“How Come You Don’t Call?”: Lamenting The Loss of Prince’s Genius

Posted: July 21, 2010 by RA in Music, The Webosphere
Tags: , , , , ,

So, I resisted the urge to join the chorus of keystrokes reacting to Prince’s declaration that the internet is “over.” Whenever an artist makes such a statement, America –public and punditry alike — reverts to a childlike state of literalism, unable to imagine a meaning deeper than the very words on the page. It serves their overall purpose of mocking them as crotchety old men confused and frightened by the internet, unable to end the reign of Auto-Tune.

Forget the fact that Prince Rogers Nelson (or “the baddest motherfucker to slip on a pair of size 6 heels” to you) pioneered the practice of distributing music and connecting with fans via the web. Forget that he won a Webby for that shit. Forget that, at 5’2″ and in eyeliner, he’ll take your girl with a single raised eyebrow. Yeah, forget all that. He’s just an old geezer afraid of teh internetz.


The fact is he’s 100% right. What used to be a revolutionary new forum, led by technological and creative innovation, has become just another tool for corporate types to learn what you thought was cool last week, slap a bow on it and sell it to you as what will be cool next week. For every OK Go, there are a thousand Eamons and Chris Crockers. For every OkayPlayer, a thousand marketing geniuses who want you to want a PSP. The fact is, things done changed. Whether or not you and your blogroll, Twitter feed, and Rickroll batting average want to believe it.

So it’s with this I2I moment of shared understanding that I popped in Prince’s 33rd studio album, 20Ten. About four songs into it, I knew I was in for a less exciting experience than a Mya interview. The sad thing is, I really wasn’t surprised.

See, this is only the latest chapter in what has been Prince’s steady decline into mediocrity over the last five years. At the dawn of the millenium, Prince had become a punchline — a shorthand for the eccentricity and androgyny of the ’80s. A “never again” cautionary tale of lost masculinity and crazy-assedness. And then, after becoming the first artist in history to actually win in a recording industry built to exploit artists, he re-emerged, rechristened and ready to be a star again. The result was 2004’s Musicology, a critical darling and sales juggernaut that reminded the public at large it was once cool to be down with Prince.

As was the case with Mariah Carey a year later, his huge comeback created a shift in the public’s perception of him. No longer was he measured by his last chart success — recent hit or not, he ceased being a punchline, and began to command the respect he deserves. The only problem is, with this unqualified acclaim, he has (pardon the cliché) lost his hunger. Sure, Musicology was a decent album, and 2006’s 3121 was even better. But everything that came after has seen a lazier, more complacent Prince.

Sure, “Guitar”, the lead single off 2007’s Planet Earth, was built on a scorching guitar riff that dirtied up the record’s otherwise cutesy melodies; but the warning signs were there. The pedestrian (if slightly humorous) lyrics. The embarassing corporate tie-in with Verizon Wireless (who essentially bought him a music video). And, hell, the fact that he settled on the name “Guitar” (no doubt spawned from the same well of creativity as the monikers Alicia Keys, Musiq, and Trey Songz). From there, it was all downhill — the double-abortion that was LotusFlow3r:MPLSound is best not discussed at all.

20Ten starts with “Compassion”, a sonic nod to Dirty Mind‘s “Sexuality”… but without the sex, and doesn’t get much better from there. In fact, the only mildly noteworthy track is the playful “StickyLike Glue”, which recalls Vintage Prince at his mediocre best. Sadly, great mediocrity is the best you can hope for on an album that includes love jams with lyrics as teeth-pickingly sensual as “I read your letter/Every word/No one writes better/At least, none that I’ve heard”.

Sadly, it’s a safe, by-the-numbers affair, with its nods to religion and polite sensuality. Sure, having fully embraced faith, he’s older and wiser now. He made that clear in his “who, me?” acceptance speech for this year’s BET Lifetime Achievement Award — a tribute that, though drenched in talent, paled in comparison to his 2005 performance after accepting a similar award from the NAACP, where he had the entire audience dancing their asses off in the aisles (including fellow honorees Oprah Winfrey and a little-known Chicago couple, Barack and Michelle Obama).

Yeah, he’s found stability and abandoned the rebellion that directly led to the Parental Advisory sticker you whippersnappers grew up with. But I’m not saying he still needs to shock us to be relevant (in fact, I’m quite relieved the assless pants are officially a part of his past). Although I’d give anything to yell along to the line “Fuck so pretty, you and me” at his next live show, I know it’s not likely to happen ever again, and I’m fine with that.

Problem is, whether to his higher power or his paramour (with whom he only makes committed, monogamous love), his entreaties sound dull, listless, and downright unconvincing. It’s hard to believe this is the man who, through his understated, emotional delivery told Pop music’s most haunting version of the Gospel. It’s even harder to believe this was the same man who ripped the dictionary definition of “passion” to shreds, along with his heart and vocal cords, in the gutwrenching finale of “The Beautiful Ones”. Frankly, The Purple One is looking pretty… well, lilac in his old age.

Even his choice of nymphettes has taken a turn for the milquetoast. Where he once gave us a gaggle of beauties that were varyingly talented but uniformly attention-getting, we now have a crop of chicks I can’t bring myself to care about. I mean, we all knew Vanity was talentless and utterly dispensable (a fact he proved by unceremoniously replacing her with Apollonia Kotero), but can you fathom getting into a debate over the work of Tamár or Bria Valente?

Reformed or not, I know Prince can deliver a killer album that’s both timeless and utterly current, while remaining free of the unbridled carnality of his past. He already has. He named it 3121. It had cuts like “Black Sweat” and “Lolita” — songs that marked a final, decisive victory in his career-long struggle to get his mind around this sound the kids call “Hip-Hop”, with a batch of videos that introduced him to a younger audience as the vital, stylish older cat they wanted to be. From seduction soundtracks like “Incense and Candles” and the title track, to guitar anthems like “Fury”, to melancholy ruminations on faith like “The Word”, the album never missed more than half a beat. And when it was good, it was brilliant. Even Planet Earth‘s status as a disappointment was largely fueled by its failure to live up to this album’s career-redefining brilliance. But with highlights like the unfortunately titled “Future Baby Mama” and the foot-stomping, soul-clapping “Chelsea Rodgers”, it actually was a pretty enjoyable record.

In fact, 20Ten joins LotusFlow3r:MPLSound as the only other Prince album I sat through purely out of a sense of duty. It’s not that it was bad, as much as it was mediocre. And with an artist like Prince, that’s utterly unforgivable.

I guess it’s a good thing The Purple One can afford to be so complacent. In a year that saw the world shocked into remembering Michael Jackson’s genius only after his death, it’s some consolation that Prince gets to enjoy universal acclaim while he’s around to let it go to his head.

I just want my mind blown again.

  1. Dayo says:

    “I read your letter/Every word/No one writes better/At least, none that I’ve heard”. You are fucking kidding me, right? Snoop (Doggy) Dog and his lifetime-guarantee flowers would be proud.

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