Recordings

Prince's '3121': Some Funky Little Numbers

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

You remember Prince, right?

Not the Artist Formerly Known as Brilliant, that defiant glyph who stumbled into an abyss of self-absorbed musical mediocrity in the 1990s and became more interesting for his eccentricities than for his unfocused and largely forgettable albums ("Come," "Emancipation," "The Rainbow Children"). But the undisputed pop genius and funk-rock master -- the virtuosic innovator behind "Dirty Mind," "1999" and "Sign 'O' the Times." His Royal Badness.

That Prince is basically back: Let the house-quaking commence.

After not embarrassing himself for the first time in a long time with 2004's "Musicology," which coincided with a wildly successful greatest-hits tour, Prince has emerged from the studio with the cryptically titled "3121," the purple rainmaker's best new release since "The Love Symbol Album" in 1992.

It's hardly perfect: "3121" is ill-sequenced, for one thing, wedging a dud of a bossa nova ballad, "Te Amo Corazon," between the superlative funk of "Lolita" and "Black Sweat," almost as if Prince tripped over a cord in the studio and accidentally unplugged the groove machine. And there are other songs that don't quite rise to the high standards set by "Lolita" et al., including "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed," which sounds like a Soul II Soul leftover.

Still, "3121" is largely irresistible, harking back to Prince's heyday without sounding stale. If there's supposed to be stasis on the funk continuum, then nobody seems to have told Prince: Several of "3121's" dozen songs suggest that the notoriously insular artist has been absorbing contemporary music again -- in particular, tracks by producers on whom he's had a profound impact.

"Black Sweat" is a delicious slice of stripped-down electro-funk that sounds like Prince doing his best Pharrell doing his best "Black Album"- or "Kiss"-era Prince, which is so meta it hurts. The song is all stuttering drum machines, hand claps and buzzing, burbling synths, with grunting vocals and falsetto shrieks: "I'm hot and I don't care who knows it, I got a job to do," Prince yelps. The layered "Love" also features a Pharrell/Neptunes-style drum pattern, along with some zhigga-zhigga turntable scratches, space-gun sound effects and an industrial-strength melody.

On the steamy, slinky slow jam "Incense and Candles," Prince borrows a page from Timbaland, adding a double-time rap over a drum-and-bass breakdown. And there are echoes of OutKast's Andre 3000 throughout the album, as well -- no shock, given that the rapper-producer is pretty much the new Prince.

But "3121" is no hip-hop album. Rather, it's basically a party-ready funk record, albeit one that also features bluesy Southern soul ("Satisfied"), sophisticated, symphonic tango ("The Dance") and hard-driving, "1999"-style rock ("Fury").

"Lock the door till you see the sun, we gonna party like there ain't gonna be another one," Prince sings on the title track, accompanying himself with the pitch-shifted vocals of his longtime alter ego, Camille, who sounds like a drunken alien. "Futuristic fantasy, this is where the purple party people be." Riding a steady mid-tempo groove, he embellishes the psychedelic song with wormy synth vamps and a fuzzed-out guitar solo.

"Get On the Boat" is a James Brown-style workout that even features a shout of "Good God!" plus a saxophone solo by the onetime Brown sideman Maceo Parker. (Parker is one of "3121's" only interlopers, as Prince plays almost all the instruments on the self-produced recording; he does the majority of the singing, too, though his newest protege, soul songstress Tamar, lends her voice in spots.)

Prince also gets down on "Lolita," though he doesn't actually, you know . . . The formerly freak-nasty singer is still sorta salacious, but he's apparently adopted a look-but-don't-touch lyric policy, now that he's a Jehovah's Witness: "I know you're fine, from head to pumps/If you were mine, we'd bump, bump, bump." But, he adds of the song's young subject, "Lolita, you're sweeta', but you'll never make a cheater out of me."

I promise not to stray, either -- as long as Prince is back to sounding like Prince for good.


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