For the first time since 1993, Prince makes an appearance on an album by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, a k a Unpronounceable Hieroglyph Man. On "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," Prince is credited only as producer--the other guy still does the writing, arranging and (thanks to multitracking) pretty much all the performing, another welcome blast from the past. Almost as interesting is the fact that the new album finds The Artist back on a major label, Arista, following his emancipation from Warner Bros., a brief stint at now-defunct EMI and several years on the indie-Internet circuit. It's a one-album deal--with the possibility of follow-ups--that allows The Artist to retain ownership of his master tapes (Prince's problem with Warner Bros.), along with the right to sell "Rave" independently on his Internet site (www.newfunk .com).
"Rave" is a mixed bag, with some solid party jams (the title cut and "Pretty Man," a hidden track whose James Brown homage is underscored by saxophonist Maceo Parker), silly sex anthems ("Hot Wit U" featuring rapper Eve, the blustery "Baby Knows" with Sheryl Crow), one odd cover (Crow's "Every Day Is a Winding Road," unconvincing in its funk make-over) and a handful of classic soul ballads. There's also "Undisputed," a bitter diatribe against the music industry with fellow gadfly Chuck D in which The Artist insists that "heavy rotation never made my world go round/ commercialization of the music is what brought it down/ my level is now what u must learn 2 rise above."
Much better are the album's romantic ruminations, which often find The Artist moving from a warm, throaty lower range to smooth, glistening falsettos. They include a simmering, sensual "Greatest Romance Ever Sold," with a supple Middle Eastern undercurrent; the reflective, richly nuanced "Man 'O' War," one of several tracks featuring The Artist's guitar skills; the silky, Marvin Gaye-ish "Silly Game" and the empathetic "Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do." Even better is "I Love U, but I Don't Trust U Anymore," a slowly unfolding confessional featuring a great piano vamp.
There are several medium-tempo romantic tracks--"The Sun, the Moon and the Stars" for instance--and an inconsequential collaboration with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani on the frothy pop-rock tune "So Far, So Pleased." Fans of The Artist's martial funk won't be disappointed with the title track, which brings together the keening falsetto, taut psychedelic guitar (with more Middle Eastern flourishes) and a winning invitation: "World full of lovers, city full of good times--Rave!" But the strengths of this album are its soulful explorations of heart-centered joy and sorrow.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)
Will Smith, "Willennium"
Actor-rapper Will Smith, the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince, states his position early on "Willennium," the follow-up to 1997's multi-platinum "Big Willie Style." On "I'm Comin'," he raps that "an angel, my grandma, told me before she died/ smart folks don't need to put no cursin' in their rhymes/ so from CD to TV to movies back to rhymin'/ my life stats make Jordan's six straight seem common." It's a pride rap, and also a clean one, and Smith sticks to it over the course of 15 tracks. On "Da Butta," he even gets the normally foul-mouthed Lil' Kim to clean up her act. Of course, Smith's raps have been family-hour-oriented since he kicked off his career 12 years ago with DJ Jazzy Jeff on "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble" and "Parents Just Don't Understand."
Smith's not above defensiveness--on "Freakin' It," he complains, "I been in Rap Pages, they referred to me as soft/ yeah, more like Microsoft"--but most of his new album is about positivity, from the supportive affirmation of "Afro Angel" (written with wife, Jada Pinkett) and "Potnas," a testimonial to loyalty and friendships, to "Uuhhh," where he suggests "eclecticism is a virtue/ it may not be a word but its definitely a virtue."
So is familiarity with the samples that are at the root of many tracks. The millennium party jam "Will 2K" (featuring K-Ci Hailey) is built on the Clash's "Rock the Casbah," "Da Butta" on an LTD vamp. "Can U Feel Me?," Smith's collaboration with Eve, samples Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night," while "Freakin' It" strip-mines two much-tapped sources, Diana Ross's "Love Hangover" and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." The Stevie Wonder-reliant theme to "Wild Wild West" is included here, with a nod to the Latin market on "La Fiesta," which is as weak as Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" despite sampling Tito Puente up close and personal.
Smith's CV is revisited on "Who Am I?," a skittish Rodney Jerkins-produced track featuring former "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" co-star Tatyana Ali and MC Lyte, and more tellingly, on several tracks with former partner Jazzy Jeff Townes (who produced nine tracks overall). "So Fresh," featuring guests Biz Markie and Slick Rick, is a celebration of hip-hop history and its Philadelphia roots, while "Pump Me Up" finds Jazzy Jeff paying homage to the old-school masters with some spectacular turntable technique.
"Willennium" may not be "fresh," but it's accessible and entertaining, and Smith is a genial rapper with a strong, confident flow. But he's hardly the "hip-hop Moses" he posits himself to be, particularly after Hall of Shame lines like this from "No More," a catalogue of loss after a romantic transgression: "I can't hide on land, air or sea/ 'cause every time I turn around there I be/ when I was with you I felt free/ now I'm in a cage called me."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.)
CAPTION: The Artist's new album boasts a substantial contribution from Prince.