When we last left the artist sometimes known as Prince, he was indeed Prince once again, having reclaimed his moniker in 2000 from the hieroglyph that he adopted in the early 1990s to escape from contracts with Time Warner. Now, with the new album “3121,” it also seems as if Prince is trying to reclaim his musical identity from the opaqueness and downright mediocrity that dogged him over the past decade. Delivering varied flourishes of pop, R&B and funk like fervid streaks of color on canvas, “3121” emerges as a delightfully eclectic record that is bursting with energy and innovation. What is more, it sounds almost as good as the stuff of Prince’s heyday.
The album supposedly takes its name from the address of Prince’s current abode, a lush apartment pictured in the liner notes replete with velvet and palms and candles. One imagines that this is where the album’s sounds and words unfold: a sensuous, exotic environment where the imagination is set loose upon a variety of fancies. The opening title track, which lays distorted vocals over a bouncing, bass-heavy beat, beckons the listener into a world of endless partying and pleasure: “Take your pick from the Japanese robes and sandals/ Drink champagne from a glass with chocolate handles.”
Lyrics like these are nothing groundbreaking by Prince’s standards, but then again, anyone expecting particularly deep or poetic music from a Prince album is probably looking in the wrong place to begin with. “3121” does not have much to say. But what it does say, it says with undeniable style and an infectious sense of fun. When Prince purrs in “Lolita” over a synthesized dance beat, “I know you’re fine from head to pumps/ If you were mine, we’d bump, bump, bump,” one has trouble holding back a smile, even if the lines do sound a tad cheesy.
“Lolita” shines as one of the best tracks on the album, and it exudes all of the most enjoyable tricks in Prince’s bag: the swagger, the unabashed sexuality, the rhythmic musicality. If the album really is one big party, then Prince clearly has no shortage of verve to kick that party into full swing. After singing a verse on the merits of “The finest clothes and fancy cars,” he delivers, almost as an afterthought, a sly crack: “You know, one of them 56 pink Caddies, baby.” There’s more than enough spontaneity here, or at least the appearance of it, to make up for the cliches.
Prince shows an impressive ability to vary his tone between the playful and the sincere, and is often careful not to tip his hand in either direction. In one moment, “Te Amo Corazon” comes off as an exquisitely rendered, Latin-flavored love song, as Prince implores his lover, “At last I can tell you what I’ve known so long/ My heart’s been crying out to sing this song.” Yet the next moment, he’s mimicking a guitar solo with his voice in a way that can only be described as campy. But if it is campy, so be it: Prince at least does not seem afraid to confront or satirize his own excesses.
One thing is for certain, at least: in more than two decades since “Purple Rain” took listeners by storm, Prince’s libido does not seem to have waned much. The singer’s sex drive completely overwhelms “Incense And Candles,” a song whose mood effect is almost as formidable as the objects in its title. Hearing Prince murmur, “I’m gonna make you scream my name as if it was divine,” one can rest assured that the artist who once crawled naked around the bathtub in a video is alive and well.
The biggest shortcoming of “3121” is that the best material is concentrated toward the first half of the album. “Fury” may be the best track musically, furnishing an impassioned dance groove and a bevy of great licks from Prince’s electric guitar, but the final four tracks after that are all but forgettable. “Beautiful, Loved & Blessed,” a slow R&B ballad performed by young female singer Tamar, sounds almost entirely out of place in contrast with the livelier songs on the rest of the album.
But that’s a small complaint for an album that very nearly approaches a complete return to form for one of the most dynamic musical performers of the 1980s. On “3121,” Prince has managed to channel his former self without losing any of his artistic appeal in the process, and has created something that, hopefully, will receive ample circulation for a good while to come.