Prince’s brilliant live shows over the last couple of years – and some of them have been stunning – haven’t quite detracted attention from the elephant in the room: that, like many great artists of his vintage, he hasn’t made a genuinely, unarguably classic album for a very long time.
Lovesexy – the 1988 opus which included the mighty Alphabet Street – contained several duffers. Even 1987’s Sign O’ the Times (which features every kind of Prince music imaginable, plus social commentary that brilliantly captured the fears of the early Aids era), has its critics. As desperately as anyone who ever loved Prince wanted his two 2014 albums – Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum – to be barnstorming returns to form, neither of them really were. HITNRUN, though, is more like it.
With new producer Joshua Welton at the helm and much jamming in the studio, the album’s exclusive launch via Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service is his most experimental and shapeshifting in years. There are sonic collages, mystical segments, dips into eastern-tinged funk (Ain’t About to Stop, with input from Rita Ora), big club bangers (the Latin-influenced Like a Mack), ballads (a superior reworking of last year’s This Could Be Us), electronica and rock, as Prince inhabits familiar characters, from sensualist to dreamer to campaigner and even the more rarely heard humorist.
If there’s disappointment when the opening fanfare of sound (which includes a teasing snatch of the famous “Dearly beloved…” intro from Let’s Go Crazy) gives way to the playful but insubstantial concert celebration Million Dollar Show, it doesn’t last. Similar criticisms might be levied at the joyous but slight 80s-meets-2015 pop fluff of Fallinlove2nite, but there aren’t any major misfires. Some of the best tracks find Prince in favoured role as erotically transcendent lover. Shut This Down’s primal, dirty, rubbery, electro groove – wonderfully reminiscent of Hot Thing – finds him declaring “I get you baby, all sweaty and hot, I’m gonna get you where you’ve never been got,” but proving as good as his word. There’s no lack of sauce – the smouldering 1000 X’s & O’s finds him offering to, ahem, “love you all up and down” – but the grinding X’s Face marks another return of the Sign O’ the Times-type protest singer, as he follows hard-hitting recent song Baltimore with another riposte to the recent spate of shootings of young black Americans.
If much of the album has a simultaneously vintage but current feel, at best it has a heady, almost dreamlike atmosphere, finding him – as the genre-busting artist puts it – “in a place that does not require time”. Picking a best track on first plays is tricky, but it might be the guitar-frazzling Hardrocklover, which unoriginally but stormingly equates guitar playing with sexual prowess (“Turn this guitar up, so I can make my woman scream”). Then again, there’s something eerily memorable, already, about the closing June, which finds Prince wishing he’d been born in the Woodstock era and conjuring up a daydream – “Pasta simmers on the stove in June … Richie Havens’ voice on the vinyl, spinning round to love” – so evocative and distracting that, comically, he lets the pasta burn.
Whether any of this results in the much-yearned-for enduring classic only time – and more plays – will tell, but it’s been a long time since a Prince album has been so pleasurable and enjoyable to hear.
This article was written by Dave Simpson, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th September 2015 15.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010