In 1975, Maurice White had the chance to become a true leader in pop music -- an innovative artist that others would follow. That year his band, Earth, Wind & Fire, released two superb albums that captured pop music's ear with their contagious dance rhythms and ambitious use of jazz and African influences. Audiences and other musicians had their ears cocked in White's direction, but it turned out he had little to say. His lyrics were bland abstractions of vague spirituality, not much different from greeting cards or horoscopes. His music grew less and less ambitious, and now is brightly polished background music with a beat. Instead of becoming an influential leader, White settled for the role of skilled entertainer. That's the role he plays on Earth, Wind & Fire's new album, "Raise!" (ARC/Columbia TC 37548).
Prince came to a similar crossroads in 1979. Only 19 years old then, this Minneapolis prodigy released a second album that caught attention with its ingenious integration of an infectious soul beat and aggressive rock 'n' roll. He, too, had the potential to become a skilled entertainer who could top the charts with one inoffensive single after another. Unlike White, though, Prince seized the opportunity to become an artistic leader with a definite vision. That vision -- frank and uninhibited sexuality -- was quite controversial, but it was so bold and distinctive it couldn't be ignored. That vision is elaborated and strengthened on Prince's new album, "Controversy" (Warner Bros. BSK 3601).
It may be unfortunate that Maurice White has shied away from artistic risks, but at least he has regained his skills as an entertainer. He had lost even those on last year's disastrous Earth, Wind & Fire double album, "Faces." "Faces" was a prime example of the artsy Muzak that results when an artist sets lofty goals but won't take any risks to get there. "Raise!" is a return trip to more familiar EW&F territory: the "Boogie Wonderland" where the horn-powered dance beat and soaring vocal harmonies are so hypnotic that you don't notice the ponderous lyrics. Six of the nine cuts on "Raise!" -- led by the hit single, "Let's Groove" -- are sharp, stimulating dance numbers. The band's five-man horn section -- perhaps the best in pop music -- is brought to the front of the sound mix again. The horns' dipping, darting lines supply much of the album's momentum. The thick syrup of strings and backing vocals that clogged up "Faces" has been cleaned out enough to let the guitars and percussion show through more clearly on "Raise!"
Some new blood has assisted this rejuvenation of Earth, Wind & Fire. Roland Bautista, an EW&F guitarist from 1971-73, has replaced Al McKay, who once replaced Bautista. Bautista reinjects aggressive guitar solos into the EW&F sound. Beloyd Taylor, who is not a member of the group, contributes three compositions and some metallic rhythm guitar. Taylor's three songs have more rock 'n' roll feel than any EW&F records since the 1976 "Spirit." Keyboardist Wayne Vaughn, also not a group member, collaborated with White to write three other songs, including the catchy "Let's Groove" and the romantic falsetto ballad, "My Love." With "Raise!", Earth, Wind & Fire has regained its proper role as makers of radio dance hits. Like the Doobie Brothers, Bee Gees and Jacksons, Earth, Wind & Fire creates music that is all pleasure and no content.
By contrast, Prince's "Controversy" is one of the major statements in pop music this year. Part of the statement is transmitted through the lyrics: an unsettling, explicit challenge to exercise all sexual options. And a large part of the statement comes through the music itself -- a bold blend of black dance rhythms and white rock solos. Prince straddles the boundary between black soul and white rock more successfully than anyone has since Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. Prince has broken all precedents, though, by spelling out clearly the sexual motivations that have always lurked in the background of rock 'n' roll. He gets away with these huge gambles simply because he is one of the most talented new figures to arrive in pop music in recent years.
This 21-year-old one-man-band with no given last name can do it all: He has composed, arranged, produced, sung and played everything by himself on his four albums, with only the most minor exceptions. He composes sure-fire dance tracks that have given him several disco hits; he composes hummable radio melodies that have given him several soul hits; he composes irreverent lyrics and guitar licks that have made him a favorite of rock critics. He arranges songs so that his deep, thudding rhythm tracks are set against bright, breezy synthesizers and falsetto singing, with hard rock guitar solos interspersed. His strong, versatile voice can soar into an airy, quivering falsetto or it can harden into a stern tenor.
All these talents have reached maturity on "Controversy." The hit single title track is a seven-minute response to the furor he caused with last year's album, "Dirty Mind." The new song features the most powerful dance track of 1981. Over a pounding bass drum and a dazzling synthesizer march, Prince ingenuously complains: "I just can't believe all the things people say. Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" Later in the song he erupts into an unearthly yell like Sly Stone at the height of his powers and answers his own question: "People call me rude. I wish we were all nude. I wish there were no black and white. I wish there were no rules." Prince (of mixed racial parentage and unannounced sexual preference) creates his deliberate ambiguity to flout categories and assumptions.
He's not content, however, to simply describe his own experiences; he challenges the listener to take the same risks. "Do me, baby," the steamiest sex ballad since Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," reaches a climax of groans, when Prince asks: "Are you just going to sit there and watch?" He politicizes this difference between participant and voyeur on the album's best song, the new wave rocker, "Sexuality." Over the fractured guitar rhythms, he complains "we live in a world overrun by tourists" and advises the sexually active "to stand up and organize." Prince's music is a compelling argument in itself.