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Sunny in the Park

After a dry decade, the grass is looking somewhat greener for Paisley Park, the label headed by Whatshisname

Staples's effort, while less breathtaking, is no less heartening. Not so much a solo album as it is an album-length collaboration between Staples and Prince (Symbol Man penned eight of the dozen tracks and maintains a strong instrumental and vocal presence throughout), The Voice is funky, flashy, and entirely contemporary, avoiding the pitfalls that sank both Time Waits for No One and Mavis's mediocre late-Seventies solo LPs (recorded with Curtis Mayfield after the fiery gospel harmonies of the Staples clan were doused by disco).

The title track tours the urban jungle, and its take on the Rodney King beating ("The nightsticks are still singin'/Four-part harmony on brother's back") showcases some of Prince's strongest writing in years. Though two of the tracks rehash material released elsewhere (the Cruella-de-Villainous "Melody Cool," which appeared on Graffiti Bridge, and a by-the-numbers cover of Prince's "Positivity"), Staples sounds revivified, whether growling (the scorching "House in Order"), purring ("Blood Is Thicker Than Time"), or strutting ("The Undertaker"). The highlight of the project, "You Will Be Moved," is vital contemporary gospel, demonstrating the shape of spirituality without resorting to softheadedness. The Voice has an encouraging energy; if anything, it attempts one genre too many, venturing blindly into hip-hop with "A Man Called Jesus." Crisp and convincing, the LP is not only an aesthetic triumph for Staples and Prince, but a sure means of protecting Paisley Park's investment.

It doesn't take an industry insider, of course, to realize that these two bright spots indicate very little about the true health of Paisley Park -- how hard can it be to harvest time-tried talents? -- and even less about its prognosis. With 1993 under its belt, the label must look toward its shaky future, and begin to work up a sweat for fledgling artists. For now, however, there's a glimmer of hope. For the first time in years, it sounds as if someone's minding the store.

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