Overabundant creativity is both the blessing and bane of Prince Rogers Nelson, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (TAFKAP). Compulsively driven to conjure up endless songs and detailed soundscapes, his talents have led to glorious musical triumph and to years of well-documented strife with his record label Warner Bros. Meanwhile, the record-buying public has been largely absent of late, content to purchase the occasional single and to wax nostalgic over old copies of "Purple Rain." Now free from Warners (and, apparently, any notion of restraint), TAFKAP has brazenly released a colossus; "Emancipation," a three-CD, three-hour, 36-song set.
The sheer size and ambition of the beast may at first make for guarded, skeptical listening. As TAFKAP effortlessly jumps from hip-hop to jitterbug jazz, pure pop, Latin grooves, techno and the usual dance-floor jams, you get the feeling that he'd do anything to endear you back to his purple circle. But after a few spins, "Emancipation" emerges as an eclectic and winning overachiever in the "Sign O' the Times" mold, truly his most inspired work in quite some time.
The highs and lows of "Emancipation" come right out and announce themselves. "The Holy River," a personal reflection on sex, love and God, is the masterpiece; it's a song so powerful and accomplished it makes TAFKAP's straight-ahead cover of Joan Osborne's "One of Us" seem like a Sunday-school ditty. "Joint 2 Joint" is the epic; mega-bass avant funk that's funny, spooky and resolutely experimental. The outright duds are "Style," a crass attempt at a fashion show theme song; and "Emale," which hopefully is the first and last song ever to have a web URL for a chorus.
"Emancipation's" biggest bid for excellence is the entire second disc. Consisting mostly of slow jams, among them "Dreamin' About U," "Let's Have a Baby," and "Saviour," TAFKAP sings of love and devotion to his new wife and child in a breathy falsetto. What could have been a lengthy death-by-sappiness instead becomes one of the Artist's most intimate and finest hours, culminating with one of his strongest ballads ever, "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife."
Forget the "Rain" already, this is a purple deluge of creativity. Rumored to be TAFKAP's last album of new material until the very Princely year of 1999, "Emancipation" is both excessive and essential.