Sunny in the Park

While Eddy Grant's endeavor to socafy the world through his Ice label is a fresh twist, he's hardly the first pop star to turn up his own imprint.

Long before he traded in his name for a psychosexual doodle, "retired" from studio recording, and announced his intention to concentrate on alternate entertainment genres, Prince was one conflicted impresario. In the wake of the zillion-dollar Purple Rain deluge in 1984, Warner Bros. thanked the Minneapolis Genius by giving him his own label, Paisley Park.

At first everything about the imprint -- from its hippie-chic name to its cornucopia logo -- smacked of brilliance. Despite Prince's weakness for pneumatic bimbos (Vanity and Apollonia spring to, er, mind), the Little Guy was associated with a host of talented Minneapolis musicians, and working hard on working up connections with almost everyone else in the pop industry. How hard could it be for him to mine new talent? After all, when the Beatles got Apple Records in the late Sixties, out popped James Taylor and Badfinger, just like that.

But nearly a decade after Paisley Park's ribbon-cutting, things haven't gone quite as planned. In fact, they haven't gone anywhere at all. Budding bigshots such as Bell Biv Devoe's Michael Bivins and Guy's Teddy Riley have launched huge acts while maintaining their own careers, but Paisley Park's artists have been the Mars Observers of the music industry -- give them a big sendoff, because you'll pretty much never hear from them again. Tony LeMans? Ingrid Chavez? T.C. Ellis? Exactly.

Based on the past eight years, the odds of Paisley Park releasing high-quality product are roughly the same as those of Herve Villechaise returning from beyond the grave with the cure for cancer in one hand and Amelia Earhart's address in the other. Only the occasional surprise (a stellar 1987 LP from 1999 backup vocalist Jill Jones) and Prince's own prodigious output have saved the label from complete nullity.

To be fair to Prince, other megastars with labels have fared no better at rising above the flatline. Madonna also heads a Warner subsidiary label, Maverick, and she has managed to bag her very own bunch of stiffs -- hardcore hip-hop outfit Proper Grounds, dance crooner Nick Scotti, and the faceless smooth-soul trio U.N.V. Artists with proven success in their own careers, it seems, just can't spot the wonder stuff in others. It's debatable whether these ignominies upset anyone -- from Warner's continued support, it would seem as though personal imprints are tolerated as follies, underwritten by corporate megaliths willing to squander a few dozen mil on the vanity of their golden boys and girls. Sad but true, and even sadder this fall, with Prince's label putting up the two strongest albums of its bootless pop life.

In 1987, fresh from Prince's kaleidoscopic triumph Sign O' the Times, Paisley Park announced two signings of the times, recording deals that linked the label with monuments of American soul -- P-Funk godfather George Clinton and pop-gospel diva Mavis Staples. These were scintillating prospects, contracts that smoked on paper, and if they proved little about the label's ability to sign new talent, they at least promised aural ecstasy. But as the half-dozen or so remaining Blind Faith fans know, ballyhoo and a nickel will still leave you five cents short of a dime. Clinton's The Cinderella Theory dropped first, and the occasional moment of P-fection notwithstanding -- "Why Should I Dog U Out?" and the luminous "Tweakin'" -- the brightest thing about this insubstantial effort was its title (someday my Prince will come, a joking allusion to the Purple Midget's tax bailout of Clinton). Staples's Time Waits for No One, released the following year, was even more disappointing, anonymous AOR funk that paled next to "Respect Yourself" or "I'll Take You There." When Uncle Jam and Lady Mavis appeared together in a joyless nightclub scene in Prince's 1990 debacle Graffiti Bridge, the worst fears about the label were confirmed: Not only was it trying to make stars out of talentless nobodies, but it was making nobodies out of talented somebodies. That's why it's an honor and a pleasure to hear the two latest Paisley Park LPs, Clinton's Hey Man, Smell My Finger and Staples's The Voice.

Clinton's album, due early next month, is the strongest P-Funk export in years. The lead single, "Paint The White House Black," takes a lame name joke (not Bill Clinton, George Clinton!) and blazes away at American hypocrisy, thanks in large part to incendiary guest spots by a gaggle of rappers (including Dr. Dre, Yo-Yo, Flavor Flav, and Ice Cube, who references "George Clinton" on his new album). That Clinton has come up with a catchy anthem isn't news. What is news is that the rest of the album vibrates with the same vigor.

Finger is an LP guaranteed to move ass en masse. With Clinton mixing soulful voodoo and loopy astrophilosophy -- as always, he's equal parts Screaming Jay Hawkins and Stephen Hawking -- the album samples liberally from P-Funk's past, while also attempting to develop a game plan for the future. In songs like "This Beat Disrupts" and especially the sublime "Rhythm and Rhyme," Clinton meets rap head-on, flowing with confidence and proving that funk both moves and moves on. The heaping doses of thoughtful party music are topped off by utterly bewitching musicianship; doing-it-to-depth tracks like "Martial Law" and "Kickback" deliver some serious thunder from down under (and I'm not talking Australia). Almost 30 years since his first funky, bass-laden inspiration, Clinton remains a galvanic visionary and a true American original -- as he explains on the album's closer, "You wanna be me/Don't you?/Don't you?/You never gonna be me."

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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