Much to the chagrin of jazz purists like Stanley Crouch, Miles Davis in his 1990 autobiography hailed Prince as an artistic heir of Duke Ellington and, by extension, himself. At the time, it was easy to see where Miles was coming from -- Prince was testing the experimental limits of pop on late-eighties albums like Sign O' the Times and The Black Album and leading his band in improvisational open-ended jams onstage. Since then, he's continued to borrow from both the sound and range of Davis's late-career left-turns on albums like Emancipation and Chaos and Disorder.
With its fluttering horns, gauzy percussion, and the playing of smooth-jazz saxophonist Najee, Prince's new album, The Rainbow Children, is steeped in the kind of fusion Davis pioneered. Often, Prince bogs down in the genre's excesses, especially on "Mellow" and "Muse 2 the Pharoah," on which he helpfully points out that "nato spelled backwards is otan." Yet he also rediscovers the genre-busting musical expansiveness that made him so vital with the wire-tight funk of "1+1+1 is 3" and the manic, jazzy polyrhythms of "Everywhere." On the exquisite ballad "She Loves Me 4 Me," Prince merges the vulnerable soul of the Stylistics with the elegance of Ellington tunes like "Love You Madly."
It's a joy to hear Prince finally stop hiding behind the uninspired covers and elliptical attempts at pop that held him back throughout most of the nineties. The Rainbow Children isn't a return to relevance -- Prince still seems too ambitious to care. But he proves that he's an artist whose disparate, sometimes challenging directions are once again worth following.
De La Soul's new AOI: Bionix is the second part of the group's Art Official Intelligence trilogy, a project that seemed portentous when it was announced but has felt gloriously weightless ever since. Bionix continues the party that began on the first AOI volume, Mosaic Thump, but without the endless collaborations that made that album feel forced. The group experiments with gospelized soul ("Held Down") and stuttering break beats ("The Sauce"), and it makes the collaborations matter, especially on "Peer Pressure." Trading gibes about marijuana with Cypress Hill's B-Real, whose love of the drug approaches Cheech's, De La Soul's Posdnuos brings a new comic realism to one of hip-hop's tired tropes.