When I left the dry comfort of my happy home and ventured into the rain for a special midnight sale of Prince's The Hits, my intention was simple enough -- to find, buy, and review the 56-track retrospective of pop's premier chameleon. But fate has a funny way of kicking your ass.
At the checkout counter, product in hand, I found myself next to a pair of white-haired grannies who were also greasing up their credit cards for a shot at the Prince box. "Ooooh," cooed the one in the checkered skirt, caressing the Herb Ritts cover photograph through the shrinkwrap and squinting tenderly at her plaid friend through plate-glass bifocals, "he's very cute. Does this record have that 'Diamonds and Pearls' on it? I just love that song."
There are only two possible explanations for this rather surprising turn of events:
1. Through his unflagging insistence on deconstructing traditional categories of race and sex, Prince has managed to successfully bridge the generation gap and acquire a universal appeal.
2. These days, Prince sucks.
Let's go to the audiotape.
By almost any standard, The Hits is a seminal collection. Though naysayers deride Prince as a practitioner of fad and pastiche -- a fashion assassin with a few good licks -- this set makes hollow carping of that claim, proving again and again that the Prince of the Eighties was an omnivorous prodigy who broke ground almost every year, and that his finest moments stack up against anything else produced in the pop era. Ten years after its throwdown, "Let's Go Crazy" still thrashes time and space, and the volcanic ax coda has transcended its context to become a generational fingerprint. And guitar-god badboy was only one of his conquests. Whether funking for fun on "Kiss," riding a Santanic groove on "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," or luxuriating in the smoky (Smokey?) balladry of "Adore," he mastered more -- and mastered it faster -- than any other superstar in history.
Though there are countless testaments to this legacy on Hits 1 and Hits 2 -- "Head," "Controversy," "Uptown," and on and on and on -- Prince's versatility is most evident on the third disc of the Warner set, a treasure trove of twenty B-sides. Rich with minor gems ("She's Always in My Hair," "Horny Toad") and major jewels ("Erotic City" and "Shockadelica," pound for pound the strongest songs in the entire Prince canon), this rich Apocrypha includes some of Prince's least predictable triumphs.
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Unfortunately, the third disc is also a prime example of corporate avarice. While Hits 1 and Hits 2 are sold separately, B-sides is available only with the combined three-disc set. Corporate Rationale sez: "A bonus for die-hard collectors -- Thanks, true-blue fans!" Naked Truth answers: "Mo' money!" Rather than risk low sales figures for its unavoidably redundant retrospective, Warner is compelling a full-package purchase with this asinine piggyback scheme.
Maybe, just maybe, Warner's greedy dealings are motivated by the sinking feeling that their golden boy has sprouted feet of clay. Once, Prince thought he was the messiah and a devil in the flesh, that he would save us and damn us both, and do it wearing black lace underwear. But after the yin-yang Ping-Pong between his own private heaven and hell came to a head with the double-barreled masterpiece of Lovesexy and The Black Album -- if there's a funkier sound than the title song of Lovesexy, then I'm Sly Stone -- Prince seemed disoriented, and by the time he got around to dramatizing duality in his Batman soundtrack, his edges were sanded and smoothed. The fear of apocalypse, once ubiquitous, leaked out of his work. The sex, and the music that articulated it, unkinked. The steaming Jimi-and-jism melodrama of "Temptation" would be unthinkable today, just as the waterlogged pablum of ballads like "Diamonds and Pearls" (sorry, granny) would have been unthinkable then. Conflict? Clash? Complexity? Apparently they're not watchwords of the Nineties. And when The Hits tries to obscure this recent falling off by falsifying a career renaissance in the form of the unforgivably bland Diamonds and Pearls, it comes up looking like a patch job.
Two new songs recorded especially for The Hits do offer cause for cheer. "Pink Cashmere" is no classic, but Clare Fischer's string arrangement elevates it into sweet grace; "Pope," a sprightly bit of braggadocio, finds Prince finally having his way with hip-hop after years of playing catch-up. But the third new composition, "Peach," almost squanders all ground that the other songs gain. Ostensibly a power-trio raveup, "Peach" leans on fuzzy riffing and lyrics so witless they'd embarrass Chevy Chase.
The winner, by a knockout? Explanation #2: These days, Prince sucks. I mean "sucks," of course, in the traditional sense, and not as it has been appropriated by Generation X's version of Siskel and Ebert A Beavis and Butt-Head. But the juxtaposition is an instructive one. Prince, entering his fifteenth year in the music industry, has slipped a notch from stratospheric genius to admirable talent. Similarly, Beavis and Butt-Head, entering their second season on MTV, have hocked their dumb hilarity for a drab stupidity. (Stay tuned for a new show starring a different pair of animated morons who keep a running commentary while watching Beavis and Butt-Head A it's Meta-Beavis and Meta-Butt-Head!) Were the two teen stooges and Prince separated at birth? Well, consider the third verse of "Peach" -- "She was pure/Every ounce/I was sure/When her titties bounced." Confidential to Prince: When we want simple-minded lip-licking, there's always Clarence Thomas (or Clarence Carter). Believe it or not, we expect more from our genre-bending, gender-blending, race-erasing, pop/rock/punk/funk polymaths. You've come a long way, baby. Now go back.