So Prince put out two sneaky-great new albums last week, and it's understandable that your impulse was to ignore or at least wildly underestimate them, but yeah, don't.
This is not to suggest that either Art Official Age or PlectrumElectrum—marking his prodigal-son return to Warner Bros., the label with whom he famously squabbled during all that "Artist Formerly Known As" business—exist in the same solar system as his God Mode years. But nothing does, and thanks to his revised deal you'll have ample opportunity to buy a sure-to-be bonkers 30th-anniversary version of Purple Rain soon, and both these new records are daffy, cocky, self-indulgent, and occasionally transcendent in a way that comes as both a surprise and a relief.
It's been an OK 21st century for the guy thus far: an ever-scintillating live show (with just a hint of Lauryn Hill-style jazz-odyssey antagonism amid all the hits), a titillating Super Bowl Halftime gig, and a steady stream of weirdo records that hit (Musicology!) and missed (20Ten!) pretty much at random. But there's no getting around the fact that this ...
... is still the best Prince moment of the past decade, and the Artist himself putting out a goofy morning-wood slow jam called "Breakfast Can Wait" nine years later and using this ...
... as the cover art was both mildly amusing and vaguely worrisome. Parody is far preferable to self-parody; it was high time the man did something that outshone, or at least out-weirded, the myth.
Art Official Age is the more serious, or at least more expensive, affair, and parts of it are indeed completely insane. The very first track ("Art Official Cage," words that rhyme with "age" being somewhat of a theme) seems designed to scare you off: a gonzo sci-fi funk meltdown with so-so rapping and a brief but traumatizing dubstep breakdown and a hint of old-guy-yells-at-cloud bitterness ("Louder than a bomb since the day of my birth / Got me second class when I got here first"), plus somebody gets waterboarded during the guitar solo. Soon we are introduced to the album's central conceit, in which our hero wakes from 45 years of suspended animation into a utopia where he can communicate telepathically and the words me and mine no longer exist, according to a sexy-English-lady HAL-type narrator who (I'm assuming) he totally bangs.
But Prince can also sound shockingly down-to-earth here, dispensing super-useful marital-type lifehacks on the fluffy "Clouds" ("You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck / When she doesn't expect / A kiss on the neck") and at least pretending to lament his lonely-playboy lifestyle on the silky power ballad "Breakdown." His charisma redeems even his cornier ideas: "Breakfast Can Wait" is actually pretty sweet, and the even fluffier "This Can Be Us" isn't bad for a song about a hashtag.
"Way Back Home" is the best, though, slow and solemn and alarmingly sincere. Even at his apex Prince was never what you'd call introspective—you never got the sense you were getting The Real Him, that he'd invite you into his bedroom for anything other than the obvious reason. But here, he seems on the verge of unburdening his soul:
A typical life
A trophy wife
All I ever wanted …
[Millions of rabid Prince fans eagerly lean forward, rapt, expectant.]
… To be left alone
Art Official Age vacillates like this, between spacey and suspiciously earthy, between Low-Key and High as Balls; it's all immensely appealing if you ever manage to wrap your head around it. Whereas PlectrumElectrum, co-starring his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl (eat it, Jack White), is far simpler to grasp: a garage-funk jam session that evokes Funkadelic if you're feeling charitable, Audioslave if you're feeling uncharitable, and Earl Greyhound if you're feeling obscure/like an asshole. Thesis: "A girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another crazy band of boys." It's a little reductive and half-assed, but it's nice to hear him so relaxed.
Well, most of the time he's relaxed. It's time to talk about "AnotherLove."
This is the best Prince song since "Gett Off." It's a cover of a 2013 breakup jam from pop-soul singer Alice Smith, here transformed from a perfectly serviceable plinking-piano lament to a surly-guitar exorcism, the lyrics—"I tried to be what you wanted / I'm tired"—taking on another, far angrier dimension when sung by a dude sick of all you clowns comparing his new shit to his old shit. Halfway through it speeds up and gets even pissier, Prince adding a howling verse of his own:
Used to think I was so much fun
Now I'm just the guilty one
Everything we used to share
Our clothes, and even our hair
And all you see is what I did
But how come I can't? Tell me that, kid
Behind my back I'm just a so-and-so
BUT I'M THE GREATEST LIVING SOUL YOU'LL EVER KNOW
Guitar solo. I first heard "AnotherLove" while driving down a Midwestern highway on a Saturday afternoon, and jumped from 70 to 90 MPH without even realizing it; I wanted to reach directly into my car stereo and pull Prince back out and buckle him into the shotgun seat and clap a hand on his shoulder and will this guitar solo to planet-smashing greatness, to help him smite everyone who'd dismissed him as a relic or a mascot or a so-and-so, myself included.
Whether it actually managed any of that—it's pretty good!—is less important than the exhilarating sensation of actually rooting for Prince again, of regarding him with fear and awe as opposed to patronizing bemusement. Neither of these records will make you forget, say, Sign 'O' the Times, but they go a long way toward making you forget, say, that New Girl episode. It's time to fall back in love with this guy, or, to put it another way
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin's culture editor. Yes, there is one. He's on Twitter.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter@DSconcourse.