Prince's 20-Year-Old 'Emancipation' Wasn't Just an Industry Kiss-Off, It Was a Going-Away Party

Prince, "Emancipation"
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Prince, "Emancipation" (1996)

Call it 69 F--k Songs. Except The Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus wouldn’t appear for another three years and Prince’s triple-length breakup album from his major label only had 36. But add to his total the 11 brazenly rock-oriented tracks from just months earlier on the underrated Chaos and Disorder, and a couple other new jams from the mostly old-classics-plus-rarities Girl 6 soundtrack that March. These five discs made 1996 the most prolific year of Prince’s life, just to prove the point that he wasn’t going anywhere. Why would he be expected to? Because people were sick of him.

Yes, if it’s possible to imagine a time when people were fed up with Prince, 1996 would’ve been it. Pop audiences increasingly lost patience for his antics (Colin Kaepernick's haters certainly would've been no more sympathetic 23 years ago to a black man who wrote “slave” on his cheek), his unending parade of albums (eight between 1990 and 1996), and track titles like “Orgasm” on an album called Come. Despite a Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with 1994’s slushy “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” it was in 1993 when he changed his name to an unpronounceable rune -- still one of the boldest moves in pop ever -- and lost a fair amount of the public interest. But instead of going away, he closed out a year already marked by two Prince releases with three discs of absolute fire.

Emancipation was basically the ultimate double-down; a gauntlet thrown to Warner Bros. that he wasn’t spreading himself thin at all, despite his major label’s pleas. But Chaos and Disorder was, as the packaging notes, “the last original material recorded by [Prince symbol] 4 warner brothers records” and he refused to promote it. (It’s now poetically out of print -- which, along with Emancipation, makes it almost worth joining TIDAL to hear.) This 3xCD behemoth, released via EMI and his own NPG imprint, was very much the opposite; people went to the resulting “Jam of the Year” tour for so long it lasted for two.

But all this quite literal symbolism — just your average pop icon fresh off changing his name to a glyph and doing something completely unpredictable one last time — was more than the guy’s final batshit move in the public eye. The music on Emancipation is uniformly strong and varied, possibly Prince’s most consistently good album of the 1990s, which is a double-edged sword: It’s a breeze for a three-hour album with several tunes exceeding the six-minute mark. It also doesn’t have a “When Doves Cry,” or even a “Cream.” What Emancipation does have is plenty of Eric Leeds’ sax, which bolsters the cool lead “Jam of the Year” and plenty of others. Most revealing is “Style,” which establishes the title subject as a “second cousin to class,” and indeed sets up possibly the classiest Prince album -- if there is such a thing -- and certainly the classiest song ever titled “Sleep Around.”

Disc 1 contains the G-funk banger “Right Back Here in My Arms,” which sneakily quotes “My Prerogative” near the finish, as well as the Latin-jazz-Foo Fighters curio “Damned If I Do” and the intergalactic gospel of “White Mansion.” A stoned listen to the swingy “Courtin’ Time” probably single-handedly made André 3000 dream up 2006's time-jumping fantasia Idlewild. “Mr. Happy” is Prince’s attempt at a Digital Underground Humpty Hump-styled character, who unforgettably raps “guaranteed to get your girl loose, if she douche.” This first disc ends with “In This Bed I Scream,” which features hands-down the most orgasmic synth line of his career.

Disc 2 is more low-key, rising like steam with “Sex in the Summer” (“Everyone’s got a black book, in case of emergency”), and making clear this album is more explicitly R&B than anything else. The ridiculousness quotient is lower, despite the chorus of “Emale” (“W, W, W, dot e-maaale / Dot commmmm”) and the standout “Joint 2 Joint,” a low-key sex romp, which steadily grows into a funk-metal beast over the course of eight minutes. But around the six-minute mark it includes the funniest monologue in the entire Prince catalog:

“Oh great, now you think you’re my soul mate?

You don’t even know what kind of cereal I like. [Bag crunching sounds.]

Wrong. Captain Crunch. With soy milk.”

Emancipation’s third and final disc is highlighted by a stretch that flirts with dance music: the instantly addictive synth-bass hypnosis of “New World,” followed by the robotic house of “The Human Body,” and the Elvis-trashing “Face Down,” where Prince goes full Chuck D and raps about the “washed-up singer” over a Hitchcock-ian string part. It would’ve fit perfectly on 1992’s Love Symbol Album. Toward the end, “My Computer” is distinguished by a sound unlike any you’ve ever heard, best described as an aluminum sitar that’s been put through a synthesizer’s portamento function. (It should be noted that Prince’s dated technology obsession on this album was pretty well-earned, seeing as he was one of the earliest artists to realize he could send music to his fans via the internet.) It’s followed by a heart-scorching version of Joan Osborne’s then-massive “One of Us,” with its signature line changed to “just a slave like one of us.”

The preponderance of cover songs here (Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” The Delfonics’ “La La [Means I Love You]”) is not accidental, as Warner Bros. reportedly discouraged the singer from doing any, which we now know to be outright insulting to Prince’s mastery of the popular music oeuvre he treated as open-source. So it makes sense that his final F-you to the label was earning the last top 40 single of his life on the Billboard Hot 100 with this album’s rendition of The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” For an album ostensibly about having the freedom to do whatever he wanted, its creator exercised as much songwriting and performing discipline as he did on the majors.

As with Neil Young when he released Trans -- which got him sued by David Geffen for using vocoders he’d later claim were meant to help communicate with his cerebral palsy-stricken son -- there was something more personal behind the scenes with Prince as well. The “Betcha by Golly Wow!” single was released on the 23rd birthday of his then-wife Mayte Garcia, who appeared in the video as herself, revealing her pregnancy with their first child, who was born a month before Emancipation’s release. But the couple’s child, Ahmir Gregory, died only a week later of complications from the skull disease Pfeiffer syndrome, and Emancipation paid tribute in subtle ways. Only Prince would’ve included his late newborn son’s heartbeat as part of the rhythm track on a song called “Sex in the Summer.” But that only served to underscore further how much heart there was in his sex.

Emancipation wasn’t Prince’s last great album (that would likely be 3121, a decade later) but it was his last extravaganza, his last album that really tried to be a public spectacle. (Somehow its 1999 proper follow-up Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, Clive Davis’ attempt to give Prince his own guest-filled Supernatural, felt completely miniscule.) Despite selling over 500,000 copies — it was certified double-platinum on one of those crazy technicalities for multiple-disc releases — Emancipation marked the beginning of the privacy Prince only compromised for as long as he felt he had to. It mounted an astounding argument for us to keep following him anyway.

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Prince Emancipation