At exactly three hours long, Emancipation is by a distance the longest album I have reviewed to date on these pages. And while in most cases the actual length of the multi-disc sets I take on here is little more than a qualifying statistic of inclusion, in this particular case this album's attention-grabbing size is one of its most noteworthy aspects (a statement you'll notice is not exactly a compliment). Emancipation is apparently the longest album of all-new music ever released by a major artist, a fact closely linked to the contents of the album, to the circumstances of its creation, and to its public image and commercial success. All woven together in one of popular music's most fascinating stories, a story more compelling, sadly, than many of the thirty-six songs on this present album.
Prince had been signed to Warner Brothers records for the whole of his wildly successful artistic career when he started to take issue with the label's treatment of his career and his artistic independence. This exploded into a bizarre public feud that had Prince appearing at all public events with the word 'slave' written on his cheek, making bizarre and contradictory announcements about the future of his professional career, changing his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol, and generally becoming an absurd laughing-stock in the eyes of the media and much of the record-buying public. One of Prince's main complaints had been that Warner Brothers was unwilling to release material at the highly prolific tempo he was then creating at, and so, like George Harrison's triple All Things Must Pass, Prince thrust Emancipation onto the marketplace a mere three months after his final WB release as a public display of the explosion of newly-unfettered creativity his release from contractual obligation entailed. Thus, to a certain extent, the quality of the work was less essential than its very quantity, though it was largely radio-friendly music crafted with mass consumption in mind.
At least as much as a poor faculty for self-editing, this commercial consideration might explain what I can only view as an unfortunate drop-off in overall quality from the absolute heights of his 'friction years' (what I regard as perhaps Prince's very best era) to the extreme mediocrity of this serviceable disc. Its highlights are great indeed, but they are rare across three discs of sixty minutes each. Rare also are cringe-worthy embarrassments, as too much of this project is merely 'adequate', inoffensive and unchallenging material. The three discs are peppered with references to the new-found happiness both that creative freedom and that his recent marriage to Mayté Garcia (and imminent childbirth) had given him. For such a 'tortured artist' to seem so happy is indeed pleasurable, but it raises two concerns:
(a) It more or less reinforces the dictum, especially in comparison to the artistically compelling 'friction years' that immediately preceded this album, that great art springs from great pain; in his satisfaction, Prince reels out an array of smooth grooves which are well-crafted but somehow devoid of hunger: while nothing is truly embarrassing, there is little here that would rank with Prince's very best.
(b) It certainly suggests Prince should have knocked on wood. The album went double-platinum, but as a three-disc set that means less than you might think. It failed to reignite Prince's career, and the failure sent him further down into the rabbit hole of commercial failure. Certainly, problems with distributor EMI are part of the issue, but 'blaming the major' would be a strategy he'd continue to use for upwards of a decade as album after album stiffed. Additionally, the family he had seemingly so desperately wanted, and whose creation is documented in uncomfortably exacting detail on disc two, never came to be: his child died within hours of birth, and his marriage lasted only a few years. The experience clearly took the wind out of Prince's sails, and it's tough to listen to Emancipation today without thinking how fleeting the moment of happiness it records turns out to have been.
Still, I have to stand in defence of the symbol years. There is a tendency today to view Prince's 1980s work as an absolute peak, and to judge the 1990s, in particular the material that was released under the unpronounceable pseudonym, as in some way inadequate and unimpressive. While I love the 1980s work, I see this view as so simplistic it's almost bizarre; Prince in the 1990s under whatever name released plenty of good music - mixed in, it's true, with a lot of substandard stuff (an increased use of live instrumentation and layers was welcome; an increased dependency on rote drumbeats less so), but I'll be the first to defend Prince's 1990s music, released during an era when reviewers were reviewing the man's pubic image instead of listening to his music with an open mind. Anybody willing to do that will find plenty to love.
EmancipationJam of the Year: keep (track two)
- New World (3:43)
- Jam of the Year (6:09)
- Style (6:40)
- Somebody's Somebody (4:44)
- Curious Child (2:57)
- In This Bed I Scream (5:40)
- White Mansion (4:47)
- Face Down (3:17)
- Soul Sanctuary (4:41)
- Saviour (5:48)
- The Holy River (6:56)
- The Love We Make (4:39)
This is more than just a song for Prince, as he used it to open his three-disc opus, released a live version as a cassingle, and named a subsequent tour after it. But I just don't get why; like so many of the party 'jams' on these three discs, it's just middling: not great, but not bad either (and certainly better than Newpower Soul, a limp album of unexciting party jams that features a 'remix' of this song called 'Push It Up'). The bouncy instrumental melody that serves as the song's 'hook' is infectious enough, and the part of the song that is actually a song is well done. But it just descends into empty party-time platitudes (with retro screaming from Rosie Gaines representing a wasted opportunity). Prince was famous at the time for his off-the-cuff 'aftershows' held in small clubs while touring. This song could almost pass as one of the freewheeling improvisatory moment of genius these aftershows are so prized for, except that it falls short of genius: it's 'very good', not 'brilliant'. Not jam of the year at all... but perhaps jam of the week?
Among the many curiosities of Emancipation is the fact that Prince chose to release the material as three discs, each of which contained exactly twelve tracks and ran exactly 60:00. He said this had something to do with pyramids (of all things). In partial tribute to that, I decided that my single-disc should number exactly 12 tracks too, but I chose not to wory about the sixty-minute running time. So having chosen eleven tracks, I was on the fence about the twelfth, undecided between 'Jam of the Year' and a few others, when I discovered to my shock that the inclusion of 'Jam of the Year' made this disc run precisely to sixty minutes. That was a clincher for me... but I couldn't open my disc with this track, because I don't like it enough. So it's my track two.
Right Back Here in My Arms: lose
Somewhere between uptempo and downtempo, somewhere between a ballad and a dance track, this track is a repetitive little piece that feels like it ought to be notable but somehow fails to be. It's worth considering just what exactly is wrong with this song: the groove is decent but unrelentingly unchanging (with an annoying cymbal line), the lyrics are unremarkable love-song clichés. Would-be protégée Poet 99 is sampled, as she is throughout these three CDs, there's a rather unpleasant rap-style interlude, and the instrumentation is unremarkable. More than everything else, what stands out here is the fact that the song was created without any discernible sense of inspiration: it's merely product, crafted out of a need to fill a CD. Which is odd since, as I understand it, it was one of the first tracks created for Emancipation. Why, then, does it feel like filler?
Somebody's Somebody: keep (track four)
A synthesised sitar, a high-pitched airy synth doubling the melody line, an unchanging and unchallenging drumbeat, layers of overdubbed backup vocals that come and go as fits the words being sung, and a vocal performance that ranges from breathy wisp to full-throated screech and from low growl to bell-like falsetto, a vague promise of monogamous commitment built around familiar-sounding reassuring platitudes: there is a reason Prince's slow jams divide his audience so much, and that is the fact that they all adhere so closely to a single template. So the question then is whether or not you like the template. For me, it depends a lot on the strength of the vocal melody. 'Somebody's Somebody' has all the parts done as expertly and professionally as always; does it move the spirit? My answer is 'yes', enough to merit inclusion anyway. It's a song you can walk away humming from, and that counts for a lot.
Emancipation wasn't released on vinyl. It did see a limited release on cassette, but it was definitely created for the CD medium. So I'm not too worried about breaking my disc into a coherent 'side one' and 'side two', though the first six and last six songs are roughly half an hour each. This track is my track four, a slowing down of the tempo after three crowd-friendly tracks back to back.
Get Yo Groove On: lose
Among the many party jams scattered across these three discs, which tend to avoid approaching either extreme of 'embarrassing' or 'impressive', this is one of the better ones. It still rides a slightly plastic groove, but the instrumentation intrigues, and Prince's falsetto vocals saunter by in an unhurried way. I thought long and hard about including it, but there's just too much in the way of silliness - all kinds of spoken interjections poorly acted as if they were taken directly from a club somewhere. Like most of the party jams, it outwears its welcome (six and a half minutes) and by the end, whatever pleasures it once had have longs since passed.
Courtin' Time: lose
Probably the single worst original across these three tracks is this tacky little jump-band tribute. Horridly retro both in musical genre and in lyrics, this is a cheesy little attempt to gee things up in a 1940s style. I have no problem with artists reaching outside their established styles, but it seems that genre should be dictated by the composition itself, whereas one imagines Prince sat down in this particular case saying, 'time to write a 1940s jive tune'. And then the question is: why? Little on these three discs is embarrassing. But this is, and it's tough to imagine anyone getting enjoyment out of listening to it.
Betcha By Golly Wow!: lose
The criticism at time regarding the inclusion of four covers on Emancipation was that they were space-fillers included as a step toward the mammoth task of making 180 minutes of music to schedule. The spin, from Prince's camp, was that he had always wanted to put covers on his albums but had been dissuaded from doing so by Warners themselves. I believe neither: all four of the songs Prince covers here are compositions owned by Warners' publishing arm, something unlikely to be an oversight on the part of an artist then so keen to be rid of ties to the Warner Brothers empire. The fact that this, and not one of the 32 originals on the album, was chosen as a single also points in the direction of contract-terminating negotiations. I've yet to hear a shred of corroborating evidence, but I remain convinced that this song is here for legal and not artistic reasons. Which is not to say it's valueless: like two of the three other covers, it's a hell of a composition, and Prince renders it faithfully, with a stunningly beautiful falsetto and a rather silly spoken section, it takes the 'Most Beautiful Girl in the World' template and applies it to a nostalgic throwback to his 1970s teenage years. But it doesn't outdo the original in any significant way, and its mere competence is not enough to justify its inclusion.
We Gets Up: lose
'We Gets Up' is another in the long list of ultimately meaningless 'party jams' scattered throughout these three discs, and it is most noticeably distinguished from its brethren by a rather 'harder' tone; there is not much out-and-out funk on these three CDs, but this is a welcome exception. Well, partly welcome; it features a pretty amazing horn line and a decent overall groove, but it also features unpleasantly weird electronic noises and screeching vocals. These quirks would be excusable if stuck onto a song of merit, but ultimately this song's overall emptiness forces us to concentrate too heavily on what's unpleasant about it.
White Mansion: keep (track seven)
Prince's very public dispute with Warner Brothers rang hollow for a lot of his fans, struggling with their daily lives, as it seemed very much as if the contract he bemoaned had in fact provided him with something approaching most people's wildest dreams. Perhaps acknowledging this, Prince puts together here perhaps his single most autobiographical piece. Well, the Prince Rogers Nelson story as he tells it is more than a little different from the way his biographies tell it (though the tale of a lost little boy from Minnesota on the streets of cruel New York armed with nothing but his guitar is redolent of a certain other auteur's story), but it's intriguing that he felt the need to say anything, really. The one thing that most certainly is true, though, is that he really did long for that big white mansion, so much so that he worked his ass to the ground across the 1980s in order to build it. The price he had to pay for it must, for many years, have seemed worth it. Most assuredly he felt that, with Emancipation, he was on his way toward re-earning that mansion on his own terms. And when he proved unable to shift the necessary units outside of that draconian Warners contract, he resigned to that mansion of his in Chanhassen, boarded up the windows, and never again released a track as honest, personal and human as this one - a pop/rock strut with a sturdy melody on an unremarkable backdrop, save for the most prominent clavinet ever heard outside of the funk genre.
Prince juxtaposes genres on these disc, and so do I. This is my track seven - first song of the 'second half' but the second of two rockish tracks in a row. Lyrically, meanwhile, it's the first of two to discuss the trials and tribulations of Prince the rock star.
Damned if I Do: lose
A few years hence from this commercial disappointment, Prince would tack his logo onto the cover of an album called Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, an album crafted by Arista Records to follow temporary labelmate Carlos Santana into the commercial stratosphere. It was a largely unpleasant effort overfilled with songs like this one, songs modelled in a way on Santana's, with double-tracked lead guitars mixed too loudly above relentless trap drumming, angular 'Latin' piano and a tick-tock 'earworm' melody doubtlessly intended to work well on commercial radio. Like that subsequent stiff of an album, radio failed to fall for these charms, likely because you can sniff out Prince's insincerity a mile away.
I Can't Make U Love Me: lose
Cover number two of four is, intriguingly enough, of a Bonnie Raitt song merely five years old at the time of this release. It's no stretch to imagine the teenage Prince playing air guitar to the Delfonics, but Raitt doesn't really seem like his thing. Still, though, the little man surprises. Though not here - this uses the same sonic format as 'Somebody's Somebody', more or less, slowed down to a crawl. The only real musical addition is a smoky saxophone, an instrument I don't usually enjoy but can appreciate here. While it seems rude to call it 'hackwork', I'm not sure what else you could call it. The thing is, though, despite its inordinate length, it's quite compulsively listenable, a rare treat in fact. But that's not down to Prince at all: it's entirely thanks to the peerless work of Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, who have composed a song nothing short of perfect. Still, no reason I can think of to listen to Prince singing it over any one else.
Mr. Happy: lose
Prince's attitude toward rap was a lengthy work-in-progress, starting as it did with downright hostility. It wasn't until he recognised his flagging commercial fortunes in urban markets that Prince began to seriously address the issue. Sadly, however, his first experiments in the rap genre, most notable 'Jughead' from Diamonds and Pearls, were rather embarrassingly weak, built from the Fresh Prince mould of overenthusiastic 'pop-rap'. His first rapper, Tony M, grew as a talent, but given how weak his early efforts were, an impressive amount of growth was still only enough to reach the 'mediocre' level. The good news here is that on Emancipation Prince has for the first time employed a fairly decent rapper, the obscure Scrap D. The bad new as regards this particular track, though, is that he still seems to have no idea what to do with him, cramming him in the second half of this anonymous and tuneless 'party jam'. 'Turn off that weak jam', Prince advises at the beginning of this track. And for once, it's best to heed him.
In This Bed I Scream: keep (track six)
The era of Prince's history most cherished by critics is largely the one when he worked closely with Revolution bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Like pretty much every relationship Prince has ever entered into, either romantic or creative, that eventually went tits-up, but not before leaving behind a body of work that stuns all these years later: formal breakthroughs everywhere you look, a constant envelope-pushing that heralded some of the most satisfyingly experimental 'commercial pop' music of the 1980s. So it's entirely appropriate that in lamenting his estrangement from these two talented muses, Prince squeezes out disc one's single most jaw-dropping moment, an amazingly creative piece that produces an entirely new and entirely natural-sounding 'vibe' from wildly disparate musical components; a song that belongs to no known genre except 'Prince music'. Amid all the 'capable' pieces on these three CDs, it's great to be able to point out a track as nothing more that pure, unbridled 'genius'. These moments were perhaps coming fewer and further between by the mid 90s, but they still arrived with a frequency enough to keep fans going. This is, simply put, amazing work. I could listen a hundred times back-to-back and not get bored.
This finished the first of his three discs, and if my album had 'sides', it'd finish the first of those - as my track six. As it features a slightly extended segue at the end, it even feels like a side finisher. It's also, I should note, one of four tracks from disc one to make my final cut. In the serendipity of my final tracklist, it turns out that I chose exactly four tracks from each of the three discs.
Sex in the Summer: lose
The most obvious 'theme' to be found in Prince's sometimes-arbitrary programming of these thirty-six songs is that of Prince's new marriage to Mayté and their soon-to-be-born son: disc two is practically a 'song cycle'`to his nascent family. The tragedy that befell his sole attempt at family-building makes it tough to listen to this disc merely to swoon at Prince's romantic side, and his unguardedly happy side. Still, as a rare attempt at autobiography, it certainly intrigues. And it explains why the disc itself starts with the sound of his unborn son's heartbeat, recorded on ultrasound. That such a noise accompanies a song called 'Sex in the Summer' might make some uncomfortable, but the fact that much of the lyrics are actually given over to discussing his band indicates that the whole piece is merely a testament to just how happy he happens to be. It's truly disarming to consider just how audible that joy is in his voice, so much so that you're willing to overlook the fact that this easy-going song is, once again, not really up to much. It's so light in tone it's practically candyfloss. Pleasant, but merely pleasant. And it goes on too long, with an extended instrumental jam to no real end.
One Kiss at a Time: lose
When it comes to slow jams, the line between genuinely sexy and laughably hokey ought to be black-and-white, but in practice it's far from it. Prince has wrought masterpieces from the genre - never one that comes naturally to me as a fan - but he's also produced plastic libido-killers, and this icky little piece is definitely one of them. This is about as sexy to me as a Michael Bolton song with special guest performance by Kenny G.
Soul Sanctuary: keep (track nine)
Now this on the other hand... this isn't quite a slow jam; it doesn't follow the mould quite so exactingly. The music doesn't seem all that promising, a bed of synthetic percussion and a few reedy keyboard parts on top. It's a vaguely lounge-bar take on exotica that could have been in poor taste but is carried out with such precision and care that Prince pulls it off. And in any case, instrumentation is in service of a tune, and this song has that: the slow, lazy melody is beguiling, and the song is well-structured. Prince's falsetto is warm and not especially over-the-top, and the whole thing is understated and lovely. So much more enjoyable than what precedes it.
My tracklist goes approximately 'fast-slow-fast-slow'. The second slow segment is lengthy, and I start it with this one, my track nine, the first of three consecutive songs from disc two.
'Emale' is one of two songs on these discs to feature commentary on the internet's capacity to aid communication, 'future-thought' so ham-fisted and clunky as to embarrass nearly two decades later. Of the two, this is the more interesting one, an intriguing construction of synthesised marimbas and synthesised horns which constructs a nicely off-centre chorus out of a fictional url. But that's not much to hang a hat on, really.
Curious Child: keep (track five)
After the unpleasant fakeries of 'Courtin' Time', this particular track ought to offend my sensibilities as well, a self-conscious attempt to compose a 'baroque' piece with snare drum rolls, a kind of harpsichord, and a thoroughly genteel preciousness about it. And yet, god damn it, somehow this bastard of a track wins me over. I can't really pin down why, except to say that the song does achieve a real grace and beauty that belies its obviously contrived creation. It requires a real suspension of disbelief not to roll your eyes and sneer while listening, but if you can pull it off, the reward is a tiny little piece of fragile beauty that (praise the Lord!) does not outstay its welcome.
I put this as my track five, after the slower but sleeker 'Somebody's Somebody'. It kind of introduces an 'experimental' segment of the disc. It's the shortest track on my single-length CD.
Dreamin' About U: lose
Well, 'Curious Child' can't be said not to outstay its welcome if you consider this particular track to be the 'second half' of its seamlessly segued predecessor. For this, a minute longer than 'Curious Child' but still brief by the standards of this disc, wears out its welcome long before its conclusion. With spoken verses of a rather preposterous 'weight' between a rather unspectacular sung chorus, this song features no forward momentum whatsoever. A saxophone does what it can, but nothing can put a park of life into this yawn-inducing filler.
Joint 2 Joint: lose
On an album filled with songs that outstay their welcome and jams of precious little consequence, "Joint 2 Joint" is probably the worst offender on both counts. The track isn't even that bad exactly, but it's not a song at all; it's in fact a collection of Prince's many half-baked ideas, stitched together in a collage that rolls from spoken-word poetry to tap-dancing, from popping bass interludes to random breakfast-cereal shoutouts. Devoid of purpose or cohesion, this parade continues for fully eight minutes (almost a third of Prince's whole Dirty Mind album) and doesn't even end when the music does, carrying on for a full minute of Prince acting out one side of a telephone conversation. Ultimately, the whole thing grates on the nerves and is worth far less than the sum of its parts - and many of its parts aren't worth a whole lot themselves.
The Holy River: keep (track eleven)
The seven-minute running time of this song and the explosive guitar solo that appears toward the end have led dozens of lazy critics to label this, arguably the three-hour album's centrepiece, a new 'Purple Rain' - but I don't get that at all; this particular piece strikes an emotional nerve entirely distinct from that earlier piece, and arguably unlike anything else in Prince's entire recorded output. For one, the enigmatic and unabashedly 'poetic' lyrics are front-and-centre in a way they rarely are with Prince songs. And they are jaw-dropping. People struggle to describe Prince as a lyricist of note, but his wordplay and imagery here ranks with the best. The mystical journey of spiritual awakening here is perhaps most evocative not of 'Purple Rain' but of Lovesexy centrepiece 'Anna Stesia', though with none of that earlier track's intriguing strangeness. The mood here is one of joyous release, one of hard-earned experience leading to a kind of contented wisdom, and as a result the guitar solo paints an entirely different picture, emotionally, than 'Purple Rain', the title track of his commercial peak. And the song also ends with a highly-structured peek forward to Prince's final religious statement, The Rainbow Children. All told, 'The Holy River' is not merely this three-disc set's single best track but is also one of Prince's greatest moments in his three and a half decades as a professional musician. To anyone who would claim that Prince 'lost it' once he changed his name and left WB, I would play this song: irrefutable proof that Prince had lost nothing by 1994.
The sequencing of Prince's second disc is ambitious, to say the least, and it results in the odd fact of this obvious show-stopper being stuck somewhere in the middle of the disc. I think it deserves a more prominent placing, though it's not my final track either. Instead, it's my second-to-last, track 11.
Let's Have a Baby: lose
Okay, the good news first: featuring nothing but a piano, Rhonda Smith's evocative fretless bass, Prince's flawless falsetto, and an evocative use of silence, this song sounds gorgeous, building its own mood with its chromatic runs and slow-moving melody. But the thing is those lyrics... I've often wondered if the extreme 'traditional' conservatism on display on this album regarding love, marriage and childbirth is reflective of Prince's own views or an attempt to put Mayté's views to music (since this material was, after all, composed for her). The former seems at least as likely as the latter, but either way the awkward and clunky lyrics, impossible to relate to, do much to shatter the spell the beautiful musical backdrop has cast.
Saviour: keep (track ten)
Disc two has one of the slowest average BPMs of any CD of music Prince has ever released, but it's not quite a snoozer: this is also a ballad, moving at a tempo one could theoretically slow-dance to. But this unusual and frankly strange song breaks that template by being quite ridiculously dramatic. The lyrics, a series of expressions of commitment, are quite well-written even as they remain entirely within the realm of cliché. The vocal melody is engaging and well-sung. But what ultimately matters in listening to this song is how over-the-top the whole thing is, UV meters regularly pushed well into the red, a sense of 'hugeness' imparted by the massive instrumentation and the dramatic vocals. Suspend your disbelief, and this is a pretty awesome creation.
I put this as track 10, right before 'The Holy River', two epics in a row. Poor idea? Well, it would be if it weren't for the fact that the two tracks are so radically different in tone and feel from one another. And as is, it's just a two-song 'ambitious' segment toward the end of the disc.
The Plan: lose
As Prince was busy recording new music at an insane speed in the early 90s, and as he finally had the ability to put out as much as he wanted, he decided it would be a good idea to release a 'ballet', or rather 40 minutes of new-agey instrumental music dedicated to Mayté and entitled Kamasutra. Apparently it was played at their wedding. Or perhaps it was intended to be performed on stage. I don't really recall correctly and I can't be bothered to check. For our purposes, this difficult-to-listen-to curio is significant only in that Price chose to stick 100 seconds of it on Emancipation as an obvious space-filler in the middle of the 'I love my wife' segment of the album. Completely forgettable.
Friend, Lover, Sister. Mother/Wife: lose
Prince loved the 'Saviour' template so much that he produced a second song following it pretty much to the letter, except for being two minutes longer and for having lyrics that are rather a step more preposterous (I slept around a lot when I was younger so that I wouldn't have to now that I'm married to you). Rather ridiculously, the two identikit tracks are sequenced back-to-back (save the new age diversion), and distinctly diminished returns ensue.
The third disc is meant to be the 'dance-oriented disc'. Truth be told, it's as wide-ranging as the other two, and at times indistinguishable. But it is true that live instrumentation takes a back seat to electronically-produced beats on this disc, and the opening track 'Slave' is a perfect example. A 'single' or sorts, released fully a year before Emancipation, it is lyrically yet another bitch at the difficulties of being signed to a major record label. It's a decent groove, deep and yet unhurried, but the song itself isn't up to a whole lot. Masses of overdubbed Princes, falsetto squeals... hard to avoid the feeling that Prince can do songs exactly like this in his sleep. No doubt he can, and perhaps even does.
New World: keep (track one)
The tempo, and the digital thump, picks up a notch with this, the 'follow-up' to 'Slave' (not only does it follow it on the disc but it was originally the b-side to the 'Slave' single). I'd say the lyrics are perhaps bout the post-Slave 'emancipated' era of his life... but instead they're barely-comprehensible nonsense about, er, pills and paranoia. Like 'Emale' (though perhaps unintentionally), the chorus is a website address: Prince's first real online home 'love4oneanother'. Feels like a long time ago now, that website. In any case, the whole song is a lot more memorable than either the one that precedes it or the one that follows it: Prince is arguably at his most compelling best when singing quasi-apocalyptic nonsense that he probably doesn't even understand any better than his audience.
When I had initially decided not to include 'Jam of the Year', I seized on this track's beat and futuristic theme as an attention-grabbing way to start the album (it's title didn't hurt either). Ultimately, I did include the 3CD set's opener, but by then I was so married to the idea of this track being my track one that I didn't want to change it. And in that position it remains.
The Human Body: lose
The most obviously 'trendy' of the harder dance tunes that start off disc three, 'The Human Body' uses a very electronic 'techno' thump as its primary instrumentation - well, that and a series of sniffs and grunts presumably created by the titular human body - or 'bottay', as Prince once again insists on pronouncing it. I don't really get the sense that Prince has ever really 'understood' electronic dance music; he's tried it out on numerous occasions, as he is wont to do, but the results have never been overly impressive. This is competent - it doesn't embarrass - but it's envelope-pushing that doesn't come naturally to him.
Face Down: keep (track eight)
This, on the other hand, is the kind of genre experiment Prince was born to make. 'Face Down' is often described as 'rap', but it's really nothing of the sort: it's, if anything, a form of 'toasting', as Prince's prominent lead vocals do follow a kind of melody. The bravado is common to both rap and toasting, though - and it's the bravado we're listening for here. Prince is cocky and annoying, potty-mouthed as he decries Warner Brothers for the millionth time on this album (Warners rejected the idea of Prince singing a song about a 'black child going buck-wild'? Isn't that exactly what they wanted Prince to do?), and while I actually enjoy the grumbling this time out, even if you don't there's still much to like here: a deep strut of a beat, a bassline so low it's barely audible, ominous strings, and a quirky return of Poet 99 (sampled from my favourite of her unreleased songs) repeatedly saying, 'dead like Elvis', which Mr Symbol at the time was claiming Prince was. The only thing, apart from its premature fade, that disappoints here is a cheesy synthetic 'horn' break. Otherwise, this is funky arrogance at its best.
This tune could have gone almost anywhere on the disc. I chose to make it track 8 so that it could be the 'after' picture to the 'before' of 'White Mansion'. I don't sympathise with Prince's plight, but I ought to at least give it consideration, seeing how important it was to him at the time.
La, La, La Means I Love U: lose
There is not a single thing I can say regarding this song that doesn't also apply to 'Betcha By Golly Wow!', both good and bad. Read that paragraph again, and substitute it here.
Style: keep (track three)
When the horns, the wah-wah and the timbales show up here, it's probably just as studio-crafted as the five songs preceding this particular track, but it seems like a welcome return to a more 'organic' groove. This particular midtempo loping groove carries on for almost seven minutes in service of a single lyrical conceit: defining the word 'style'. As far as that is concerned, Prince's endless talk-sung pronouncements on the meaning of style are at times hopelessly off-the-mark (whatever 'style' might be, it's doubtful that the definition includes owning a basketball court or giving a cab driver the finger). Yet musically, he and his band conjure up a definition of 'style' much more accurate than any of the lyrics, and that's what matters: this is a thoroughly enjoyable 'NPG' band-driven groove, good fun and yet unlike the other 'party jams' on Emancipation somewhere short of entirely meaningless in mood.
'Style' is probably the most surprising inclusion of mine: if you asked a thousand Prince fans to compile a single-disc Emancipation, I doubt many would go for it. Its lazy groove makes it a kin to 'Jam of the Year', so I put it right after that one, as my track three.
Sleep Around: lose
Way to follow up a seven-minute party jam with an eight-minute party jam... especially one that has the same musical components (brass punctuation, bouncy bassline, wah-wah) but much less interesting lyrics. The words here attempt to explain how to keep a girlfriend from doing the titular act. But really whatever merit this track has, it's mostly musical - it gets more enjoyable once Prince stops singing and the guitar and the brass keep talking. Still, the song just doesn't know when to quit, and keeping about three minutes of musical content going for two-and-a-half-times that length just becomes grating before too long.
Da, Da, Da: lose
Rather unexpectedly, this poorly-named track is a rap song, performed by an unknown named Scrap D and with Prince reduced to the role of singing the wordless melody that forms the chorus (not quite - he also sings a final verse). The reason why I don't include it is, of course, that it's more of a Scrap D song than a Prince one, out of place on Emancipation. But it's not bad at all: Scrap D has a decent flow and the moody church-bell backdrop Prince cooks up suggests he might have had a lucrative side-career as a hip-hop producer. Prince has had a love-hate relationship with rap down the years, and his instincts for the genre have been at times, to use the terminology, wack. So it's a pleasant surprise to hear him pulling it off with more than a little aplomb.
My Computer: lose
The second song here about the internet, this is a rather limp little MOR 'ditty' that brings Kate Bush on board to no real avail (you wouldn't know she was there if it weren't for the liner notes) and praises the ability of chat rooms to help people overcome isolation and a general malaise. Ironic, I suppose, as the song seems to be borne out of a certain malaise, as the generally high-quality third disc gets seriously derailed as it enters its final third.
One of Us: lose
The fourth and final cover across these four discs is by far the worst. Joan Osborne's original has never been a favourite of mine, but here Prince does little more than run through the words (famously changing 'slob' to 'slave', a horizontal move in terms of tackiness) over the musical backing of an entirely different song of his, the absolutely gorgeous 'Love, Thy Will Be Done'. Would that that song were here instead of this, the album's low point.
The Love We Make: keep (track twelve)
Very much in the mould of 'The Cross' from Sign o' the Times, this is a slow-building lighters-aloft stadium ballad. Just like its predecessor, its lyrics fall strictly in the 'vaguely religious gobbledygook' category and at times are an unfortunate embarrassment. The instrumentation is a bit new-agey and keyboard-heavy, and the melody is predictable. And yet, and yet... somehow this manages to be an album highlight, and I think it's because the whole thing is pitch-perfect: it hits the emotional chords it's aiming for perfectly, and it lingers on the mind after the song has faded out. 'She Gave Her Angels', an Emancipation outtake that Prince somehow wound up singing on the Muppets, is also very much in this vein. Both of them are equally excellent, really.
I don't include Prince's actual album-closer (and title track). So this is the last track on Emancipation that I include. And it's definitely a credit-roller, so I let it finish my album, after climax 'The Holy River', as my track 12.
The vast majority of Prince's albums have title tracks, and in most cases the title track is an album highlight. One is conditioned to expect that the song that bears the same title as the project will in some way 'sum it up'. 'Emancipation' somehow falls short of that mark, and it's not easy to suss out exactly why - the oceans of clavinet, on-the-one groove and hard-hitting falsetto all suggest a track that ought to me a monster of a funk groove - but somehow this song never quite catches fire. In some ways it points forward to 'Musicology' and other 21st century Prince funk tunes, in that somehow they strike me as a bit artificial and toothless. Perhaps it's the position of this track, three hours later, after a pretty difficult ending, when people might well have tuned out... but even in isolation, 'Emancipation' sounds like a track that's struggling to be an era-defining great but somehow falling terribly short of the goal. Well, in that regard, maybe it does 'sum up' this three-disc 'epic' in a way Prince doubtlessly never intended.