At his most recent New York appearance, on April 10, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince seemed to have adopted yet another pretentious non-name. Posters hanging throughout Irving Plaza showed a photo of the Artist (or P, as he also likes to call himself) above the slogan THE ONE.
But judging from recent evidence – the concert and his new four-CD collection Crystal Ball (NPG Records) – “The One” is perhaps the least apt of all the titles the 39-year-old musician has adopted since he announced, in 1993, that he was dropping his given name. The former Prince is anything but a unified presence. His music is a constantly shifting amalgam: Rock and roll, funk, rap, blues, folk, and soul all contribute to his songwriting. Syrupy crooning, demonic yowling, heavenly falsetto singing, and dance-floor-diva catcalls are all in his vocal arsenal. He’s also happy playing more than one musical role, serving part of his Irving Plaza night as a sideman (albeit a particularly charismatic one) to two high-wattage guest stars – Chaka Khan and erstwhile Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham.
P, though, is undeniably unique: He has had one of the strangest career trajectories imaginable, forsaking his early MTV and radio stardom for a greater measure of artistic freedom and the lucrative, if lower-profile, cult status his rabid fans have accorded him. Having feuded with one record company and seen another go out of business, he now releases his own albums (more on that later). A lifelong control freak, he often plays all the instruments (expertly) on his albums, including his first, recorded when he was just 20 years old. And – endearing himself to critics everywhere – he recently stopped handing out free review copies of his CDs.
Because P is capable of almost anything, you never know what to expect from his shows. Last summer, he played two New York City concerts in one night. The first, at Jones Beach, was a full-blown lights-and-choreography spectacle that gussied up more than two hours of hits with costume changes, backup singers, horns, even a somewhat inexplicable pistol-shaped microphone. A couple of hours later, the Artist was ensconced onstage at Tramps, leading a small coterie of musicians through a late-night R&B jam session that included only one of his own songs.
This month’s club date was a hybrid of the two previous sets. Juiced to be onstage with two of his idols, P avoided his own hits. Instead, he covered songs by Khan’s and Graham’s old bands, showed off three tunes from a forthcoming album, and played just a single cut (“Days of Wild”) from Crystal Ball. The band shoehorned an arena’s worth of equipment onto Irving Plaza’s small stage, forgoing only their lavender grand piano.
The show – a $75-per-head “after-party” slated to begin at 1:30 a.m., following the star’s appearance at the Essence magazine awards – didn’t get under way until nearly 3. The late-night setting added to the electric vibe: It felt special, secret, and unfamiliar. Of course, the effect may have been physical, the hallucinatory results of fatigue.
At what was supposed to have been the end of the concert, things got even trippier. After George Benson joined in on Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher,” early-eighties rapper Doug E. Fresh clambered onto the stage from the audience. A bodyguard rushed to intercede, but Fresh made a quick explanation, grabbed a mike, and started beatboxing along with P and Co. At the end of the song, the band, then its leader, left the stage, one person at a time, until finally just Benson and the surprise rapper were left.
As perhaps the strangest showdown in music history unfolded – Fresh beatboxing, Benson laying down greasy funk lines on a guitar borrowed from his host – the rapper playfully challenged P. “Who rocks the hardest?” he asked. “The Artist rocks the hardest!” came the audience’s response. A few of these back-and-forths, and the Artist couldn’t resist returning to the stage to live up to the claim. It wasn’t until four songs later (including an impromptu sing-along rendition of Fresh’s 1985 hit “La Di Da Di”) that the band finally quit. It was 5:05 a.m.
Unlike the Irving Plaza show, Crystal Ball is entirely about the Artist. Its first three discs present a might-have-been history of its author – outtakes, songs never intended for release, musical jokes. The fourth, an album-within-an-album separately titled The Truth, comprises twelve new acoustic songs ranging from the bluesy title track to the vegan anthem “Animal Kingdom.” (The latter’s refrain, “No member of the animal kingdom nurses past maturity,” will surely go down as one of the great pages in the alternative-diet songbook, right next to Brian Wilson’s immortal “Vegetables.”) Taken together, the four CDs are the Artist’s most fascinating release since 1987’s incomparable Sign ‘O’ the Times. They’re also his most maddening and overwhelming: 42 songs is a lot to digest; $50-plus is a lot to shell out.
Certain cuts provide insight into their author’s ongoing struggle with self-identification. In the burning “What’s My Name,” he hisses, “Take my name; I don’t need it / Nothing stays the same, anyway.” In The Truth’s “Don’t Play Me,” he sings softly, “My only competition is, well, me in the past.” The claim is as accurate as it is immodest. Romance, unsurprisingly, is still very much on the Artist’s mind. In the third disc’s hilarious “PoomPoom,” he attempts a seduction by telling a woman, “I can’t stop thinkin’ about yer poom-poom.” But in the newer material, he forsakes lewd comedy for smooth courtship, using a slinky blues to call his wife, Mayte, “cool as the other side of the pillow.”
The album has been a trial for fans to get their hands on. While Crystal Ball is now finally available in stores, the Artist-owned NPG Records originally announced it would sell it only through a Website and an 800 number. Most fans who ordered their records months ago are still waiting for them to arrive.
As the former Prince’s detractors frequently claim, all this drama and confusion bespeak a difficult temperament. So what? Yes, the music business would grind to a halt if it were filled with overtalented polymaths tortured by the notion of using a name, wary of the media, and unable to play nice with corporate America. But it isn’t. There’s just P, and entering his distinctly weird world is a thrilling hassle.