When considering the career of an artist as prolific as Prince, it can be easy to overlook a full decade, let alone a couple of albums.
When considering the career of an artist as prolific as Prince, it can be easy to overlook a full decade, let alone a couple of albums. This has been the case for Prince’s 2000s, which had the misfortune of being neither as peerless as his mid-‘80s peak nor as dramatically compelling as his mid-‘90s transformation into an independent artist. Yet the “comeback” era of the mid-‘00s—roughly bookended by his show-opening performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards and his 21-night stand at London’s O2 arena in 2007—also found Prince at arguably his highest critical and commercial profile in 20 years. Now, with 2004’s Musicology, 2006’s 3121 and 2007’s Planet Earth available for the first time on vinyl, we have an ideal opportunity to reevaluate the music of his second purple reign.
Prince, of course, bristled at calling Musicology a comeback, insisting with LL Cool J-style bravado that he’d been here for years. And in terms of musical inventiveness, he had a point: the album feels in many ways like a retreat from the undiluted originality of its predecessor, 2001’s quasi-Jehovah’s Witness Afrofuturist neo-soul mystical divorce album The Rainbow Children. With its warmed-over James Brown hook and rose-colored reminiscences about “the feeling music gave ya back in the day,” Musicology’s opening title track gave the worrying (and not entirely inaccurate) impression that R&B’s foremost futurist had come back from the wilderness as a sonic conservative. But the album’s strength was in reminding lapsed listeners of the Prince they remembered—sometimes, as in the radio-tuning interlude that precedes “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” with snippets of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “17 Days,” “Kiss,” “Sign o’ the Times” and “Little Red Corvette,” in the most literal sense possible.
With this context in mind, Musicology works as advertised: providing a tunefully inoffensive facsimile of Prince’s classic sound to accompany a hits-heavy arena tour. Prince’s undimmed abilities as a vocalist and arranger make even filler like the aforementioned “Illusion” into master classes in minimalist funk—though they can’t elevate the corny uncle-rap of “Life o’ the Party” past mildly annoying status. His genre-agnosticism gives him the flexibility to follow the power-pop War on Terror protest of “Cinnamon Girl” (no relation to the Neil Young song) with the Sade-influenced smooth R&B of “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” and the baroque jazz-funk of “The Marrying Kind” and “If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life.” While little of Musicology ranks among Prince’s best work, it did yield his finest ballad of the decade with the Grammy-winning “Call My Name”; and its inclusion in the ticket price for the aforementioned arena tour ensured his strongest album sales since 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls.
Coming hot off the heels of Musicology’s success, Prince seems justifiably self-assured on its fresher and freakier follow-up—starting with the title track, a welcome throwback to the helium-voiced P-Funk of 1987’s Black Album. No longer the lofty music professor, on 3121 he remakes contemporary R&B in his own image. The whining whistle-synth of “Black Sweat” is the sound of Prince finally assimilating Dr. Dre after a decade-long struggle; the layers of keyboard squelch on “Love” are his only slightly belated response to crunk. He even messes with Auto-Tune on the seductive “Incense and Candles.” Meanwhile, the unshowy craftsmanship of devotional songs “The Word” and “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed” demonstrate that if Prince hadn’t been intent on retaking his pop throne, he could have had a decent third act as a straight-ahead gospel artist.
Not all of 3121 works quite so well: “Lolita” is a Morris Day and the Time-styled throwaway about an age-inappropriate admirer that proves even Prince’s seemingly immutable charm had its limits; “Fury” is a series of admittedly scorching guitar leads in search of a less anodyne arrangement. But the album’s winning combination of sturdy craftsmanship and willingness to experiment makes it the strongest of his comeback trilogy. In its best moments—like when Prince’s smoldering vocals catch fire at the end of “The Dance,” channeling a similar scream of passion from Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones”—it’s as potent as anything in his almost four-decade recording career.
At the time of its release in 2007, Planet Earth felt like a clear step down from 3121—which it still is, though time has been kind to its shortcomings. The most indifferently-sequenced of the three albums, it does itself no favors by opening with the title track: an unwieldy attempt to marry the lighter-waving guitar heroics of “Purple Rain” with the kind of toothless social commentary that was more commonly Michael Jackson’s stock in trade. Lead single “Guitar” follows, sounding every bit like the Verizon commercial it was. Even Prince’s much-vaunted reunion with his Revolution-era foils Wendy and Lisa is a fumble, their contributions buried on the lackluster jangle-pop numbers “The One U Wanna C” and “Resolution.”
But while Prince’s batting average is lower on Planet Earth than on either of its predecessors, he still can’t be counted out entirely. “Chelsea Rodgers” is a corker, with a popping disco bassline and sleek rhythm guitar work that would have made Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic proud. And while the elaborate seduction scenario of “Mr. Goodnight”—involving “a little Spanish man,” the Johnny Depp romantic comedy Chocolat on the big screen and “a mouth full of Raisinets”—scans as ludicrous, it works as a winking satire of Prince’s enigmatic loverman persona: the kind of song you’d expect Fred Armisen’s “Saturday Night Live” version of Prince to sing.
Much like he had for Musicology, Prince shifted units for Planet Earth in part by giving them away: to ticketholders for his London concert residency and, most controversially, to readers of U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail’s Sunday edition. His next release, 2009’s Target-exclusive Lotusflow3r, bundled two separate albums (plus one by his short-lived protégée/paramour Bria Valente), releasing to commercial success but diminished critical reception. By 2010 and 20Ten, he’d become so enamored with alternative distribution methods that the only way to legally acquire the album was by purchasing one of a few European magazines and newspapers. It’s a perfectly “Prince” end to the decade’s comeback arc: from triumphant resurgence all the way back to maddening obscurity. For a few brief years, however, Prince was playing the game the way he was supposed to: delivering durable, workmanlike albums that solidified his elder-statesman status and kept his setlists fresh. In the nine years between Planet Earth and his untimely death, Prince would release music that was both more exciting and more baffling than his 2004-07 output, in roughly equal measure; but he’d never again sit as comfortably in the mainstream.