By: Eric Greenwood
Prince's last great, forward thinking, and groundbreaking record was in 1988, and Prince posed nude for the cover. He had the world eating out of his hand, awaiting his every move. At the time, Lovesexy seemed like a bit of a letdown, having been burdened with following the brilliance of his master opus, Sign 'O' the Times, but it was still the weirdest music on Top 40 radio by a long shot.
The intervening 18 years have been bumpy to say the least, and, if we're going to be honest, nothing has come close to touching Prince's 80's heyday. Sure, there have been hints of greatness along the way. The Gold Experience was better than decent. Emancipation had its moments, too, but a triple album? I don't think anyone has ever pulled off one in the history of rock 'n' roll. The chinks in Prince's armor started to deepen the moment "Batdance" fell off the charts.
Prince used to be a mysterious master in the studio- an eccentric purple sprite in heels who could out-write and out-play all of his pop contemporaries, Prince had that rare coup of critical acclaim and worldwide pop superstardom. Since his "emancipation" from Warner Bros. in the mid-90's, Prince has saturated his fledgling market with a mixed bag of undercooked pop leftover from the vaults, dilettantish jazz, new age religiosity, and retread funk.
In 2004 Prince sold over 2 million copies of his self-purported come back album, Musicology, by cleverly bundling his new album with ticket prices for his sold out tour that focused mainly on his indelible hits. While Musicology was a valiant effort to re-establish Prince as the master of his pop, soul, and funk domains, it merely made critics and fans yearn for the real draw of that tour: the hits.
No one can touch Prince in concert, but these days he's got competition in the studio, namely from disciples like Outkast and Timbaland, who take Prince's past fearless studio experimentation and continue to break new ground. 3121 may be funkier, edgier, and dancier than Musicology, but it still doesn't push the envelope on a level that would constitute a true return to form. The man could probably never duplicate a run like he had in the 80's. It's a near impossible feat, and as Fitzgerald once famously said "there are no second acts in American lives." Evidently, Prince is no exception.
The sparse sexual overtones of "Black Sweat" recall "Kiss"'s wild bravado, but it's more of a quaint or nostalgic homage than an extension of a good idea. The synth-happy "Lolita" evokes the jubilance of Dirty Mind's infectious singles, but not even Prince can re-write history. And try as he might to convince us otherwise, God ain't sexy. The ladies don't want to dance, Prince, they want you to get nasty again.