As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.
“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.
The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.
“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.
On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.
A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).
The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.
Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.
-By Andrew McNally