If the right-wing censorship forces had their wits about them, they would forget about the old-fashioned sexism of 2 Live Crew and go after the new Prince album, "Graffiti Bridge" (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.). Prince doesn't use four-letter words and he doesn't describe the sex act in graphic detail, but "Graffiti Bridge" is one of the most erotic, sexually stimulating albums in pop-music history. Moreover, Prince makes sex seem such a natural, indispensable part of romance, spiritual devotion and political freedom that his songs threaten the status quo far more than anything 2 Live Crew has ever done -- or ever could do.
"Graffiti Bridge," which hits the stores Tuesday, is the soundtrack album from Prince's third non-concert movie, to open in theaters this fall. The film is apparently a sequel to 1984's "Purple Rain," with the Kid (Prince) and Morris (Morris Day of the Time) once again battling for musical and romantic control of the Minneapolis club scene. On the soundtrack, though, the real battle seems to be between Prince and the ubiquitous forces of repression.
The album kicks off with the whispered confession, "Dear Dad, things didn't turn out quite like I wanted them to. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to explode." Thunder rumbles and a scratchy guitar pulls us into the light, bouncy, rock-and-soul of "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got." As the song builds into the infectious tug of a mid-'60s Bobby Womack dance number, Prince attacks those naysayers who want to see him fail, who want to "tell me how to paint my palace" (based on a real incident in which Prince's Minnesota neighbors objected to his purple house).
He swears, however, that they can't stop the feeling that's bubbling and boiling within him, and the surging, restless music backs up his claim. That feeling is physical lust ("my body got to have it"), but it's also artistic ambition ("I'll write a letter to the whole world"), democratic idealism ("every man, woman, boy and girl"), the urge to dance ("shakin' all in my shoes") and even divine inspiration ("an everlasting light"). Prince implies that these are all aspects of the same feeling, and that any attempt to repress one is an attempt to repress them all. This is the secret message behind all great rock-and-roll, and it's the theme that runs through "Graffiti Bridge."
Prince sharpens this conflict on the album's second song, "New Power Generation," an explicitly political anthem set atop a hard-core funk groove colored with psychedelic guitar and keyboard flourishes. A choir of funk voices chants to the staggered rhythm, "Makin' love and music's the only things worth fighting for. We are the new power generation. We want to change the world. The only thing that's in our way is you, your old-fashioned music and your old ideas." The lyrics may be simplistic, but the powerful music carries the message.
Prince doesn't merely complain about the political, musical and sexual conservatives who are "in our way" -- he also conjures up a vision of the eroticized freedom he seeks. The album's best and most revealing song is "Elephants and Flowers," which opens with a distorted guitar solo by Prince that swirls dizzyingly, roars like a lion and then slides smoothly into a chunky rock-funk pattern. In the first verse Prince sings about an inner-city kid itching for violence on a hot summer night, as if this were a social protest song. But the number shifts gears abruptly and turns into a leering, taunting sexual come-on.
Then the song shifts again and becomes a hearty gospel hymn, with Prince leading a choir in praise of "the One who made everything -- elephants and flowers." It goes on to suggest that practicing God's love is a physical as well as a spiritual task, and that if inner-city kids would practice such erotic love, confusion, fear and pain would disappear. Not only does Prince pull off social protest, seduction and gospel vocal styles triumphantly in the same song, but he also makes all the themes merge into one.
The other songs on the album build on these models. The first single, "Thieves in the Temple," is not one of the strongest, but it describes the idea of holy sexuality as a temple of love defiled by love-starved thieves. It opens with a whispery, confidential vocal set against Asian percussion and melodic motifs (to reinforce the temple image) and adds on a big funk bottom and rock guitar till it reaches a screaming climax. "Still Would Stand All Time" is a slow song about "a love solid as rock" that builds from a quiet ballad into a wailing gospel hymn. "Tick, Tick, Bang!" focuses on the physical lust aspect of "Can't Stop This Feeling" by turning the classic tension-and-release devices of rock-and-soul into a funny but true description of the sweet agony of impending sexual satisfaction.
The soundtrack offers a generous helping of music: 17 tracks (16 different songs) adding up to 68 minutes. Although Prince composed all 16 songs, he only sings six of them alone. The Time performs our songs; veteran Mavis Staples and newcomer Tevin Campbell sing four between them; and Prince sings three with George Clinton, Rosie Gaines and the Steeles. These various voices give Prince the composer more colors to work with, and he writes for an ambitious breadth of personalities and musical styles. He excels at them all, giving the album a reach far beyond the narrowly focused approach of almost all pop albums these days.
Prince gave his old Minneapolis proteges in the Time songs that display his facility at mainstream rhythm-and-blues styles. "Release It," for example, is one of the best James Brown imitations ever recorded, especially in the way Morris Day leads the band in percussive call-and-response chants over a very lean, mean bass-and-drum pattern. "The Latest Fashion" proves that Prince can come up with a catchy Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis pop-funk number just as easily as those two Time members can. "Shake," on the other hand, incorporates the organ riff from "96 Tears" and frat-rock guitar into a "Louie Louie"-like stomp. As good as the recent comeback album by the Time was, Prince's songs for them are even better.
Prince produced Mavis Staples's overlooked 1989 album "Time Waits for No One," and he uses her incredible gospel voice to underscore the religious-sexual connection on "Graffiti Bridge." He wrote "Melody Cool," a Staples Singers-like showcase, for her, and she makes the most of it with a sassy, free-wheeling gospel interpretation. Tevin Campbell has a much less interesting voice, but she joins Staples on the album's title tune, a sing-along anthem about the spray-painted bridge between this world and a better one; Clare Fischer's lush string charts cushion the jingly melody borrowed from the Clash's "Spanish Bombs."
One of the most obvious and profound musical influences on Prince has been George Clinton, the mastermind behind Parliament, Funkadelic and countless other funk acts. Prince produced Clinton's last album, "The Cinderella Theory," but their most fruitful collaboration so far is "We Can Funk," a number they wrote and sing together on "Graffiti Bridge." The song starts off with a great Clinton joke and builds into Prince's obsession with erotic transcendence. By the end, the song is a ricocheting circus tent full of sounds: Prince's braying howl, soothing soul harmonies by Clinton's gang, screaming rock guitar, squiggly synth lines, snaking horn lines and a muscular, unfaltering funk beat.
Prince is not a great lyricist, but his lyrics do articulate the intoxicating power of his music. Like Clinton, he has put together the pure physical stimulation of the dance beat with the emotional-intellectual pleasure of melody and harmony. The ultimate triumph of "Graffiti Bridge" is that its theory about the union of the sexual, political, personal and spiritual is reflected in its practice of uniting rhythm with harmony. In a culture of fragmention where some artists want rhythm without harmony and others want harmony without rhythm, where some forces want sex without romance and others want romance without sex -- Prince's vision of synthesis is a bold clarion call.