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Holy Hell! Emancipation Turns 20

Holy Hell! Emancipation Turns 20

Prince’s work in the ‘90s is in need of reappraisal.

Prince’s work in the ‘90s is in need of reappraisal. In the wake of his death, his final albums for Warner Bros. risk being tossed-off as contractual obligations but they represent Prince rediscovering his funkiest sides after largely setting them aside in the mid to late-‘80s to pursue an ever-more complex art-pop sound. The Love Symbol Album, his best seller since Purple Rain, is, despite its quasi-legible sci-fi framing device, less a concept album than a conception album, so relentlessly energizing is its fat-bottomed R&B. Despite the fact that Warner historically showed a level of patience for this weird genius that no one would have ever tolerated, Prince increasingly portrayed himself as a victim of repressive label management. When Prince debuted his first independent album, 1996’s mammoth, three-disc Emancipation, he immediately lent credence to his argument that Warner, which averaged one album a year for the artist for his entire tenure with the company, had actually held back his creative drive instead of demanding more.

Emancipation arrived on a wave of hype concerning what Prince would sound like when let off the leash. Viewed in the context of the artist’s changing sound, however, it is more of a logical continuation of his music at the time, not a radical break from repressive executives. Opener “Jam of the Year” sets the tone of the record with pure joy; Prince’s euphoria at receiving freedom is encoded into the mid-tempo funk. Prince’s falsetto is charged with an excitement that extends beyond its usual enthusiasm for whatever sexcapades are about to take place, and the sweaty horn accompaniments are as bouncy as they are sultry. You never can tell which songs Prince long ago recorded and which he wrote the night before going into the studio, but “Jam of the Year” has an immediacy that rapidly outruns the song’s actual pace.

From there, the album broadly touches upon every aspect of Prince’s sound, albeit much in the same way that many of his records do. “Right Back Here in My Arms” is rubber-band funk that says everything with the title, while “White Mansion” is laid-back soft rock with spiked synths as Prince folds in lyrics about his artistic freedom with broader self-celebration of success. “Sex in the Summer” manages to make bright synthpop sound tinged by reggae. “Mr. Happy” features more of Prince’s dubious attempts at rapping, though his homemade G-funk backing hints at the greater role Prince could have openly played in hip-hop were he not so ruthlessly protective of his music from sampling.

Lyrically, the subjects vary wildly. There is sex, if that even needs to be said, but also documents of the artist’s perception of his creative rights: “Slave” marries a chugging beach and a clanking snare to oddly sultry lyrics of being torn apart by external forces, while a cover of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” even substitutes “slave” for “slob.” Most intriguing, however, are Prince’s shockingly personal lyrics in relation to his marriage, his child (who would die mere days after birth due to a genetic condition and whose heartbeat is used in “Sex in the Summer), and his increasing turn to religion to account for his troubles. The spiritual has always figured in the artist’s music, but not even “The Cross” can hold a candle to the likes of neo-gospel “The Holy River,” which advocates monogamy and faith as the path to greater love than the physical. “Let’s Have a Baby” is so tender, a baby-making song literally about the joy and potential of making a baby, that it is almost unbearable in the context of the immediate loss of Prince child and wife Mayte Garcia’s subsequent miscarriage. Prince largely reveals himself in pointillism, letting the individual dots of his compositional elements and the variable tone of his delivery stand in for confession, but Emancipation is perhaps his most soul-baring album, even if at least half of it is high on sex and independence.

There’s no mistaking that three discs of original material is a tall order, and it’s equally true that much of the record is imperfect. But taken a little at a time, or out of order or any other way than simply sitting down for three hours and choking it down, it retains a great deal of power and cleverness. Take the xylophone runs that gently take the bare handclaps of “Emale” up and down its narrow octave range, or the quirky but no less hot ballad “One Kiss at a Time,” where the guitar seems to squeal every time the track gets a little excited. Inconsistent as it may be, it’s every bit the display of runaway genius that the far superior Sign ‘O” the Times is, and Prince would rarely match its heights again.

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