At 57, Prince is bulldozing towards his dotage, firing out whole albums in the time it takes Frank Ocean to approve a magazine cover. This is his fourth since last September’s ‘Plectrumelectrum’. He’s in a (naturally) purple patch, in the prolific sense, and there have been hints he’s shaken his creative malaise, with September’s ‘HITnRUN Phase One’ reconnecting him with the funkiest (and occasionally crunkiest) essentials, if not always his superior sense of melody.
‘Phase Two’ is a different proposition. Pulled together over four years (and, in 1980s disco-jazz cast-off ‘Xtraloveable’, drawing on older material from the Paisley Park vaults), it reunites Prince with backing band The New Power Generation and his craftsman’s way with a song. It’s much warmer than ‘Phase One’, thanks to analogue recording equipment and Minneapolis brass crew Hornheads, as well as a desire to get romantic and not just plain dirty.
Dirty’s always good, of course, although he could do with stronger lines than “It’s all I can do not to feel myself when I look at you” on the otherwise classy jazz-funk of ‘Look At Me, Look At U’. He gets lovey-dovey on accordion-tinged bluesy ballad ‘When She Comes’, which could fit into the second half of 1987’s ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’. Echoing that album’s title track, he re-engages with his social conscience on the affecting call-to-drop-arms of ‘Baltimore’, which mourns Freddie Gray who died in police custody in April after being arrested for possession of what was thought to be a switchblade.
Obviously, Prince has done better and he knows it – there’s a cheeky sample from you-know-what just after he asks “Can I get a kiss?’ on the well-oiled funk of ‘Stare’; ‘RocknRoll Love Affair”s horns ape the synth riff from ‘Take Me With U’ – but not in living memory. ‘Groovy Potential’ has a shimmering Stylistics lushness about it and feels like his purest pop song since 1995’s ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. Even finer is the epic ‘Black Muse’, shifting from joyous Sly & The Family Stone funk to Jackson 5 sunshine soul over seven giddy minutes. Where all this fits in the mesh of the Prince pantheon is anyone’s guess, but it’s in the good part, and after nearly 40 albums that’s an achievement.