Ball of Confusion

In 1997 the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Currently Known as a Pretentious Hieroglyph was lying low. It's all relative, sure, but last year was the first since 1983 that hadn't seen a single record released by the Funky Pop Polymath. There were reasons, of course. There always are. The Artist was creatively exhausted: The late-1996 triple album Emancipation tapped his reserves. The Artist was out and about: His Jam of the Year tour was his first major U.S. roadwork in years. The Artist was preoccupied: His first child with his wife Mayte Garcia supposedly was born with cloverleaf skull syndrome and died shortly afterward. (To date neither parent has commented.)

Now, though, it's a new year, and Prince is back. Sort of. Though there won't be a new studio album until 1999 -- wonder what song he'll remix for that? -- Prince has plugged the gap. And when he plugs a gap, he really plugs it. His new release, Crystal Ball, is a four-CD set that includes 30 songs of vault material and an entirely new acoustic album, The Truth (see sidebar). In copping to his own apocrypha, Prince proves once again that he's pop music's most prolific composer. Crystal Ball is a cloudy sprawl, a massive musical mess that oscillates between outstanding songs and songs that should have been left out standing in the cold. How versatile. How frustrating.

The frustration began before the set ever hit stores, in behind-the-scenes machinations. Crystal Ball was supposed to mark the debut of Prince's long-awaited direct-marketing plans, which he hatched after severing ties with major record labels. All last year Prince took preorders for Crystal Ball through his toll-free number (800-NEW-FUNK) and Website, charging $50 for product, shipping, and handling. Up until the first of this year, most sources were still reporting that this would be the only way to purchase the album. At the last minute, though, Prince struck a deal with the Blockbuster and Musicland chains. On February 20 the album appeared on shelves across the nation, priced at an alarmingly affordable $29.95. Fans who had preordered the set at $50 weren't so pleased, and the hasty announcement that they would receive a free additional CD of the Prinstrumental score for the Kamasutra ballet struck many as weak consolation. Rival record chains, locked out of the deal, weren't too thrilled either. As usual, the market found a way; Tower Records and HMV stores began retailing Crystal Ball in the $50 range, prompting speculation that they were simply buying the set at Blockbuster or Musicland and then marking it up for resale. Muddled as it is, this new approach to hawking his wares seems to be working in Prince's favor. By eliminating most of the middlemen, he's guaranteeing himself another big payday. Emancipation, distributed in similar fashion in 1996, put more money in his pocket than any record since 1984's Purple Rain.

This would be no more than a moderately entertaining tale of a fledgling entrepreneur -- the kind of Widgets R Us illustration your business school professor tells you on the first day of class -- if it weren't for the fact that Crystal Ball is full of music. Almost four hours of music, in fact. Prince's past ten years have been fraught with aesthetic dead ends, sour and didactic songs that raged against publishers, record labels, retail chains, and even his fans. Now he is rolling out what he was holding back during those ranting years, and much of it is worth raving about.

The record kicks off with "Crystal Ball," which was to be the title song of a triple album rejected by Warner Bros. in 1987. (The album was retooled and released that same year as the double LP Sign 'O' the Times.) Over a sparse, slow groove adorned with whistles, canned drums, and on-again/off-again full instrumental backing, Prince stretches out, delivering a hypnotic vocal about love, lust, and loss. "Crystal Ball," which has circulated for years among bootleggers under its alternate title "Xpert Lover," is Prince at his most hermetic and difficult -- and also at his most rewarding. The other songs from 1986-87 are equally strong. There's "Good Love," a sunny piece of popcraft that was unjustly buried on the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack; the delightful "Movie Star," which proves incontrovertibly that Prince was always the model for Morris Day's addled ladies' man; and "CloreenBaconSkin," a lengthy, live-in-the-studio bass workout with improvised lyrics. The only chunks of pyrite from this golden period are "Crucial," a swollen attempt at a swelling ballad, and "Dream Factory," an anti-drug lyric sabotaged by its cluttered arrangement.

A full third of Crystal Ball is composed of outtakes from 1993-94, when Prince was recording a musical called Glam Slam Ulysses. (A funk opera based on Homer's Odyssey makes more sense than one based on Tolstoy's Hadzhi Murad, but less sense than almost anything else.) He performed the show in Los Angeles and Minneapolis and placed some of its songs on 1994's underrated Come and 1995's overproduced and overrated The Gold Experience. The rest of it is collected here for the first time. There's the gutbucket funk of "Interactive" (previously available only on CD-ROM), the kinky reggae of "Ripopgodazippa" (heard for a moment in the 1995 film Showgirls), and the nasty, hooky R&B of "Acknowledge Me." Of course there are also throwaways such as "Calhoun Square" and "Love Sign," the latter featuring vocals by Marvin Gaye's daughter Nona. But the strongest compositions from this period, particularly "What's My Name?" (a profoundly menacing song about celebrity and identity) and "Da Bang" (a profoundly superficial song about boot-knocking), are complex and satisfying, the equal of anything Prince has ever recorded. All in all the songs from 1993-94 are what outtakes should be -- interesting glimpses of a prolific artist's creative process.

The more recent material also does the Artist proud. There's "Hide the Bone," a single-entendre rocker recorded with the NPG; "She Gave Her Angels," a lovely ballad that the Artist performed on the Disney Channel's new Muppet Show; and "2morrow," an Emancipation outtake that rolls gently over the bass line from Parliament's "Turn That Mutha Out!"

Those are the highlights. The lowlights? Well, a few songs simply don't warrant inclusion. Given that Crystal Ball will end up mostly in the hands of hard-core fans, it doesn't make sense for Prince to pawn off "Tell Me How U Want to Be Done" as a new song, when anyone with any Artist cred knows that it's merely the second half of 1992's "The Continental." The dragging blues-rock composition "The Ride" and the bombastic "Strays of the World" have been bootlegged for years, and they're not improving with age. And there is a quartet of previously released Glam Slam Ulysses songs ("P Control," "Days of Wild," "So Dark," and "Get Loose") represented here either by superfluous live versions or anemic dance-club remixes.

Crystal Ball is clearly a major statement of sorts, Prince's attempt to prove that Warner Bros. screwed him out of better promotion, or that he's too much for any label to handle. But it's also his second disorganized, leviathanic release in a row, and these displays of virtuosity are beginning to have a faint tinge of desperation about them. It's reminiscent of the mid-Seventies fate of Stevie Wonder, who threw out his ability to edit himself on the double album Songs in the Key of Life and then sent much of his talent after it on the double LP Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. To date, Stevie has not been able to recapture the driving power of early-Seventies albums like Talking Book and Innervisions. No matter how interested he is in giving free rein to his creativity, Prince should take this example as a cautionary tale, and he should also look back to the concision and unity of albums such as Purple Rain and 1988's LoveSexy. In pop music, finally, genius is juggernaut.

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