Forever changing pop’s landscape is a hard act to follow. That Prince did it a few times over with a string of 1980s albums that continually bested his previous personal best makes the musical peacock a freakishly rare beast. When that experimental streak ended—somewhere around 1988’s Lovesexy—the sudden career flat-line felt listless, even though warmed-over Prince still betters whatever omniracial sex god Lenny Kravitz is offering. Besides, when you write “When You Were Mine” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” before you hit 30, you’ve earned some wiggle room.
The downside to paving the way for such future-world R&B and funk travelers as OutKast, the Neptunes, and Raphael Saadiq is that they make your new music sound like fourth- and fifth-generation versions of yourself. After lurching through the 1990s like a Warholian superstar, visible for reasons unknown, the new millennium found Prince snaking across the country with his still untouchable live show, peeling off hits for adoring fans willing to pony up for another chance to hear “The Beautiful Ones” live. In this post-concert glow he sneaked out 2004’s Musicology, whose safely retro charms stoked comeback dreams.
Now arrives 3121—the man’s, gasp, 25th album—a cut above Musicology’s Prince placebo, but still lost in his own long shadow. It has its share of missteps—“Te Amo Corazón,” the sort of forgettable Latin ephemera that is Marc Anthony’s entire reason for being, or the religious sincerity bubbling over bedroom bump and grind in “The Word”—as well as the workmanlike funk that Prince probably writes in his sleep. Opener “3121” bobs along Prince’s pitched-shifted vocals like a meaty derriere stuffed in a short skirt swinging atop high-heeled legs. Scorcher “Fury”—much better when debuted on Saturday Night Live—modestly unchains Prince’s inner guitar god. And he dips into his bag of Jetsons keyboard whoosh for the playfully coy “Lolita.” But 3121 also delivers glimmers of the innovator who found a way to make “When Doves Cry” funky without a bass line.
One is the admittedly touchy-feely “Love,” a song whose biggest idea is that “love is whatever you want it 2 b” (sic). Its entire melody and rhythmic spine, however, sounds braided out of smeared house beats, as if Prince pieced together a dance remix and then smudged its throbbing full-body pulsations into mere syncopated pelvic taunts.
The album’s best track, however, is also its most traditional—the satin-sheets slow jam “Satisfied,” in which Prince lets loose a falsetto that not only hasn’t aged a day but remains the only one that matters. A Rhodes piano haunts the background like a gospeldelic seraph. Horn swells punctuate the verses’ unzipping anticipation. And Prince patiently stirs the sensual, sexual hunger until he promises to take her out of her body. It’s earthy, bluesy R&B that’s as old as the deed it promises. But it serves as a stylistic reminder to all those young producer guns out there that Prince bent and broke pop’s rules so effortlessly because he has this shit down airtight.