Friday, June 11, 2021

'What if Half the Things Ever Said Turned Out 2 Be a Lie?' - One of Prince’s Richest, Weirdest and Most Intimate Albums Gets a Limited Reissue

By Zachary Hoskins, guest writer

Ever since Warner Bros.’ expanded reissue of Purple Rain opened the floodgates of posthumous Prince releases in 2017, the focus of most fans and critics has (understandably) been on the wealth of material still languishing in the legendary Vault. But there are still plenty of gems that were released during Prince’s lifetime, now hiding in plain sight and worthy of our attention. Saturday’s special Record Store Day release of 1998’s The Truth is the perfect case in point: More than a mere collector’s curio, it marks the first standalone physical reissue of one of this prolific artist’s richest, weirdest and most intimate albums.

Like much of the Artist Then-Formerly Known as Prince’s output from the latter half of the ‘90s, The Truth was a victim of circumstances both inside and outside his control. The album was initially planned for release in 1997, as a follow-up to the previous year’s Emancipation; but when distributor EMI’s American division folded into Virgin and Capitol Records, these plans were scrapped. A single release of the title track, backed with “Don’t Play Me,” was made available in early 1997 from the Artist’s 1-800-NEW-FUNK mail-order service—an innovative release strategy that also happened to make it ineligible for chart placement. When the album finally came out almost a year later, it—along with the even more obscure jazz fusion effort Kamasutra—was sold exclusively in a bundle with the three-disc Crystal Ball compilation. According to PrinceVault, there were at some point plans for a standalone retail release in 2000; but these, too, failed to materialize.

The bitter irony of all this is that The Truth was arguably the Artist’s best—and certainly his most fascinating—album in years. Recorded toward the end of the original run of MTV Unplugged—and toward the beginning of the similarly-formatted VH1 StorytellersThe Truth seems at first glance to share with these series an equation of stripped-down acoustic arrangements with “authenticity,” musical or otherwise. But it quickly becomes evident that something a lot more interesting is afoot, as the raw Delta blues pastiche of the opening title track is gradually invaded by pre-recorded sound effects: first a ticking stopwatch, and later a series of what can only be described as UFO noises.

This undermining of the “unplugged” premise pervades The Truth in ways both subtle (like the unsettling sound of a radio tuned between stations that bubbles beneath the surface of “Don’t Play Me”) and overt (like the ostentatious and, frankly, ridiculous synthesized trumpet on “Man in a Uniform”). With its prominent synth and programmed drums, a track like “Circle of Amour” is no more “acoustic” than, say, “Forever in My Life” from 1987’s Sign “O” the Times; even the genuinely stripped-down groove of “3rd Eye” can’t resist throwing in a few synthesizer swells and layered vocal harmonies, not to mention an elastic bassline by Rhonda Smith of the NPG.

The album’s lyrics play a similar trick. Parts of The Truth are among the most personal songs in Prince’s catalog. “Don’t Play Me” is a searing rejection of the “mountaintop” of mainstream stardom, while “Comeback” is a heartfelt tribute to Amiir, the infant son he and wife Mayte Garcia lost in late 1996. Both “Dionne” and “One of Your Tears” are barbed love letters to singer Dionne Farris, with whom he’d had a dalliance earlier in the decade. Vegan anthem “Animal Kingdom,” while less traditionally autobiographical, is the Artist at his most literal, with lyrics that sound like copy from a PETA campaign set to music. Elsewhere, however, he seems to use personal details as a kind of misdirection: On “Circle of Amour,” for example, he grounds the setting at his own high school (“Tenth grade Central in September”), then uses that setting to weave a lurid fantasy worthy of a Penthouse Forum letter.

All of which is to say that The Truth is a lot more complex than its simple, declarative title suggests. It’s worth noting that the title track never gives a concrete definition of “the Truth,” instead running through a series of “Controversy”-style questions: “Questionnaire, What did U stand 4? / Questionnaire, Who did U save?” By the time the album released in 1998, the Artist was growing less comfortable with these kinds of answerless questions. In her 2017 memoir The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, Garcia recalls her husband meeting Larry Graham and praising his spiritual convictions: “‘That man’s faith is so certain,’ he said. ‘There’s no room for doubts or fears.’” In the years to come, the Artist would use the phrase “the Truth” specifically in reference to his newly adopted (and Graham’s long-held) Jehovah’s Witness faith; but at the time of the album’s recording, the concept for him was something a lot more slippery and less concrete.

In short, The Truth is an album that revels in unsettling its own binaries: acoustic and electric, “authentic” and constructed, and yes, even truth and lies. It’s an album that every Prince fan—even those who had lapsed by the late ‘90s—needs to hear. And, while a limited vinyl release on Record Store Day isn’t exactly the wide exposure it deserves, it is in keeping with its obscurantist original release strategy. Just, please don’t try and flip it on Discogs—at least until I can get my hands on a copy.

Zachary Hoskins is the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

'And That Says What?' - Seven Memorable Quotes from the #1Plus1Plus1is3 Symposium


Another Prince symposium has come and gone! This year marks the fifth anniversary of the artist's passing, and there has been a wealth of academic scholarship on his art during this time. New York University Associate Vice Provost and professor De Angela L. Duff has been a leader in this space. Her latest event, the #1Plus1Plus1is3 symposium, did not disappoint.

Last weekend, we celebrated 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. I always enjoy reuniting with friends, gaining knowledge and listening to the special guests, which included Cbabi Bayoc, Dr. Fink, Sam Jennings, Peggy McCreary, Scott McCullough, Nicolay and Afshin Shahidi. You can learn more on the symposium website and keep watching Duff's YouTube channel for videos of presentations, panels and keynotes. Additionally, you can search the #1plus1plus1is3 hashtag on Twitter. 

I also gave a presentation, "'1 + 1 + 1 Is 3' – Order, Discipline, Truth And Other Christian Values In Prince’s The Rainbow Children," which I will share later when the video was available.

In the past, I've done a roundup of takeaways from symposia, but I thought I'd do something a little different. 

Below are seven memorable quotes from the event.

"Prince wasn't going to wake up one day and be Johnny Mathis." - Kamilah Cummings 

Kamilah Cummings gave a remarkable presentation on Diamonds and Pearls and the myth of colorblindness in Prince's work. She argued that Prince was appealing to whiteness (to succeed in a racist music industry) during this era, and broke down several tactics he employed to meet that goal. She addressed some other strategies, like maintaining a connection to the Black audience. While Prince was never in danger of being dismissed by that audience (contrary to popular belief), he was intentional about the cultural representation in his work. 

Black people were not Prince's "props" during the '90s, "they were his setting and his home." - Melay Araya

Melay Araya's presentation on the music and videos of the Diamonds and Pearls era was a nice a complement to Cummings' work. Araya examined the presence of Black people in Prince's work during this time, highlighting the common theme of "Black people at play." I was very intrigued by her thoughts on Prince's "exploration of Black women's interiority." She bravely took on the topic of colorism in Prince's work and life, pointing out that Prince presented Black women in myriad roles--mother, friend, etc.--beyond that of the object of affection. I think there is so much more to say on this topic, and I would like to see a panel featuring Araya and Cummings in conversation. I'll just put this out there: I'm happy to moderate. 

We can think of Prince's crossover as the "pursuit of resources versus assimilation." - Harold Pride

The topic of Prince's "crossover" to the "mainstream" came up during a brilliant panel, featuring C. Liegh McInnis, Kamilah Cummings, Mark Anthony Neal and Harold Pride--with input from Monique Morris. This subject is often discussed, but with little nuance and consideration of the systemic racism within the music industry. This group did a great job with it, even employing an effective metaphor that was transformative for the audience. I'm looking forward to seeing the video. 


"We've had the power all along." - Laura Tiebert

I teared up multiple times during the symposium, and they were all during talks about Diamonds and Pearls. Something stirred in me when Cummings said the album was his "put some respect on my name" album. I also was touched by Tiebert's beautiful analysis of the album against the framework of The Wizard of Oz, which Prince credits in the liner notes. "Diamonds and Pearls is Prince’s declaration that while the journey down the yellow brick road to self-empowerment is filled with challenges, confidence and trust in ourselves is the key that will ultimately open the gates of Oz," Tiebert argued. I think I was reminded that Prince didn't have to do anything after the run that he had in '80s. Folks complain about his '90s work, but he was still operating on a genius level. He never stopped striving for excellence, and we never stop holding him to impossible standards. Still, he wanted to be an inspiration for all of us, and we will continue to learn from him even though he isn't physically here.

"[Prince] can't just be bae." - Dr. Joan Morgan 

During the roundtable on Controversy, Dr. Joan Morgan simply articulated the way a lot of us feel: There is so much more to Prince beneath the surface, which is why we are fans and spend so much time studying him. Though I was a teenager when I became deeply interested in his music, he did not prompt me to interrogate myself as a sexual being the way he did for other fans in the 1980s. I discovered a more conservative Prince in the 2000s, and I connected with his music on a spiritual level. However, he is so much more to me beyond spirituality and even beyond the music. I do wonder if my relationship would have been different if I grew up in the 1980s. 

I also appreciated Dr. Morgan's perspective on Prince and queerness. 

"The Hero's Journey is a continuous loop. Very broadly, you could argue that loops within Prince's journey each have a seven-year arc." 

Edgar Kruize offered a fascinating presentation, analyzing Prince's career against the framework of "The Hero's Journey," popularized by American literature professor Joseph Campbell. I'm definitely planning to return to this thought-provoking analysis. You can watch for yourself below.

"He ain't let the jazz breathe." - Randy Ferguson

This was a comment in the chat during The Rainbow Children roundtable. I appreciated this group of scholars tackling one of their least favorite albums. I think they shared some thoughtful criticisms and tried to find some redemption. One of the most interesting discussions was around Prince's approach to jazz. Why did he choose certain musicians like Najee or Renato Neto? How did that affect his sound? I'd love to hear a panel of musicians talk about this further. What was Prince doing with the Madhouse records (jazz fusion?) versus The Rainbow Children, One Nite Alone, N.E.W.S. and Xpectation? Which musical styles did he "master," and which ones were part of experiments? 

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