A Prince and a pauper


June 20, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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!"


When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 28-30
Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd., Rosemont
Tickets: $49.50-$75
Phone: (312) 559-1212


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 record label.

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, on sax.

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 Jehovah's Witness.

"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 point?"

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.