. However, it blends right in with Phase Two’s retro-throwback concept.
Late-album highlight “Black Muse” holds a burning tale of social consciousness beneath the headnod-inducing groove. Prince (backed by a lovely trio of background vocalists) gives us a black history lesson. In one verse, they speak about the mistreatment of African-American people: “Long ago, two men held one of us down / Another took a whip and made a terrible sound.” In another verse, words of encouragement are offered: “Black Muse, we’re gonna make it through / Surely people that created rhythm and blues / Rock and roll and jazz / So you know we’re built to last, it’s cool”. Despite many people claiming Prince’s religious beliefs caused him to lose his edge, “Black Muse” is a stirring reminder of his undimmed ability to tackle controversial topics.
On first listen, “Revelation” sweeps you into its clutches with its woozily gorgeous arrangement of drums, synths, bass guitar, and saxophone. Prince’s honeyed vocal delivery is what sells the track’s quiet storm of emotion. “It seems like you’ve always been here / Now that you are…stay with me forever, my dear.” When Prince finished recording the ballad, longtime drummer John Blackwell told VIBE, “We all looked at each other like, ‘Man, this song is going to be crazy!’ It just felt special.” Even among his elite slow jams—from “Scandalous” and “Joy in Repetition” to “Shhh” and “The One”—“Revelation” stands tall.
Signing off in grand fashion is “Big City,” a horn-heavy explosion of warm feelings rendered in sound. “Tonight’s the night, and of all the places that I’m going to fall in love, it’s got to be this one.” The vocal quartet of Shelby J., Liv Warfield, Elisa Dease, and Ledisi joins Prince once again as the music bursts with light and optimism.
One year removed from its release, HITnRUN Phase Two is a pleasant return-to-basics, hemming 40 years of R&B, rock, funk, and disco. From energetic funk workouts (“Stare”) to soulful midtempo grooves (“Look at Me, Look at U”) and sweet balladry (“Revelation”), the artistry is still as high as ever. Reviewing for PopMatters, Christian Gerard hailed it as an album that “hangs together remarkably well as a cohesive listening experience that is as exhilarating as it is unexpected.” Far from a fans-only release, HITnRUN Phase Two is the perfect ending to this legendary composer and performer’s career.