You know things are bad when songs like "I Rock, Therefore I Am" start to sound good, but that's just how messy Prince's career has become in the past few years. Seemingly bent on a course of self-induced musical mutilation, this once promising "genius" has abandoned the thrill of making heads snap and booties bounce with his idiosyncratic freak funk. Instead, Prince has apparently decided to fritter away one of the most devoted fan bases in pop history with a series of releases that have devolved from merely mediocre to embarrassingly awful.
The downward spiral began in the early '90s, with Prince's well-publicized (and quite prescient) battle with his label and the much-mocked name change that came with it. After years of being the one pop star who commanded critical respect for his sheer creativity, Prince realized his days as a commercial force were numbered. Given that the terms of his ridiculously overblown contract with Warner Bros. required him to sell boatloads of records, he abandoned creativity in favor of crass commercialism. Albums like "Diamonds and Pearls" and the "Symbol" album were torrid and overripe confections that sold quite well. But they didn't hit the benchmark required by Warner to result in big, Princely paychecks.
Feeling snubbed and "enslaved," he began trying to extricate himself from his contract by changing his name and supplying his label with a series of subpar contract-fillers, including "Come" and "Chaos and Disorder," while trumpeting the glory of "The Gold Experience," an album his mean ol' label wouldn't let him release. Of course, "Gold" was released (and it was pretty good) and, eventually, Prince was (gladly) let go from his Warner contract.
It was the moment his fans had been waiting for. The global community of increasingly shamed fans just knew that a newly independent Prince -- with the power of the Internet and his storied "vault" of unreleased material -- would soon re-emerge as the world's first "indie pop star." And he would be eager to share his voluminous creativity with all those whose patience he had tried so dearly. Promises were made: vault-spanning collections, live albums, new studio albums, rehearsals, videos.
On the surface, it seems those promises were kept. In the seven years since being "freed" from Warner Bros., Prince has released -- in stores and via his NPG Music Club website -- more than 20 CDs worth of music and three videos. For any other contemporary artist, this is an unthinkable amount of music. Further, this material -- the live box set, the concert DVDs, the online-only songs, the tracks from "the vault," the instrumental albums -- is exactly what fans have been clamoring for. The problem is, almost all of it sucks.
On paper, each bit of music Prince has released looks promising, but as a whole, it is clinical-sounding and rather dull. He's torn between the demands of his fans (which he's obviously quite mindful of) and his own pop-star ego and "maturity" issues. Most of it sounds like Prince trying too hard to make "Prince music," rather than just letting his individualistic groove flow. Years of cloistered creativity have taken their toll, and whether it's the abhorrent business practices that impede his "independent" career or simply the music that comes from not having anyone to tell him something isn't up to par, Prince has eroded the most important pop legacy of the last quarter-century into a total wasteland.
It's probably not coincidental that Prince's musical malaise emerged at the same time he was being converted into a Jehovah's Witness (and, apparently, a black activist) by bass legend Larry Graham. The strict and profoundly paranoid doctrine of the JWs enforces a lifestyle quite different from Prince's Rabelaisian past. His "spiritual journey" has manifested itself in bigoted and delusional rantings onstage and via his website; and caused the guy who once sang about his sister's dripping underwear to wax poetic about "the theocratic order" and "devils" named Mr. Rosenbloom. Now, spiritual growth is a good thing, and the weird dichotomy of a stage-humping sex god singing about "The Cross" has always been a fundamental part of what made Prince so interesting. But that dichotomy has been replaced by one-dimensional evangelism. All you hear about at a Prince show now is "white oppression" this and "Thanksgiving is evil" that. Which is totally boring.
Bringing us to the latest travesty in the Prince legacy: "Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas." What's most sad about this live show (an 80-minute DVD edited down from a two-hour-plus concert) is that -- despite the set list that includes nearly no hits -- Las Vegas couldn't have been a more appropriate location. Prince and his anonymously competent band barrel through the 14 songs as if they're five months into a yearlong engagement. It's all "tight" and "funky" and whatever, but there's none of the danger or sexual energy that has always made a Prince show so exciting. So yeah, there's a new live DVD from Prince with a great set list that finally includes songs "Gotta Broken Heart Again" and "Strange Relationship," but it's so boring to watch, you realize Prince may as well resign himself to the casino circuit like The Time.
After watching this sterile affair, I popped on "Chaos and Disorder" -- Prince's 30-minute "fuck you" missive to Warner Bros. When it was released in 1996, it was panned as lazy, sloppy and perhaps Prince's worst album ever. That criticism seemed justified at the time, given how excellent much of the unreleased material was that he was then recording. Now, the album's blisteringly raw swagger is a blast to the back of the head. Most of the songwriting still sounds pathetic, but the energy of the album is what makes it twice as enjoyable as anything Prince has done recently. That's really a shame.