There’s a strong EDM influence running through Prince’s latest, HITnRUN: Phase One, but it’s really nothing new for the artist. Nearly two decades ago Prince was turning out tracks like “The Human Body” and “New World.” Some of the alarmed fans who’ve been freaking out about Prince supposedly chasing modern trends (something he’s also been doing to some degree since the new jack swing touches sprinkled throughout Graffiti Bridge and the various rappers he’s tried to incorporate into his funk since Tony Mosley) must not have heard the many throbbing, pulsating dance remixes that dotted Prince’s maxi-singles, or the similarly-styled remixes that sometimes popped up on the NPG Ahdio Shows.
As with last year’s Art Official Age, Joshua Welton is back on board as co-producer—the first outside producer Prince has worked with for the span of an entire album since beginning his recording career in 1978. HITnRUN feels like a natural extension of Art Official Age, but it’s breezier, tighter, and hangs together better than that album did. There are no goofy spoken-word interludes and the tone is more consistent. Prince and Welton have made an obviously conscious attempt to craft a cohesive atmosphere that runs throughout the album. It’s a lively musical party, one that starts out bursting at the seams with sonic confetti and gradually settles into a near-minimalist approach by the end of its 38 minutes.
Guest stars abound early on, with Judith Hill taking the primary lead vocal on the celebratory album opener “Million $ Show,” Rita Ora chiming in on “Ain’t About 2 Stop,” and singing/rapping duo Curly Fryz factoring prominently on “Like a Mack.” These early, frothy dance tracks (along with the bass-heavy funk workout “Shut This Down”) rush by breathlessly before Prince reprises one of Art Official‘s strongest moments, “This Could B Us.” Here the song is deconstructed and reassembled as a somber-toned electronic mood piece, highlighted by a searing guitar solo. A brand new song would’ve been preferable, but this remix (sort of along the lines of what he did with the “Dark” remix on Crystal Ball or “Man ‘o’ War” on Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic) serves as a slow-burn midpoint for HITnRUN.
The second half is even stronger, with “Fallinlove2nite” (originally released as a single following its appearance on the TV show New Girl; that one was a different mix, featuring Zooey Deschanel on backing vocals) finding Prince (or more like Camille) bouncing along in classic, uptempo pop mode. “X’s Face” is an itchy funk tune with funny lyrics and stripped-to-the-core production. The deliberately-paced thumper “Hardrocklover” puts the focus squarely on Prince’s guitar. “1000 Xs & Os” also boasts a simpler audio design, moving along slinkily with all the grace and seductive style of the best of Prince’s midtempo R&B. Perhaps most striking of all is the closer, “June,” a lush-yet-sparse ballad with cryptic, surreal lyrics.
While HITnRUN: Phase One isn’t going to erase career-best status for Prince classics like Purple Rain or Sign o’ the Time, it is nonetheless one of his most enjoyable offerings in recent years. When HITnRUN first dropped on Labor Day, it was initially only available exclusively through Tidal‘s streaming service. Luckily, the album was released as a CD and download only a week later (the odd strategy resulted in a Billboard 200 debut of number 70). With only about 11 months separating 2014’s Art Official Age and the brand new HITnRUN: Phase One, there’s plenty of reason to hope for a “Phase Two” soon.