If he hadn't choked to death in London's Samarkand Hotel 37 years ago, how many mediocre records would Jimi Hendrix have dropped by now? Stevie, the Stones, Sir Paul ... they're all way past the point where any residual genius is still expected. Since at least The Gold Experience more than a decade ago, Prince — sadly, inevitably — is right there with 'em. Onstage he's still a sexy beast, as irresistible a force as Parliament-Funkadelic. But regarding Planet Earth, it's difficult to imagine a purple protégé — Jesse Johnson, say — putting out anything worse.
Which doesn't make it suck. One of the best axe men of his generation, Prince energetically cranks through a Coldplay/U2-inspired riff on "Guitar," an ode to loving his instrument more than his lady. Casting off the Linn drums that define his Eighties work, Earth instead follows the full-drum lead established on Diamonds and Pearls, and new tracks like "Lion of Judah" and "The 1 U Wanna C " (his first Wendy and Lisa collaborations in 20 years!) are the better for them.
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But the problem here isn't technical, or even musical. Once upon a time, Prince strutted around strumming G-chords in a G-string, screaming about blowjobs and incest. But hip-hop did shock and awe better. So in the Nineties he went syrupy. Earth's "Future Baby Mama" comes in that model, an easy-listening ballad passé by anybody's standards, much less his. More successful is "Somewhere Here on Earth," a slow jam with muted trumpet up front as Prince rues the BlackBerry era: "In this digital age/You could just page me/I know it's the rage/But it just don't engage me."
Antiwar, pro-environment, religious ("Chelsea Rodgers" gives up trim only if you're baptized), and funky, Planet Earth is still merely an excuse to tour, as obligatory for Prince as any other artist who has been around this long. (He has walked 29 years in those high heels since For You, after all.) Until an Eighties nostalgic like the Roots' ?uestlove gets executive producer duty — assuming Prince will ever deign to take outside direction at all — we'll end up with mixed-to-middling records like this one, 3121, Musicology, et cetera. At least he's starting to give 'em away free.