A teasing tour around the UK and surreal appearance in a New Girl episode have proven unorthodox ways for Prince to remain relevant in the current day and yet these factors have helped in creating a bigger buzz over new material than the Purple One’s music has attracted in a long while.
His 34th album, Art Official Age presents a loose concept of the singer waking up after being stuck in suspended animation for 45 years. If that sounds all a bit ridiculous then it’s because it is quite frankly, but for a man who once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol it makes perfect sense. The thing is bursting with ideas but one of the most notable characteristics is how much Prince seems to have been influenced by modern music. Naturally he is back in the producer’s chair once more, but this time accompanied by Joshua Welton who helps lend a glossy modern sheen to every track here and we see Prince often incorporate more layers into his songs than we are used to seeing from a guy who once just needed one vocal, drum machine, synth hook and slapped bass for a hit.
The opener ‘Art Official Cage’ is easily the biggest rollercoaster here, as it manages to cram klaxons, drops, rapping and a choral breakdown all into an outrageously fun sub-four minute song. The synthetic pop of ‘Clouds’ delicate-to-screeching power-ballad ‘The Breakdown’ and robotic groover ‘The Gold Standard’ on the other hand all feel like they could have been slotted onto Sign O’ The Times and 1999 seamlessly. ‘U Know’ however appears a case of the teacher learning from the student with both the track’s production and even certain melodies resembling the work of Frank Ocean while later on the meme-inspired ‘This Could Be Us’ floats by on a very PC Music-sounding blanket. Other nods to contemporary trends sadly do not work as well – look no further than the bombastic ‘Funknroll’ (a funkier incarnation of which is also found on his 3rdeyegirl band’s debut Plectrumelectrum) which utilises the kind of slippery and obnoxious EDM beats that plague modern charts and clubs.
A couple more misfires bring down what is otherwise a fairly strong record such as the forgettable ‘This Is What It Feels Like’ and ‘Breakfast Can Wait’ wherein Prince sings a duet with what sounds like the cheeky protagonist of Bowie’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’. Aside from the Lianne La Havas-featuring ‘Affirmations’ the concept put forth earlier in ‘Clouds’ seems unimportant to Art Official Age and is merely relegated to an afterthought but could it be possible that this waking-up-in-the-future scenario is symbolic of Prince’s own struggle to locate his niche in the ever-changing current musical climate? As he sings on ‘Way Back Home’: ‘there’s so many reasons why I don’t belong here/ but now that I am I’m gonna conquer with no fear’.