By Gilbert Garcia
On his current standup tour, Chris Rock recalls that in the 1980s there were two distinct pop factions: those who favored Prince and those who preferred Michael Jackson. Rock - a Prince diehard - ponders the grotesque shambles Jackson has made of his life (not to mention his face), and concludes that Prince's fans can now claim victory.
While it's hard to refute that assertion, it's a bit like Muhammad Ali boasting that he spent less time in the hospital than Joe Frazier after their 1971 title fight. Look at what Prince has been competing against over the last decade: baby dangling, cosmetic mutilation, allegations of pedophilia, and all-around egomaniacal lunacy from Jackson. This has the smell of a fixed fight.
Prince looks good - and relativelysane - next to Jackson, but his last decade has induced its own share of puzzlement. In 1993, he changed his name to an unpronounceable androgyny symbol and went to war with his record label, Warner Bros., even appearing in public with the word "slave" scrawled on his face. Ultimately working outside the record-company system, he bombarded the market with DIY product that fewer and fewer people heard.
The Minneapolis monarch's career slump can't easily be compared to the inevitable declines suffered by most rock icons. Prince didn't let drugs or alcohol get the better of him; he didn't get bored, or let cozy domesticity distract him; he also maintained his remarkable vocal and instrumental skills. And while many pop artists hit a creative dead end by the time they reach their early 30s, simply because they're too technically limited to explore new ground, Prince is blessed with unsurpassed stylistic range and musical curiosity.
The most consistent theory offered - that he spread himself too thin in the early '90s with lame side projects like Ingrid Chavez and Carmen Electra - doesn't wash when you consider that at the height of his purple reign he was also writing/producing for Sheila E, the Family, The Time, Apollonia 6, Mazerati, Sheena Easton, and the Bangles, with no detrimental impact on his own output.
In any event, Prince has retained a loyal concert following, and a flurry of activity in the last two months has hinted at a return to mainstream favor. Early this year, he joined forces with Beyoncé at the Grammys for a jaw-dropping Purple Rain medley. Last month, he stole the show while accepting induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
These appearances, combined with word that Prince would be playing his old hits for the last time, have made his just-launched Musicology tour a hot ticket (the tour hits SBC Center on June 9). On April 2, at American Airlines Center in Dallas, he sounded every bit like the newly anointed legend, determined to uphold traditional musical values. At the end of a funky workout on "Controversy," he pointedly announced: "I don't believe in lip synching. Every mic here is on. I don't believe in sequencers. I don't believe in TRL. But I do believe in horns." On cue, his righteous horn section kicked into an extended vamp.
That philosophy is the raison d'etre for Musicology's title song, which opened the show. A spare, James Brown-influenced groove number, "Musicology" mourns the passing of soul's heyday, promising to "keep the old-skool joint/for the true funk soldiers." Name-checking Brown, Sly Stone, and Earth Wind & Fire, among others, Prince sings: "Wish I had a dollar for every time we say, 'Don't you miss the feeling music gave you back in the day.'"
Infectious as the tune may be, it's mildly unsettling to hear Prince - a man who giddily screwed with tradition, and redefined soul music to the point where a track consisting of only synthesized strings and a programmed beat could be considered R&B - so consumed by the good old days. Has he at last - and forever - passed into the respected-elder-statesman category, or can he again be contemporary?
In Dallas, these issues simply dissolved in the face of the man's stage onslaught. Decked out in a white ensemble with a chest-baring polka-dotted shirt and a red overcoat, he instantly sent the crowd into a frenzy and never lost them for a second. There was the woman in the second row who had driven in from Austin and didn't hesitate to get her groove on, despite being seven-and-a-half months pregnant. And the mountain of a man in the first row with his foot in a cast, who didn't let that prevent him from shaking his moneymaker.
While heavy on history, the concert's less obvious gems were greeted with every bit as much adulation as his biggest hits. "D.M.S.R." found Prince in dance-machine mode, and his precision-tested New Power Generation appended it with OutKast's "The Way You Move." The majestic ballad, "The Question of U" featured his most searing guitar playing of the night, while an acoustic performance of "Sometimes It Snows in April" showcased his inner Joni Mitchell. The attentive, at times wildly excited response to such songs made it a different kind of nostalgia show, one for genuine aficionados.
Aside from the title song, and an encore treatment of the crooning "On the Couch," Prince generally ignored the new album, which hits stores on April 20. Although it doesn't rank with the top echelon of his work, it's his strongest, most assured record since 1996's sprawling three-CD Emancipation. Possibly reflective of his serious commercial ambitions for the record (he's again braving the major labels, allowing Columbia Records to release it), he kept it to an unusually economical 12 songs. Highlights include the cynical Hollywood tale "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance," the pop-rock nugget "Cinnamon Girl" (not the Neil Young classic), and the jazzy nu-soul brooder "What Do U Want Me 2 Do?" (which finds Prince, normally the romantic pursuer, in the position of being pursued).
Whatever the album's commercial fate, his tour should answer any doubts about his enduring hold on the generation that he once took to Erotic City in his little red corvette. In Dallas, during the dramatic coda of "The Beautiful Ones," he repeatedly screamed, just as he had in 1984: "Do you want me?" Nearly 20,000 people roared back every time. Apparently, the answer was still affirmative. •