Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr It’s been so long since Prince put out interesting music that his recent re-emergence as a relevant figure has seemed more like a hazy dream than an exciting reality. But he’s back, having loosened up a bit from his uptight, religious phase and taken a rare political stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, even penning one of his strongest ever political songs in “Baltimore.” Last year’s two-fer release Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum could not hold a candle to the artist’s classic era but nonetheless showed him confidently entering the elder statesman part of his career, a role he cagily dodged for years. Yet those two records look even more conventional when stacked against HITNRUN Phase One, possibly His Royal Badness’s best album since 2001’s jazz-spiritual opus The Rainbow Children. From the start of “Million $ Show,” Prince does something unexpected: he looks backward. Despite running through his mountain of hits for live shows, the artist has largely avoided calling back to his glory days on wax. But as if to acknowledge his renewed vigor and sense of purpose, “Million $ Show” begins with fragments of classic album introductions, from the “Dearly beloved” that opened Purple Rain to 1999’s “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” Piggybacking off the energy of his most explosive starters, the track barrels out of the gate with hi-NRG funk and Judith Hill’s propulsive singing. Rubber-band bass twangs so powerfully it drags the tempo up and down with it, and even when the arrangement settles into a groove, it’s so infectious that Prince could actually play this live and get an enthusiastic reception from the crowd, not the polite tolerance that greets much of his newer material. From there, Prince shows off the wild amalgam of styles he’s amassed over the years, and even incorporates some more contemporary sounds in opposition to his hyper-retro jazz and R&B forays as of late. “Shut This Down” fuses “Housequake”-esque mid-tempo funk with flashes of neo-R&B synth flourishes, the sort that he pioneered but long ago evolved past him. “Ain’t About to Stop” layers industrial electronics with eastern instrumentation and shows off his playful, preening side with lines like “If your life is a B-side, my dream is the A.” “Like a Mack” could have slotted onto The Black Album, its half-rapped braggadocio a less self-conscious update of the brief Bob Nelson persona. It also consolidates Prince’s throwback era with his classic ear for composing club floor-fillers, riding a heavily syncopated Latin funk complete with horns that would be perfect for one of his famed aftershows. The extreme variety of these first four tracks tapers off into a more straightforward style for the remainder of the album, but Prince still surprises throughout. “X’s Face” definitively proves Prince has at last reconciled his balance of the sacred and profane with a slinking number that prowls several layers of lust, jealousy and faltering self-control as Prince percolates over lines in a breathy falsetto. “1000 X’s & 0’s” is even sultrier, its composition a spare arrangement of muted hi-hats and bass squelches that begs to be the latest entry on any all-Prince sex playlists. Closer “June” even shows off Prince’s lyrical abilities, a wistful account from a legend about feeling he was born in the wrong time. Grounded hilariously by the artist recounting his dream while cooking pasta, the song ventures into a daydream of being at Woodstock and listening to Richie Havens on the radio. Prince often saves the most personal song for last, but where once he’d pen soulful, spiritual epics like “Purple Rain” and “The Cross,” here he is softer-spoken but even more sincere, offering fans that rarest of things, a glimpse, perhaps, at the real Prince Nelson Rogers. Despite the fleet running time of the songs, you can’t have a Prince record without at least a few guitar pyrotechnics. A reworking of “This Could B Us” adds a lurching, dubby vibe that sets up its modestly boastful solo as something closer to a power ballad spotlight moment. The shift in tone serves the guitar part well: by calling attention to the build-up, Prince doesn’t make the quiet, deft fingerwork an anticlimax. Instead, he spotlights the casual mastery of his instrument, no longer the careening and epic fireworks of a young man with something to prove but the collected dexterity of a seasoned pro. Meanwhile “Hardrocklover” does what it says on the tin, offering on-the-nose lyrical equations of guitars and dicks before erupting in trebly lines that make the connection unmistakable. Sure, this metaphorical joke is old, but Prince tells it with verve, and anyway, it’s just nice to hear him cutting up like this again. Nothing on the album has the staying power of any given track off one of his great records, but for the first time in an age he turns in a full-length without any clear duds. Most importantly, this is the first time Prince has sounded like Prince, in all his myriad forms, in too long, and it’s increasingly sounding as if the artist is getting his second wind. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.