by Jon Hunt
Prince, HITNRUN Phase Two
When I wrote my top 10 of 2015 last week, I expressed some…discomfort at coming in so early with the list. I just had the feeling that somebody would drop a surprise album at the end of the year that would have made my list if I’d waited. And sure enough, as predicted, someone did.
I had literally zero idea it would be Prince, however. He just dropped the decidedly lackluster HITNRUN Phase One in September, and if you’ll recall I liked it okay but sure didn’t love it. Only a couple good songs, really lousy production and — well, it sounded like Prince was trend-chasing, which is something you just don’t want the man to do, unless he really has a grasp on the form (and he doesn’t). And I optimistically thought the album would grow on me — it didn’t. If anything, I feel like I was too polite the first time around.
But, I mean, okay — if Prince wants to drop one of his best albums in decades as part two of a not-great part one, who am I to argue? This is Prince, after all, master of the marketing faux pas, the guy who released an album as a free giveaway with a British newspaper. And make no mistake: this is a magnificent album, and it is indeed one of his finest albums in years. You’ll recall I said that about Art Official Age from 2014, too — sure enough, Phase Two manages to better that one, and that’s saying something.
Why is it so good? We all like lists, and I’m still in the end-of-year spirit — let’s make a list, shall we?
1. The Sonics. I loved Art Official Age and didn’t love HITNRUN Phase One, and both of ’em had (thirdeyegirl drummer Hannah Welton’s husband) Joshua Welton behind the board. So it’s possible to make a good album with Welton, for sure, but he sure hobbles the potential. I have no idea if he had a hand in this album (physical copies still haven’t arrived and liner details are thin) but it doesn’t sound like it — instead of his shrill, digital touches, the album sounds delightfully organic and warm. The drum sounds are rich and thick, the songs are bolstered with chiming acoustic guitar strumming, the keyboards sound like actual electric pianos and organs (or really good samples of same) and nothing sounds like a shitty EDM album your younger brother bought. This is a good thing.
2. The Vocals. I’m assuming the female voices I hear all over this thing belong to the various thirdeyegirls, though again, I can’t know for sure. That said: it’s interesting and heartening hearing Prince use the female vocals the way he used to use Wendy and Lisa’s — everywhere, all the time, to bolster his own voice. I don’t mind hearing big-ass stacks of Prince, but there’s something so awesome and Revolution-y about hearing humongous stacks of women instead. And sure as hell these girls can sing — the vocals on album closer “Big City” are straight-up awesome, and if they don’t remind you of stuff from latter-era Prince albums you’re not paying attention.
3. The Horns. Prince is a hell of an arranger, and he seems to have just remembered that again. Remember those delightfully jazzy horn stabs that made albums like Parade so god-damn good? They’re all over this record, adding complexity, subtlety and color in a way that Welton’s synth burblings never can. In other words: they’re funky as hell, especially on tunes like “Rocknroll Loveaffair” and the super-funky “Stare.” God, I missed the Prince that wielded big horn sections and orchestras like he wields guitars. Here he finally is again, and is it fair to hope he never goes away?
4. The Sex. I’m not sure for sure this is Prince’s naughtiest album in a dog’s age, but I’m pretty sure. He’s probably still a Jehovah’s Witness and probably still eschews the super-dirty stuff he used to indulge in (there’s no sister lovin’ on this one), but he seems to have been very slowly rediscovering the carnal pleasures he used to revel in. He might not be “on stage in his underwear” anymore per “Stare,” but “2.Y.2.D.” seems like it’s the man lusting after a hot teenager (and because it’s Prince, we forgive him, or do we?), “When She Comes” sounds like — well, what the title suggests in every possible way, “Screwdriver” is a single entendre (the one you’d imagine) and “Xtralovable” is Prince from 1983-ish without any lyrical changes, still wanting to take baths and showers with people.
5. The Songs. Look, MPLSound had all of the above things and Linn drums besides, but was still a lousy album. A Prince album succeeds or fails on one thing and one thing only: the engagement of Prince the songwriter. Sometimes he sounds lazy as fuck, sometimes he sounds energized and excited, and it’s a crapshoot which Prince you’re gonna get on any given album. This album is fully, top-to-bottom engaged Prince. And while it’s not 100% successful (what Prince album is?), it’s damn near. I skipped past “Screwdriver” when the Current politely played the hell out of it earlier this year (it’s got a really ripping guitar solo and not much else) but that’s honestly the album’s only major low point. “Baltimore” is a super-beautiful melody tied to the man’s most incendiary political lyric in ages (“If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace” indeed, sir), while “Stare” is a slinkily minimalist groove exhorting the enjoyment he gets out of your attention and “Rocknroll Loveaffair” is some nice story-songin’ tied to another magnificent melody. If you’re not knocked over by “Black Muse,” one of his most experimental and funky songs in decades, I dunno what more he could do. And album closer “Big City” is one of those gorgeous optimistic grooves that Prince throws out once in a while — think “Mountain,” maybe, definitely somewhere in the vicinity of Parade. Even the ballads are good — “When She Comes” is Prince in falsetto sex mode, and “Revelation” is Prince in falsetto God mode, basically the two modes that made Around The World In A Day so intriguing. Nothing is, like, an instant radio hit (except maybe the 80s-vintage “Xtralovable”) but on the other hand, the album is remarkably free of generic blues jams or jazz workouts, the two things that made even the best Prince albums of the last 20 years spotty at best.
End result: a Prince album you might even be knocked out by. Is it vinyl-worthy? Oh yeah — you’ll definitely wanna shell the extra bucks for a physical copy of this one to spin on your super-warm analog system, because why not? The supple organic grooves here seem tailor-made for it. And yeah, I’m a little bit irked that I didn’t wait a week, because you bet this album would have made my top ten list — it’s a funky, awesome, consistent, beautiful R&B record of the sort Prince seems to be working his way towards making again. And if he wants to release it as part 2 with a terrible record? If he’s on an “every other album is great” schedule? I’m there. You definitely should be too.