From the forthcoming album 3121
(NPG Music Club)
In the summer of 2004, I saw Prince on two of his stops at the Palace of Auburn Hills. He was touring in support of his much-vaunted comeback album, Musicology, and the set list was tooled to match that record’s mood: heavy on hits, often in medley form, with few idiosyncrasies and a “family-friendly” veneer on even the notorious ’80s material. Hence when performing “I Feel For You,” Prince changed the words “it’s mainly a physical thing” to “it’s mainly a spiritual thing;” while “D.M.S.R.”‘s 1982 instruction to “work your body like a whore” was replaced with the more modest “work it like you want some more.” And it was good, for what it was; the man is pushing 50, after all, and with all those rumors about door-to-door Witnessing, it’s a wonder we got to hear nuggets like “Automatic” and “Let’s Work” in the first place. I mean, what were you expecting? Assless pants?
But on the second night, something strange happened. Prince was midway through “The Question of U”‘s ripping blues guitar solo when he threw his axe to the ground. Then, suddenly, he was on the ground too, crawling slowly toward the fallen guitar like he’d just stepped out of the video for “When Doves Cry.” Time seemed to stop. Would he stand up? Or would he start humping things? In short, were we about to witness the return of the “old” Prince, the sexy Prince, the Prince all of us in the audience really wished was in Auburn Hills that evening? I had a mental image of the Kid’s impish grin as he performed the hell out of “Darling Nikki” in Purple Rain, stripped to the waist and dripping with sweat; I saw Jehovah himself, the lips beneath his gray beard curled with shock, his eyes covered piously against the sacrilege to come. It was a surreal, intense, thrilling moment…and then, it was over. Prince stood back up. He finished his show with consummately performed, if safe, renditions of hits like “Kiss” and oldies like Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” He came back with an encore of Musicology‘s sweet, gorgeous – but hardly Dirty Mind-ed – “Call My Name.” And he left, his last show in metro Detroit concluded and not another flash of the Prince we once loved. It was good…for what it was.
Flash forward a year and a half later, and Prince is already on the verge of yet another comeback. The rumblings that have announced his upcoming 25th (!) album, 3121, have been uniformly positive – and, for the most part, as modest as the creative/commercial rebirth that was Musicology. There’s “Te Amo Corazon,” the quietly pretty excursion into Latin-flavored balladry that slipped out late last year, and “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” a pleasant duet with new protege Tamar, reminiscent of both Prince’s lengthy side career as a Svengali and the better moments from the slow jam-heavy second disc of 1996′s Emancipation. Both are decent enough tracks, two guarantees that our little man will at least be receiving the VH1 airplay he deserves this summer. But they’ve got nothing on “Black Sweat,” a lean, raw hunk of bona fide Paisley Park-worthy electro-funk which sounds to these ears like the long-awaited delivery on the promise Prince made to me when he dropped to all fours on the Palace stage, one and a half long years ago.
Not that this is Sign O’ the Times-worthy stuff, mind you; let’s not get too excited. The track’s minimalist beatbox and synth arrangement, coupled with even more minimalist lyrics, actually suggest that it would fit in just fine on The Black Album, with all the pros and cons that statement suggests. But the Devil is in the details, and “Black Sweat” succeeds simply because it contains the crux of Prince’s entire songwriting career in its first line alone: “I don’t wanna take my clothes off,” he coos in that unmistakable falsetto, his voice sounding not a day older than it was in 1981 – “but I do.” It’s a throwaway line to be sure, the product of a man who’s been writing sleek, frank come-ons and just-as-enticing self-reprimands since most of America was still boogie-ing to Kool & The Gang. But it’s also the most concise expression yet of this Artist’s trademark conflicted sexuality, that same give-and-take which resulted in the near-breach of middle-aged Christian decorum I witnessed in Auburn Hills… and for that reason, it strikes me as a sign of exciting things to come.
Prince’s momentum maintains itself nicely through the single, as well, propelling its synthetic bump and grind forward with enough pants, grunts and squeals to make the Prince of Musicology blush, if not necessarily the Baby Jesus cry. Is it up there with his best material? Hardly. What it is, however, is a perfectly enticing taste of the album to come; a promise of yet another step away from Prince’s self-satisfied, self-indulgent noodling era, which has more than accomplished its job of whetting at least this fan’s musical appetite. Shout it to the hillsides, folks: the sexy is back. God Save the Prince.
“Black Sweat” is available for download as either a music or video file on Prince’s Official Website.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.