No amount of critical reappraisal can make Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic a great album.
If poetic justice meant anything in the real world, then 1999 should have been Prince’s year. His 1982 hit about partying in the face of pre-millennial tension was omnipresent on the radio, and he had a potentially lucrative distribution agreement with Clive Davis of Arista Records, whose guest-star-laden Supernatural had just transformed Carlos Santana from a catalogue artist into a Top 40 star. The only problem was that the artist then known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince was in a creative and personal doldrums. Less than three years after the death of his infant son and mere months before his divorce from first wife Mayte Garcia, he had ironically never been less equipped to party like it’s 1999.
It’s thus no surprise that Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic turned out to be one of Prince’s less satisfying efforts: an awkward melding of Supernatural-style pop radio bids with the Artist’s bullish independent sensibility. That awkwardness, despite the best efforts of latter-day Prince catalogue stewards Sony Legacy, is in ample evidence on the new Ultimate Rave reissue. But the ensuing 20 years of hindsight have also narrowed the gap between expectation and reality, making the album’s subtle charms easier for committed fans to digest.
“Easier,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” Rave’s opening title track does the album no favors: plucked seemingly wholesale from a 10-year-old unreleased project, its front-and-center placement tacitly suggests that the Artist has run out of ideas before he’s begun. Nor do the immediately following tracks do much to dissuade that impression. “Undisputed” grafts a hectoring rap verse by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D onto a near-tuneless electro-funk groove, with lyrics that do too much telling about the Glyph’s musical iconoclasm (“Once again eye don’t follow trends, they just follow me”) and not enough showing. Moribund lead single “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” feels like a laundry list of elements for a great Prince ballad—sensual falsetto vocals, exotic instrumental flourishes, lyrics that put a vague softcore spin on the Adam and Eve myth—without any of the old purple magic to hold it together.
It isn’t until “Tangerine,” an immaculate 93-second pop ballad in miniature, that the album’s strengths begin to come into focus. While Rave undoubtedly lacks the passion of Prince’s best work, its craft remains impeccable: “Man ‘O’ War” may not even graze the top 10 of the Purple One’s best ballads, but it’s still a slow jam worthy of mere mortals’ envy. And while a P-Funk-influenced cover of Sheryl Crow’s ”Everyday Is a Winding Road” makes about as much sense in practice as it does on paper, you kind of have to admire the mind of the man who’s just daffy enough to try It.
Less impressive is Rave’s parade of guest stars, the majority of whom feel more like awkward interlopers than organic partners. Of the featured artists on the album, only Ruff Ryders First Lady Eve makes much of an impression, effortlessly deflating some of the Glyph’s mystique with her line “I’m supposed to tremble cuz they call you ‘The Artist’?” on “Hot Wit U.” Gwen Stefani’s harmony vocals on “So Far, So Pleased” are less prominent in the mix than Prince’s were on Sheila E’s “A Love Bizarre”; Sheryl Crow’s appearance on “Baby Knows” is even more subtle, with the notable exception of the braying harmonica line she adds to the intro. Meanwhile, on “Eye Love U, But Eye Don’t Trust U Anymore,” Ani DiFranco acts less as a featured artist than as a session musician, contributing gentle acoustic guitar to the piano-led ballad. Unsurprisingly, none of these collaborations had what it took to create a Supernatural-level hit, and the album sold below expectations—albeit significantly better than the Artist’s last two releases, 1998’s Crystal Ball and 1999’s The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale.
This was not, however, the end of the Rave saga. For the first time in a wide major-label release, Ultimate Rave also collects 2001’s Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic, a remix album originally sold online via the NPG Music Club subscription service. Ever the salesman, the Artist tried to spin In2 as the definitive version of Rave; on the contrary, by revamping the majority of the songs, it mostly serves to underscore the original material’s facelessness. Some of the changes are academic; some, like the Vanity 6-interpolating “Nasty Girl Remix” of “Hot Wit U,” are improvements; some, like the busier remix of “Man ‘O’ War,” feel like unnecessary tinkering. But In2 at least offers one indispensable track: “Beautiful Strange,” an orphan from the Artist’s 1999 home video release of the same title, has a bewitchingly seductive energy that is in otherwise short supply on Rave. Leave it to Prince to save the best song on an album for the Internet-only fan club release.
Finally, Ultimate Rave rounds out the set with a DVD reissue of Rave Un2 the Year 2000, a pay-per-view cable special originally broadcast on New Year’s Eve, 1999. True to its title, Year 2000 is a Y2K time capsule par excellence, from the rave-influenced intro of “1999” to the Matrix-influenced overcoat the Artist dons for “Purple Rain.” But in many ways, the concert also serves as the nostalgic, crowd-pleasing party the Rave album promised but ultimately failed to deliver. Alongside the New Power Generation and guests including Morris Day and the Time and Lenny Kravitz, the Artist Still Not Quite Ready to Be Known as Prince runs through an effortless set of hits and even a few deep cuts, like 1985 B-side “She’s Always in My Hair” and Sign o’ the Times album track “The Cross.” The show sags in the middle, with an overabundance of covers and gospel proselytizing from both the Artist and bassist Larry Graham; but as a snapshot of Prince’s undimmed skills as a multi-instrumentalist and all-around entertainer, it’s arguably the highlight of the set.
No amount of critical reappraisal can make Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic a great album; it will forever be a botched comeback for Prince, who would have to wait another four years—and weather an even rougher patch commercially—before returning to the spotlight with 2004’s Musicology. But the care with which Ultimate Rave presents the album and its supplemental material goes a long way toward making that reappraisal feel worthwhile. For fans with a desire to pan for gold in the hinterlands of Prince’s career, this is an appealing, exhaustive package to do it in. Bring your own sieve.