Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Prince does Prince on ‘Welcome 2 America’

When it comes to unreleased material, very few artists compare to Prince. Despite releasing a new album every 12 to 18 months for almost the entirety of his four-decade career, legend has it that there are as many as 8,000 unreleased songs stored in the purple one’s Paisley Park vault.  

Since his death in 2016, Prince’s estate has done a decent job of getting this material into the public domain, avoiding the temptation to open the floodgates and focusing instead on more considered curation, most notably the ‘Originals’ collection of Prince songs written for other artists, and last year’s extraordinary ‘Sign ‘O The Times’ box set.


For this latest posthumous offering, ‘Welcome 2 America’, we are transported back to 2010, a year that marked something of a low ebb for Prince fans.


Just a few years earlier, Prince had cemented his status as one of the all-time greats with a breathtaking Super Bowl halftime show before delighting British audiences with a record-breaking run of 21 nights at London’s O2 Arena. His recorded output had also been strong. 2004’s excellent ‘Musicology’ was followed by the equally enjoyable ‘3121’ and the solid, if unspectacular, ‘Planet Earth’.


Then, unexpectedly, his form began to waver.


2009 brought us the strangely lacklustre double-header of ‘Lotusflow3r / MPLSound’. And 12 months later, seemingly in response to the muted reaction to these albums, Prince unveiled ‘20Ten’, a personal diary of a ‘trying’ year for the world.


20Ten’ was released to lavish fanfare courtesy of media partner, The Daily Mirror, which distributed the album for free as a covermount, much to the bemusement of its predominantly retirement-aged readership. Alas, the fanfare was sorely misplaced. The most damning thing to be said about ‘20Ten’ is that there isn’t a memorable song on it. Prince made some lamentable missteps in his career (try 1996’s ‘Chaos & Disorder’, or the Jehovah’s Witness concept album ‘The Rainbow Children’), but until ‘20Ten’, you could never have accused him of being dull.


Which brings us to ‘Welcome 2 America’. Written and recorded by Prince prior to ‘20Ten’ with a small group of talented jazz, funk and rock players, the album was overdubbed, mixed and then mysteriously shelved, never to be spoken of again during the artist’s lifetime. This wasn’t the first time Prince had discarded an entire album’s worth of material, but it was the first time the act had gone unnoticed and thus un-bootlegged. 


It’s a strange starting point for the already surreal experience of listening to a ‘new’ album by an artist who died more than half a decade ago. On the one hand, there’s the air of mystery surrounding the record’s prolonged confinement within the vault; on the other, there’s the apprehension of knowing that it directly preceded his least interesting album.


Thankfully, ‘Welcome 2 America’ is a worthy addition to the Prince canon. While it doesn’t break any new ground, it does make for a largely delightful re-treading of some of the richer pastures explored in his later career work.


Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)’ is an excellent R&B jam cut from the same cloth as ‘The Greatest Romance Ever Sold’ and ‘Jam of the Year’. ‘1000 Light Years From Here’ reprises the intricate arrangements and nimble melodies of his ‘Musicology’ high points. ‘One Day We Will All B Free’ occupies the same uncomplicated and musically charming territory as much of the ‘Planet Earth’ album.


Elsewhere on the album, ‘Check the Record’ sees Prince at his most playful, teasing a jilted lover with the lines, “If it makes her happy / Can it be that bad? / Like Sheryl said / It might be the most favourite mistake I’ve ever had.


While Prince is still willing to play the provocateur, he’s more meditative than in his promiscuous heyday. ‘Hot Summer’ is effectively a rewrite of 1991 hit ‘Cream’ along contemplative and (mostly) platonic lines. ‘When She Comes’ is not especially subtle, but its fixation on freedom aligns neatly with the album’s weightier themes of race and oppression, adding substance to what might otherwise be yet another Prince sex ballad.


Not everything on the album works quite as well. The fabulous guitar solo on Soul Asylum cover ‘Stand Up And B Strong’ cannot rescue a pedestrian arrangement and paint-by-numbers melody. ‘1010 (Rin Tin Tin)’ fails to capitalise on its initial promise; ‘Yes’ sounds like it belongs on ‘20Ten’.  


But ‘Welcome 2 America’ is best summed up by the title track and album opener. On it, Prince takes issue with Apple and Google, celebrity culture, racism, mass media, and every other problem he perceived with 21st century America, set to a low-key, jazz-influenced groove that is enthralling and enticing, although perhaps just a little too slick for its own good.


Lyrically, the song – like much of the album – is all over the place. Some of Prince’s statements are undeniably powerful: “Welcome to America / Go to school to become a celebrity”. Some are cringe-worthy (“Welcome to America / Hook up later at the iPad”) while others are totally inexplicable, such as Prince asking the listener, “You think today’s music will last?” while his backing singer repeatedly chants “Dismantle all monopolies” in the background.


The glorious thing is: all of this will be familiar to Prince fans. He was always confounding and second-guessing the listener. His records – 80s purple patch aside – frequently lost focus due to their sheer eclecticism. And, throughout his career, he made an art of wrapping half-baked state-of-the-nation political proclamations within fully-formed, mostly fabulous music.


Welcome 2 America’ is precisely the sort of album Prince fans might have expected back in 2010, and it’s precisely the sort of posthumous album worth applauding in 2021. Whereas ‘20Ten’ sounded like an artist in transit, temporarily bereft of inspiration, ‘Welcome 2 America’ makes total sense within the overall Prince chronology and provides a fitting coda to a period in which the purple one recaptured his mojo and reasserted his majesty upon the music world.


Tom Kirkham / @finestworktom

Image: ‘Welcome 2 America’ Official Album Artwork


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