In his long and
accomplished career, Prince has dedicated himself to stubbornly and
audaciously following his inscrutable muse wherever it might take him, and
that trait has been both a blessing and a curse.
The Purple Wonder's single-mindedness has yielded some of the most
groundbreaking and visionary albums in the history of rock, soul or funk:
"Controversy" (1981), "Around the World in a Day" (1985) and "Sign O' the
Times" (1987) among them. But just as often, especially in recent years, it
has left his dedicated army of followers scratching their heads and
wondering, "What the ----?"
One of the keys to figuring out where his majesty's head is at as he
comes to Chicago for five shows at the Allstate Arena starting on Friday can
be found in the title track of his new album, which has been kicking off the
gigs on this tour.
"Keep the party movin' / Just like I told you," Prince sings.
"Kick the old-school joint / For the true funk soldiers / Musicology!"
PRINCE IN CONCERT
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 28-30
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd., Rosemont
Phone: (312) 559-1212
WHAT PRINCE IS PLAYING
The "Musicology Tour" features Prince playing in the round, changing
costumes four or five times and grooving with a nine-piece band for two
hours and 20 minutes. Unlike past jaunts, the set list changes very
little from night to night, though the artist has offered surprises like
an opening set by his former percussionist Sheila E. and an impromptu
cover in homage to the late Ray Charles.
Here is the set from the June 5 show at Los Angeles' Staples Center:
Electric: "Musicology," "Let's Go Crazy," "I Would Die 4 U," "When
Doves Cry," "1999" 4intro, "Baby I'm a Star," "Shhh!," "DMSR," "I Feel 4
U," "Controversy"/"Housequake," "God" (instrumental).
Acoustic: "Little Red Corvette," "Cream," "I Could Never Take the
Place of Your Man," "12:01," "On the Couch," "Raspberry Beret," "7."
Electric: "Sign O' the Times," "The Question of U"/"The One"/"Fallin',"
"Let's Work," "U Got the Look," "Life O' the Party"/"Uptown," "Soul
Man," "Kiss," "Take Me With U."
Encore: "Call My Name" and "Purple Rain."
At 46 and newly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Prince is
certainly entitled to look back at the many phases of his career, "kick the
old-school joint" and remind the American music scene of his impressive
contributions, which include selling nearly 100 million albums. But where
summing-up and self-congratulation are par for the course for many of his
superstar peers from the '80s -- and have been for quite some time -- this
nostalgic turn is actually a dramatic departure for him.
Not long after signing a six-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1992
estimated to be worth $100 million, Prince's relationship with the music
industry began to unravel. He famously scrawled the word "slave" on his
cheek, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and declared war on his
Though Prince painted the dispute in racial terms -- "The people who
really know the music don't joke about it," he said at the time. "A lot of
black people don't joke about it because they understand wanting to change a
situation" -- in retrospect, Warner Bros. seems to have quite reasonably
wanted the artist to focus and edit himself, a desire that many critics and
fans also would express as the '90s progressed.
In contrast, Prince believed the label should release anything and
everything he wanted to issue, and his fans should accept his indulgences.
"You see, I get these ideas, sometimes at 4 a.m.," he has said. "So I get
up, get dressed and come and sit here until it's over. I've got a thousand
songs in the vaults, finished songs. That's the thing: I have to finish a
song to clear my mind for the next idea."
Since splitting from Warner Bros., the artist has surrounded himself with
yes-men instead of the sort of talented collaborators he had in the '80s,
managers and fellow musicians who were strong enough to challenge and
inspire him. As a result, his career has been an erratic roller-coaster ride
for the last 12 years.
Mixing independent releases issued through his own Web site (www.npgmusicclub.com)
with the occasional return to the major-label system (as with 1999's Arista-issued
"Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" or the new "Musicology" on Columbia), Prince
has certainly given us moments of brilliance, including the title track of
"Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" and the single "The Greatest Romance Ever
Sold"; the complex musical pastiche of "The Rainbow Children" (2001) and the
new album's sensual, gospel-tinged ballad "On the Couch" and devilishly
funny dance track "Life 'O' the Party."
But there has also been an abundance of failed experiments (his stilted
flirtations with hip-hop and his fascination with easy-listening guru Najee,
for example), ill-considered mistakes (the race-baiting lyrics on "The
Rainbow Children"), pointless detours (the recent jazz fusion effort "N.E.W.S.")
and meandering, self-indulgent jams that would have been better off left on
the floor of his Paisley Park recording studio.
Again, this steadfast dedication to following his muse is certainly
Prince's right, and it can even be hailed as laudable in an era dominated by
lowest-common-denominator, cookie-cutter pop and R&B. But separating the
wheat from the chaff in his prodigious output has been a time-consuming if
sporadically rewarding endeavor, and the artist has only himself to blame
for falling off the mainstream pop radar.
Now Prince is set to reclaim his crown -- a point he makes early in the
"Musicology" show by opening with a video clip of current pop/R&B sweetheart
Alicia Keys inducting him into the Hall of Fame. "He's the only man I've
ever seen who lights the stage on fire and leaves you to burn in a frenzy of
movement," Keys says, an endorsement as cliched as much of her music.
While the set list panders to some extent to mass appeal in order to fill
the arenas -- as opposed to the artist playing for the faithful at much
smaller venues like the Aragon and the Riviera Theatre, as he has in recent
years -- he's nonetheless doing it in typically perverse Prince style,
playing some of his biggest pop hits in a jazzy acoustic mode, truncating
others as part of flowing, groove-oriented medleys (long a staple of his
shows) and stretching still others yet into intense and funky party jams.
If the current version of the New Power Generation is not his strongest
band ever across the boards, it does boast some of the best musicians he's
ever played with, notably monster drummer John Blackwell, bassist Rhonda
Smith and the great Maceo Parker, the famous veteran of James Brown's band,
All things considered, that's a lot of Princely bang for the buck --
especially since concertgoers all get a copy of "Musicology" as part of the
ticket price. But there is, of course, one other odd twist.
At a time when teen-pop and hip-hop are pushing the boundaries of good
taste to new extremes in terms of explicit sexual content, the No. 1 Bad Boy
of the '80s -- the man who sang about having sex with his sister on "Dirty
Mind" (1980) and who was demonized by Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource
Center in 1985 for crooning about "Darling Nikki" pleasuring herself in a
hotel lobby -- has toned down his act to PG-13.
"I wouldn't want my children exposed to something that would be pretty
hard to explain on the way home," Prince told the cable news channel CNBC.
"I have a responsibility to the children that come to my concerts to not
expose them to anything that would be, you know, considered raunchy [or]
risque. I'm not trying to be obscene to anybody."
As a result, most of Prince's most hard-core hits are noticeably missing
from the show. There's no cursing, no simulated sex with dancers or fans,
toned-down lyrics in some of the tunes (including "DMSR") and an invocation
to the crowd during "Purple Rain" to go home and open up their Bibles.
Longtime Prince-watchers are crediting a trio of events in recent years
for this surprising turnaround: the death of his mother; his marriage to
Manuela Testolini, a fan-turned-employee-turned-spouse who, at 27, is 19
years his junior, and most of all his seemingly devout conversion as a
"I'm surprised people aren't complaining loudly," Ben Margolin, who runs
the Prince.org fan Web site, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I think the
hard-core fans are placated because he's playing a lot more guitar."
"You can't push the envelope any further than I pushed it. So stop!"
Prince told Entertainment Weekly by way of an explanation. "What's the
Later in the same interview, he added, "I've changed. I'm a different
person. I'm about the present and moving forward. New joke, new anecdote,
new lesson to be discovered."
This is an incongruous comment coming from an artist who's undertaking a
greatest-hits tour and supporting an album that is largely a collection of
new songs referencing and minimally rewriting some of his most notable music
from the past. But if there is one thing that even the most casual Prince
fan has had to accept over the last quarter of a century it's that the
artist will zig whenever you expect him to zag -- and to him, if to no one
else, it will always make perfect sense.