Hearing HITnRUN as a ‘concept album’ rather than a collection of tracks, gives a different feel to the more awkward moments. AAP Image/NPG Records

Prince shoots for a new purple patch with HITnRUN

Prince’s new album, HITnRUN Phase One, is out, and given his recent lean years, there’s critical and commercial pressure for him to “return to form” or “reinvent” himself, both phrases already appearing in early reviews and commentary.

Hanging over everything is the legacy of Prince’s most exciting and career-defining decade – the 1980s.

The contradictory forces hovering between the restoration of former glory and the expectation of innovation contribute to the bind Prince is in. One implies the retreading of old musical paths, the artificial recreation of past success, and the other imposes near impossible expectations of stylistic innovation in a highly diversified yet conservative musical era.

Reinvention isn’t what it used to be

The notion of self-reinvention is familiar in pop, both in purely musical terms as well as the performances of identity that figures such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, and, of course, Prince, perhaps most famously excel in.

Prince performing in Sydney in 2012. AAP Image/NPG Records

Whether changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, pulling his entire output from the internet in recent years, or alternating between hyper-masculinity and gender-bending androgyneity, (think 90s hip-hop excursions, phallic guitar wielding, and lyrical sexual braggadocio versus glammy outfits and the vulnerable nude pose on the cover of Lovesexy), Prince’s elusiveness is perhaps the only thing that can be said to truly define him.

Prince has long personified pop’s restlessness, and his aesthetic of omnivorous genre-bending prefigured the stylistically saturated musical world we now live in.

Ironically though, after recently criticising contemporary popular musicians for lacking invention and creativity, Prince will certainly attract the very same kind of critique for his new album.

Co-producer Joshua Welton issued a pre-emptive strike last month, adopting a somewhat defensive pose in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

this (album) is kind of for the (hardcore) Purple Collective, the ones who say “I don’t care what he puts out! I love Prince”.

Partly reflecting the sheer weight of expectation associated with a prolific career spanning four decades and 35 studio albums, Welton’s approach is also an attempt to frame the album as experimental, an attempted resurrection of Prince’s reputation as a musical innovator.

But it’s fairly clear that the experimentation lies more in Prince’s choice of collaborative partner than in any new musical direction. Bringing a highly produced, layered, dense and dance-music inflected tone, Welton’s role is significant to the extent that some may even feel this is more his album than Prince’s.

Where he used to inhabit the (contested) archetype of lone artistic genius, writing, performing and producing entire albums all on his own, Prince here has radically reduced his contribution to lead, rhythm and bass guitar, and of course vocals. Everything else, as far as I can tell, is Joshua Welton.

Prince performs at Coachella in 2008. Rasmin

For some, the result will be a good-natured happy-go-funky tour through Prince’s famously diverse stylistic interests. It bursts out of the gate with a pop-soaked spray, flirts with dance music, funk, hip-hop, soul, house, disco, rock and finally lands in a place of undeniable peace and beauty with the final track June – a slightly surreal and humorous take on overcooked pasta and love.

Others will find the more aggressive electronic dance music elements in the early tracks poorly executed or a bit passé, and I’ve got a bad feeling Shut This Down’s awkward dubstep vibe will lend itself to mockery. Anyone waiting for some kind of innovative artistic statement, or the mythical “return to form” will be unhappy.

The disappointed crowd will likely be those who became addicted to Prince in the 1980s, when he could do no wrong, critically or commercially.

But to what extent was Prince actually innovative in that period? What “form” are we hoping for a return to exactly?

Early innovation, late stagnation?

Prince’s early success came from defining himself in terms that did not map neatly onto the dominant musical topographies of the late 70s and early 80s.

Defying racial and marketing-based genre divisions of black and white music (broadly speaking black R&B/funk versus mostly white guitar-based rock), Prince forged his own blend of guitar-based rock and synth-based pop now known as the Minneapolis Sound.

But his prodigious talent and omnivorous musical proclivities ultimately led him, of course, to strongly embrace funk, dabble in hip-hop (in the 90s), and synthesise elements of jazz, soul, gospel, psychedelia, (you name it, basically), all within a brilliantly enacted pop sensibility.

Prince performing in Sydney in 2012. AAP Image/NPG Records

What had begun as a familiar dialectical process of rebelling against dominant styles in order to form new ones quickly became an aesthetic of habitual genre-hopping – a virtuoso demonstration of a preternatural ability to master any and all styles in mainstream music.

In that historical context, Prince’s recruitment of the 25-year-old Welton is probably an understandable attempt to incorporate a youthful perspective on more recent genres – he is not too far off 60 years old, to be fair.

And whether that collaboration has led to an insubstantial release with a few cringeworthy duds or an enduring Prince album with a distinctive EDM flavour is not yet clear.

But the larger point is that in the modern era, dominant musical forces to react against are few and far between. A bewildering multiplicity of styles is the name of the game, a culture-wide state of play foreshadowed by Prince’s own aesthetic trajectory.

In retrospect, the pioneering Minneapolis Sound was not followed up with further significant musical innovation on quite the same scale. Instead, he broadened, dipping into other styles, often after they were well and truly underway, refusing to be pinned down for long.

Prince became a kind of imperial curator of popular music genres, and HITnRUN exemplifies that role. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a posture, but the promised experimentalism is surface, not substance. In reality, the album is a series of backward glances, each remembrance of a style or sound dressed up in a new costume.

The Prince is dead, long live the Prince.

It’s perhaps that sense of individual songs on HITnRUN representing gussied-up stylistic throwbacks that seems to be the source of offence for some of the more critical voices.

To those disappointed fans the Prince of the 80s has probably long disappeared, lost in a fog created by the heavy expectation of constant innovation, relentless bleeding across genre, and eternal identity-ambivalence.

But Prince’s recent comments about the importance of albums (in opposition to singles) might tangentially shed some light on how best to listen to HITnRUN with a more open heart.

Coming in at a brisk 40 minutes, the album invites single-sitting listening. Prince and Welton have created a thread through the album, linking song to song, entreating us to hear the album as a single artistic entity.

Hearing HITnRUN as a “concept album” rather than a collection of tracks, gives a different feel to the more awkward moments, as they become absorbed into a narrative experience.

You begin to sense the genuinely adventurous spirit of Prince behind the project.

In this context, perhaps by ripping his art out of the instant-access internet buffet, Prince is protecting more than just his bottom line. It’s as if he’s attempting to claw back some attention span from his listeners, and some respect for the big picture.

I’ve listened to the album four times since yesterday, and I listened to it as a whole. I enjoyed it – some songs wore thin on repeated listens, (I don’t want to hear This Could B Us again) and some improved. But overall, I got a sense that Prince, or at least Brand Prince, might have been invigorated by this collaboration, and there may be much to look forward to, particularly if he expands his collaborative circle.

Ultimately, I’m reminded of the hubris inherent in criticism such as the above, especially when directed at a cultural phenomenon as enduring as Prince.

Let’s stop worrying about whether this or that Prince release constitutes an innovative return to glorious 80s-era form. Let’s instead say “for a 35th studio album, that’s really not bad at all!”

To borrow from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979): “He’s not, after all, the Messiah – he’s just a very musical boy”.

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