Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Prince’s Musicology Album Revisited

Prince’s Musicology album turned 15 on April 20—just a day before the third anniversary of the legendary artist’s untimely death at the age of 57. The 12-song collection was released on Prince’s NPG Records label and distributed by Columbia Records. It was his first album to be distributed on a major label in five years. Musicology is one of Prince’s most overlooked and underrated works. Although it went double platinum in the U.S., made the top five in several countries, and won two Grammys, it’s not an album that many people bring up when discussing Prince’s work.

The album kicks off with the title track where Prince takes the listener on a funky trip down memory lane.  He reminisces about some of the music he grew up on and gives big shout-outs to a few of his musical heroes:  James Brown, Sly Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire. Fittingly, the groove has a very old-school James Brown flavor, with Prince serving up some super-funky rhythm guitar licks in the spirit of some of JB’s talented axemen, people like Jimmy Nolen, Hearlon “Cheese” Martin and Phelps “Catfish” Collins. This track earned Prince a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards in 2005.

“Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” is an idiosyncratic tale of a gigolo and his rich sugar mama. It’s a unique groove with some nice guitar work from Prince. “Illusion, Coma…” is followed by the rueful breakup song “A Million Days.” The song is impeccably arranged and has an engaging melody.

“Life ‘O’ The Party” is rousing, unapologetic funk as only Prince could do it. The heavy-duty electro groove has a monstrous beat and a gritty vocal performance from the Purple One. And sax diva Candy Dulfer provides some strong vocal support, particularly on the hooky chorus. She also contributes some sizzling sax. Singer/producer/musician Chance Howard provides additional vocals. Also, the bridge has a really cool and unexpected tempo change.

Prince displays his considerable gifts as a ballad writer on the sumptuous “Call My Name.” He delivers a powerful and impassioned vocal performance, which scored him a well-deserved Grammy win for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

“Cinnamon Girl” addresses anti-Muslim discrimination in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While Prince’s lyrics tackle this sensitive topic in a thoughtful fashion, the music itself doesn’t quite measure up. It’s the type of uninspired pleasant pop-rock that could have been done by any mainstream artist at the time. It’s far below Prince’s usual musical standards. Its saving grace is a marvelous guitar solo from the Purple One.

Prince’s impressive bass chops are in full effect on the elegant “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” His nimble bass plucking really makes the song. The track also features some smooth, jazzy guitar work, also courtesy of His Royal Badness.

“The Marrying Kind” boasts an infectious rock-tinged groove with some hot drumming from John Blackwell. The track also features the dynamic horn trio of sax legend Maceo Parker, Dulfer and trombonist Greg Boyer. “The Marrying Kind” segues right into “If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life.” These two tracks blend so well together that they feel more like two halves of one composition than two separate songs.  With these two tracks, Prince goes on a mini sonic odyssey across different moods and styles. It’s one of the more imaginative segments on the album, showing that Prince was still quite an adventurous artist in 2004—and continued to be until his passing.

His Royal Badness serves up another amazing vocal performance on the pleading gospel-laced ballad “On the Couch.” You’d think Prince grew up in the church the way he gets down on this one. The man could blow.

Prince voices his disillusionment and anger with the system on the scathing “Dear Mr. Man.” With all the divisiveness and rancor besetting America now, this politically charged track is more relevant than ever. Prince touches on some of the burning sociopolitical issues that continue to plague us:  institutional racism, war, environmental abuse, indifference to the poor, and double-talking politicians who are more concerned with power than truly helping the people they were elected to represent. The somber groove fits the lyrical content extremely well. Rhonda Smith’s strong bass line nicely frames Prince’s soulful vocals. The track also features a superb horn arrangement, and the Purple One brings some great wah-wah guitar licks to the mix. And Maceo closes out the song with a plaintive sax solo. “Dear Mr. Man” is without a doubt one of Prince’s most underrated tracks.

The final song on the album is the wistful ballad “Reflection.” Prince fondly reminisces about simpler times in his life.  The song has a very laidback tranquil flow, like someone just kicking back on a quiet, peaceful day reflecting on the past. It’s a nice touch to close out the album on a nostalgic note in the same way that it began.

Musicology was produced, arranged and composed by Prince. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and sold two million copies in the U.S. It was his most commercially successful album since Diamonds and Pearls in 1991.  Also, the album was supported by Prince's highly successful U.S. tour, Musicology Live 2004ever. The tour was attended by 1.47 million fans and earned $87.4 million. It covered 52 cities across the U.S. with 77 shows. Additionally, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same year. So 2004 turned out to be a pretty damn good year for His Royal Badness.

While Musicology doesn’t come close to Prince’s best works, it’s still a very strong effort and deserves more love than it’s been receiving. It’s definitely worth a revisit, as there are several unsung gems to be found.

"Dear Mr. Man

  "Life 'O' the Party"

Musicology at Amazon

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