Prince, “Musicology” (Columbia) [3 stars]

“First things first: This is not THE record, the return to form that Prince fans have been waiting for ever since his new releases stopped being beginning-to-end masterpieces (‘Purple Rain,’ ‘Sign O’ the Times’) and started showing up as big, messy sprawls with lots of different colors hurled at the canvas.”

De ja vu: That was my lede when I reviewed 1999’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” the last attempt by Minneapolis’ Purple Wonder to reclaim past glories by making nice with the music industry and trying once again to broach the pop mainstream. Back then, he turned to Clive Davis, still fresh off his success revitalizing Carlos Santana’s career, but in typical fashion, he refused to abide by Davis’ hit-making formulas, following his own schizophrenic muse as always. The result wasn’t THE record, but it was the closest he’d come since “Diamonds and Pearls.”

“Musicology” isn’t THE record either, but it’s better than “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” or 2001’s “The Rainbow Children,” which was a strong effort musically that was marred by muddled, confused concepts in the lyrics.

Tired of flying under the radar and prolifically releasing his own music (generally with equal amounts of brilliance and pointless indulgence) to a following of the hardcore faithful, Prince has decided that this is the year he gets his due as one of the most innovative voices that soul, R&B or funk have ever produced. He kicked off the annual Grammy telecast, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is playing his first arena tour in more than a decade and has checked his complaints about slavery to return to a major label.

The only problem is that he still couldn’t swallow hard enough to edit himself or accept any real input from a band of talented collaborators—he played almost everything on “Musicology” himself—and the album is as inconsistent as most of what he’s given us for the last 10 years (though it’s infinitely better than complete train wrecks like the jazz fusion effort “N.E.W.S.”).

On the plus side are the sweaty James Brown groove of the title track, the delicious psychedelic pop of “Cinnamon Girl” (who was last seen wearing a raspberry beret), the sensual, gospel-tinged ballad “On the Couch” (which finds Prince pleading with a reluctant lover not to make him sleep in the living room) and the devilishly funny dance track “Life ’O’ the Party,” which shows the artist laughing at both himself and Michael Jackson (“Don’t care what they said / ‘He don’t play the hits no more / Plus we thought he was gay’ / It ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t fun / My voice is getting’ higher / And ain’t never had my nose done!”).

But there is still plenty of excess that needs to be pruned, including the sanctimonious “Dear Mr. Man,” the meandering “Reflection” and “What Do You Want Me 2 Do?” (what is with Prince’s fondness for lite jazz?) and a pervasive sense throughout the disc that we’ve been here and done all of this before. Not only is Prince not breaking any new ground, he’s proudly patting himself on the back for retreading past glories: “Boy, I was fine back in the day,” he boasts.

No one does Prince better than Prince, and self-imitation is certainly his right. But there’s a nagging feeling that this perverse contrarian is for once just giving people what they expect, and his heart really isn’t in that.

Jim DeRogatis


Patti Smith, “Trampin’” (Columbia) [1 star]

Ever since she reemerged after a long stint in hibernation with 1996’s “Gone Again,” Patti Smith has been coasting on her vaunted reputation as the godmother of punk rock, an iconic figure for two generations of riot grrrls who followed. But any self-respecting rocker coming to her new music without any knowledge of her work in the ’70s is going to have the same reaction:

“Why should I care about this windy old hippie poet spouting all that drivel over bad, boring folk songs?”

Smith has been heading steadily downhill throughout this second phase of her career (or third, if you count the aborted comeback of 1988’s “People Have the Power”), and “Trampin’” represents a new low. Like her old pal Bruce Springsteen, she feels compelled to say something about 9/11 and the events that followed, but she can’t seem to summon righteous anger in the lyrics or the droning and repetitive music.

Rambling on at great length, Smith gives us a muddled critique of the Iraqi invasion in “Radio Baghdad” (an inferior sequel to “Radio Ethiopia,” which was flawed to begin with), invokes the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. in the dreadful and plodding “Ghandi” (where is Bono when we need him?) and falls flat in her attempts to inspire us with “Jubilee” and lull us with the woefully pretentious “My Blakean Year.” Taken as a whole, “Trampin’” is a better parody of Patti Smith than Gilda Radner’s infamous “Candy Slice,” only Candy rocked a lot harder.

Jim DeRogatis