During the first phase of his career, while under contract with Warner Bros., Prince released 18 albums in as many years. Four are absolute masterpieces; two or three others are damn close. During the next 18 years, after “emancipating” himself from the label’s “slave masters” in 1996, the Purple One produced roughly as many records -0 many solid, a few very good, none as great as Purple Rain, Sign O’ the Times or even Parade. Hence the widely held theory that Prince is better when he’s got some oversight, someone to save him from himself. And now comes a way to test that theory. After years of doing his own thing and dropping product in novel ways (online subscriptions, newspaper giveaways, exclusives with Target), Prince and Warner kiss and make up with two LPs, the solo Art Official Age and group effort PlectrumElectrum, recorded with Prince’s powerhouse female funk-rock trio 3rdEyeGirl. Amazingly, these are the hyper-prolific artist’s first albums in four years; predictably, they’re a mixed bag.
Art Official Age isn’t just the stronger of the two — it’s among his most imaginative albums since the ’90s. Unlike 20Ten (2010), MPLSound (2009) and Planet Earth (2007), records whose pleasures are rooted in nostalgia, this disc finds Prince dragging his classic new-wave funk, soulful psych-rock and pop philosophizing into the modern era. Dig, if you will, opener “Art Official Cage,” a delirious dash through Daft Punk disco, EDM, warped hip-hop and more. It’s a dystopian fantasy with Prince as the star, and in one crazy moment, it sounds as if our hero is being waterboarded. “We need you to tell us what you know!” his captors urge. That adventure, however, doesn’t continue, even as a narrator unfurls a cheesy sci-fi chronicle about Prince being frozen for 45 years and reanimated in a world where people are friendlier and, you know, telepathic.
As he moves from this loose futuristic concept into more familiar topics, smooching his lady’s neck on “Clouds” and ruling the dancefloor on the hyphy hat tip “FunkNRoll” (another take of which appears on Plectrum), Prince mostly avoids stock drum and keyboard sounds. “U Know” features a sumptuous sample from singer Mila J’s “Blinded.” (Interestingly, Mila, whose sister is Jhene Aiko, was also a child actor in Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls” video.) “This Could Be Us” turns a silly Internet meme into a sweet digital-age love ballad, complete with a killer one-liner: “You know you want me like a new pair of shoes.” Throughout Art Official Age, the 56-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is funnier, sexier and more self-aware than he has been in ages. (On “Breakfast Can Wait,” he slyly references that Dave Chappelle pancake sketch without breaking the amorous mood.)
The stakes are lower on Plectrum, and as a companion, it’s more dessert than side dish. The formidable 3rdEyeGirl ladies want badly to be a raw, stripped-down rock band, but despite their chops and the analog production, the performances are slightly anodyne, scrubbed of menace. The faux-grungy “AintTurninAround” and “FixUrLifeUp” suggest after-hours Guitar Center jam sessions, not wild garage throwdowns. The punky “Marz” is better, but 3rdEyeGirl fares best on “Whitecaps,” “StopThisTrain” and several other slinky soul-pop tunes.
Whether this is a fun one-off or the beginning of a beautiful partnership depends on how Prince spends the next 18 years. “There are so many reasons why I don’t belong here,” he sings on “Way Back Home,” the glitchy confessional at the heart of Art Official Age. Warner or not, he’s an alien with his own agenda.