Friday, April 24, 2020

"Let's Go Crazy" - Some Thoughts on the "Grammy Salute to Prince"

Embed from Getty Images
               Gary Clark Jr.

I don't think I've watched a Prince tribute in real time since the 2010 BET Awards. Those were happier times, of course. Prince was in the audience. He nervously watched a pregnant Alicia Keys climb on top of the piano. He proudly caught Patti LaBelle's shoe. He told young artists they didn't have to be as wild as he once was to be successful.

Ten years later, he's gone and tributes remind me what a unique talent we've lost. His music is difficult to cover. And we've seen a lot of the same types of performances over the years. I'm really thrilled that people are still honoring him--in prime time, no less. But I know I'm not the target audience.

With that said, I don't have anything especially negative to say about "Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince," which aired Tuesday on CBS. With everyone staying at home due to the pandemic, the celebration had a captive audience. And from what I saw on social media, a lot of people enjoyed the performances. I hope casual fans were inspired to listen to more of Prince's music.

I do think some artists were under-utilized. For example, I really wanted St. Vincent to be able to shred on guitar, but I think she was limited by the song, "Controversy." I think it would have been neat to see artists incorporate small sections of Prince's lesser-known rock or jazz-influenced songs (e.g. material after 1989) that would prompt some viewers to think, "Wow, what was that? Let me look that up!"

I'm glad the show incorporated snippets of Prince's life story and performances, but they just me excited about the possibility of network TV broadcasting a Prince tour like "Sign O' the Times," "Lovesexy" or "Musicology" so casual fans can witness what he could really do. In 2012, the "Bad 25" documentary on Michael Jackson's 1987 album premiered on ABC. What if something like that was created for one of Prince's albums?

Overall, I'm glad I tuned into "The Grammy Salute to Prince." A few performances--and broader ideas--stood out to me:

1) Gary Clark Jr. and the importance of black guitar players honoring Prince

I was so happy to see blues/rock artist Gary Clark Jr. participate in the tribute, and I'm glad he played "The Cross." Black guitarists are often overlooked in the rock genre, and Prince is still underrated as a guitar player. And we do not talk enough about the presence of the blues in his music. Of course Prince influenced Gary Clark Jr. and a host of other black guitarists who are an important part of the rock genre. Hopefully this performance stirred up some of those truths.

2) Usher and the thrill of true showmanship

I am an Usher fan for many reasons, one being that he is a true entertainer. He is detailed-oriented about his vocals, choreography, swagger and fashion (he nailed the outfit, and I loved the quick little turn to show off the 1999-inspired artwork on the back of his jacket). He brought that element of showmanship that we used to see from Prince, Michael Jackson and James Brown. And friends--that element is fading in popular music.

3) Misty Copeland, Mavis Staples and the reality of loss

When I saw Misty Copeland dancing the same routine to "The Beautiful Ones" that I saw her do at Madison Square Garden with Prince 10 years ago, I immediately wanted to weep for her. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been to relive such a special moment with a friend, and I was not surprised when she was overcome with emotion speaking later in the show. And as I heard the legendary Mavis Staples sing "Purple Rain," I couldn't help but think, "Wow, losing Prince was probably like losing a son in her eyes." I don't think we as fans can understand how much some of these performers are still mourning--but they get on the stage to do their part to honor Prince.

4) Foo Fighters and the need for rockers to acknowledge Prince

I mentioned this earlier, but because Prince is underrated in the rock world, it was nice to see Foo Fighters participate in the tribute. While he was alive, rockers couldn't always get away with covering his songs. (I'm glad Dave Grohl mentioned that.) But now I'd like to see other folks in that community be even more vocal about Prince's influence as a rock guitarist during the "Purple Rain" era and beyond.

P.S. Someone on Twitter said D'Angelo should do an entire album of Prince covers and that's one tribute I would love to see.

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Friday, April 17, 2020

"Same Page Different Book" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.

One of the greatest things about being a Prince fan was that you never knew what to expect from him. Whether or not you dug what he was doing, he was always interesting and mysterious. If Prince never did another thing after 2002, he would still be a legend. But it's amazing that I became a serious fan that year and still had almost 15 years of watching him break records and stir up worldwide excitement. "Same Page Different Book" came out during a time when Prince was slowly unveiling his new band, 3rdEyeGirl. The song appeared out of nowhere on the 3rdEyeGirl YouTube channel in early 2013. Ironically, it was a track that predated the new band members and didn't feature them. But it was still thrilling to get a new song for a brief period; it was shortly taken down. Fans are drawn to different elements of Prince's artistry--beyond the music. Obviously, I have always been interested in what he has to say about spirituality. So, "Same Page Different Book"--which touches on monotheism, the Biblical Book of Galatians and more--drew me in immediately. It was like, "He's still speaking about subjects I care about!" (I'll have a proper analysis in my book.) Luckily, the song is funky and soulful. I always pay attention to the vocal ad-libs he does, no matter how small. I even like Shelby J.'s rap. I just remember dancing in my bedroom and wondering what he was going to do next.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

"This is a Groove" - Favorite Prince Songs (Part 3)

This is the conclusion of a three-part series. Previously, I listed my favorite song from each of Prince's studio albums during the 1980s and the 1990s. This was the hardest yet because I have extremely personal memories tied to his music during the 2000s. I finally understand why fans hate doing these lists!

1. The Rainbow Children (2001): "She Loves Me 4 Me." This entire album is extraordinary given the level of musicianship alone. There are more advanced tracks than "She Loves Me 4 Me," but I can't think of a lovelier song in his discography. The sweet lyrics and gorgeous guitar licks get me every time. Read more about my relationship with the song here.

2. One Nite Alone (2002): "Avalanche." It's always interesting when Prince decides to get very specific with his subject matter. And it's important to listen to songs like this to gain a better understanding of his perspective on race relations.

3. Xpectation (2003): "Xosphere." I need to spend more time with this album, but I think I enjoy this melody the most right now.

4. N.E.W.S. (2003): "North." This is the only Prince album I can listen to as background music while writing. There's great guitar work in here, but it's part of the piano solo (10:10) that always gets to me.

5. Musicology (2004): "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life." I almost chose "Call My Name," one of his best ballads, but I had to go with the song that I immediately hit rewind on when I played the album for the first time. The music is extremely funky and I actually like his pick-up lines--which is not often the case.

6. The Chocolate Invasion (2004): "When Eye Lay My Hands on U." Great melody, amazing guitar solo.

7. The Slaughterhouse (2004): "Y Should Eye Do That When Eye Can Do This?" One of his most compelling raps.

8. 3121 (2006): "3121." This is my favorite album of the decade, so I almost cried picking just one track. I love the nasty groove, scene-setting and guitar solo.

9. Planet Earth (2007): "Future Baby Mama." I don't care what anyone thinks. You have to be in the mood to listen to most of this album, especially the title track, which is another one of my other favorites. But "Future Baby Mama" is easy listening and I like the vocal decisions he makes.

10. Lotusflow3r (2009): "Wall of Berlin." Prince, Sonny T. and Michael Bland create magic whenever they get in the studio. I love how they switch up the rhythm. Also, Prince's guitar is on fire.

11. MPLSound (2009): "Valentina." Surprisingly, I adore three songs on this otherwise lackluster album and had trouble selecting one. "Valentina" has a nice beat, decent rapping, an infectious chant ("Hey, Valentina!") and a fun backstory.

12. Elixir (2009): "Home." This is technically Bria Valente's album, but Prince wrote everything and bundled it with his other projects. It's an underrated album and Bria's voice works well. His vocal production for her on this song is stellar. The guitar is subtle but dope (listen closely to the the second verse).

13. 20Ten (2010): "Sticky Like Glue." This is the song to play for fans who don't enjoy his work during this period. He was a master of funk-pop until the very end.

14. Plectrumelectrum (2014): "Plectrumelectrum." This is ... not my favorite album. I think a project full of instrumentals like this would bump it up higher on my list even though this is a bit paint-by-numbers rock for me.

15. Art Official Age (2014): "Way Back Home." This might change because I need to spend more time with this album. This song feels very personal--but that can be said of the entire project.

16. HitnRun Phase One (2015): "1000 X's and O's." Though this was originally written in the '90s, he did a fantastic job with the updates. I was in Atlanta recently and they were playing it on the R&B station. It fit right in!

17. HitnRun Phase Two (2015): "Look at Me, Look at U." He went out on a high note with this entire album. "Black Muse" and "When She Comes" are gems, of course. But I have an emotional connection to this one. It took me a while--today, actually--to be able to play it without getting upset.

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Friday, April 3, 2020

“Welcome 2 the Million $ Show” - Redeeming Qualities of “HitnRun: Phase One”

This post is brought to you by Prince’s Friend, who is taking over A Purple Day in December this week. - Erica

HitnRun: Phase One was released in September 2015 as a fusion of electronic, pop, funk and everything in between that Prince could muster. Since its launch, the Prince community has been largely split into two camps of listeners: those who heard it, loved it and couldn’t wait for more, and those who came away from the album thinking it was utter trash. I’ve heard very little in the way of nuance when it comes to the album’s reception, and I thought, “What better place to have it out than here on Erica’s blog?”

First, there are three main arguments cast at the album to “prove” it’s terrible, and I’d like to address them.

“The production quality isn’t up to his usual standards.”

I have to agree that the production on HitnRun: Phase One is quite different from what you’ll hear on other Prince albums. This was the product of introducing Joshua Welton into the mix. Prior to this album, the majority of Prince’s music was self-produced (I mean, we all remember his initial fight with Warner Bros. to give an unknown talent the right to produce his debut album), but this was one of the few occasions where Prince brought in someone else to carry that weight. In fact, even though Welton was given co-producer credits, he actually handled the lion’s share of the process (more responsibility than he had when working on Art Official Age with Prince).

This created a strange mix of Prince’s older production stylings with Welton’s more modern techniques. HitnRun: Phase One featured a bit of Auto-Tuning on Prince’s vocals, a dubstep-inspired breakdown and updated electronic sounds to some previously released songs.

Was the production bad? Certainly not! Expectations can shift the way we receive any medium. When I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I came out of the movie feeling ambivalent. It was good, but it wasn’t the monumental step in animation and storytelling everyone hyped it up to be. In my eyes, because HitnRun: Phase One followed Art Official Age, widely considered one of Prince’s best albums, fans’ perceptions of its quality were heavily skewed. And the fact that Prince took the production reins again for HitnRun: Phase Two feeds into the argument that he didn’t like the quality of Phase One, which he never said publicly. But people love their stories, don’t they?

“Too many guest vocalists.”

This album certainly did have its fair share of guest stars who gave the project some extra flavor and momentum (Judith Hill on “Million $ Show,” Rita Ora on “Ain’t About to Stop,” Curly Fryz on “Like a Mack” and Josh Welton on “X’s Face”).

But, as I see it, this isn’t exactly uncommon in today’s music business, where the number of collaborations can feel ridiculous at times. Prince’s small selection of guests was not out of place or overbearing. It showed that Prince was looking to the future in terms of marketability. Younger fans might say, “Oh, Rita Ora’s on this one, let me check it out!” or “I didn’t know Judith Hill was working with Prince. She was my favorite on ‘The Voice.’”

Beyond the album, Prince also leaned on his appearance on “New Girl” to debut “Fallinlove2nite” as a promotional single with the help of Zooey Deschanel’s quirky sense of humor. (The album includes a Prince-only version, which adds a bit more keyboard work.) He also took the opportunity to partner with Tidal to push the album even further. All of this shows Prince was trying to step away from his solitude and his reputation for being a one-man army. He was already successful, so trying new things, like working with up-and-comers and teaming up with a new digital platform, amounted to Prince changing with the times, just like he always did.

“It just doesn’t sound like Prince.”

This is the most common argument I hear. Even without bringing the production style into the conversation, most people say it “just doesn’t sound like Prince.” I don’t hear any difference in songwriting or execution. Sure, there weren’t a lot of horns, the levels were different and the electronic tinge to it rings deep, but it still features songs with epic bass (“Shut This Down”) and funk (“Like A Mack,” “1000 X’s & O’s”). And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the guitar work on songs like “Hardrocklover” and keyboards on “Fallinlove2nite.”

Some people dislike the inclusion of the remixed “This Could Be Us,” originally released on Art Official Age. I personally liked Welton’s reworking of the song. Others criticize “Mr. Nelson” because it’s largely an instrumental. But it’s highly enjoyable in its juxtaposition; it’s both high-energy and laid back. It’s danceable, but also meditative.

HitnRun: Phase One represents Prince looking to the future. For someone to say, “It doesn’t sound like Prince,” is to admit he did exactly what he set out to do with this album. And, sure, maybe he stepped further away from his usual sound in a way that made his fandom uncomfortable, but he was known for taking big swings. Why take half-measures?

Album Highlights 

Prince wanted to stake new ground on HitnRun: Phase One, and came out of the gate with strong songs like “Shut This Down” and “Ain’t About to Stop.” These two songs alone are worth the price of admission. They erupt into explosions of funk, techno and flavor, showing Prince knows how to get a party started and keep it going. They rise and fall and keep the listener guessing the whole time, making for a great starter for the album.

Like “Fallinlove2nite” and “This Could Be Us,” “1000 X’s & O’s” was released previously. It was originally written in the ‘90s and recorded by both Rosie Gaines and Nona Gaye, but never truly found a home until it appeared on HitnRun: Phase One. The version concocted by Prince and Welton, with its simple beat and Prince’s romantic vocals, breathes new life into the old song.

From beginning to end, HitnRun: Phase One is epic, but the first and last tracks make statements of their own. “Million $ Show” was a message to record companies who try to trick performers into playing free shows for “promotion.” Prince was making sure they knew how much it would cost to book him. He wasn’t getting out of bed for less than $1 million in his bank account!

The final track, “June,” seems to weave a semi-autobiographical tale that is both nonsensical and seemingly dripping with meaning, innuendo and metaphor. I’ve heard more interpretations of this song than almost any other in his catalog.

In the end, it’s up to you to say whether you dig HitnRun: Phase One or not. I’ve always believed that you can like what you like and not like what you don’t like. However, I’d also encourage everyone to shed their preconceived notions about this album and give it another try. If you accept it for its differences instead of rejecting it because it’s not necessarily “on brand” for Prince, then you’ll be opening yourself up to a new experience from an old friend.

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