Pity us poor, loyal Prince fans, the ones who kept our hands raised and swaying long after the credits rolled on "Purple Rain." We have endured the "Raspberry Beret" pixie haircut, the "Lovesexy" album cover, the "SLAVE" facial scrawl and -- let me take a breath here -- the rapping. We've endured it all and, like a persecuted Apollonia, we come back for more.
We come back for the only thing Prince (oh, all right, the Artist) ever wanted us to hear: the music. Lately, though, his stock-in-trade has been less than a sure investment. Solid, filler-free albums have become rare commodities. "Emancipation" (1996) was a welcome exception. But since then, the fare has been more along the lines of "The Vault: Old Friends for Sale," much of which should have stayed locked up at the old Warner Bros. plantation. Even the title track, which was an achingly sad, spare tune off an old bootleg, is transmogrified on "The Vault" into an overwrought shell with weakened lyrics.
After contractual disputes with Warner Bros. and a failed attempt at releasing his own albums, the Artist is supposedly re-recording his entire song catalog so that he will own his master tapes. In the meantime, he has deigned to let Arista distribute his latest effort, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic."
An announcement made by Arista several months ago had us weary Artist consumers braced for another blow. It said that, like the No. 1 Santana comeback record with Lauryn Hill and other hot, younger artists, the Artist disc would feature collaborations with commercially viable stars like Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani and Chuck D. We winced. Sheryl Crow? Gwen Stefani? What were these peanuts doing in our chocolate?
Imagine the sighs of relief when Arista CEO Clive Davis previewed the album for an eager group of media types last month in New York. "Rave" was not ill-conceived, heavy-handed or clunky. It was good. The Artist tempers Stefani and Crow into Wendy & Lisa substitutes. DiFranco plays the guitar on a quiet, pretty ballad called "I Love U But I Don't Trust U Anymore." Chuck D. does his thing without interference.
The album's first single, "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," is an easy-tempo ballad along the lines of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," featuring the Artist's knack for combining pretty melody with staccato rhythm. The rest of the album travels from ballad to box-blaster and back, blending influences from hip-hop to trance without straining.
A couple of tracks veer a little too far into "Dawson's Creek"/John Hughes territory. The Stefani track, for example, "So Far So Pleased," is the type of song you can imagine playing as the camera pans across a bustling high school exterior. Other songs revisit the funk roots the Artist is so fond of: "Hot With U" is a Funkadelic-style grinder with Ruff Ryder's rapper Eve guesting; "Pretty Man" recruits master horn blower Maceo Parker for a free-form jam. Other notables include "The Sun, the Moon and the Stars," a contemplative song with "Parade"-era strings that the Artist wrote after a happy dinner in Spain with bassist Larry Graham and their wives, and "Undisputed," the Chuck D. track.
We've probably heard the last of the Artist's truly gritty work, like the stuff long ago on "Dirty Mind" and "1999," but this album at least finds him more in control of his impulses (i.e. his synthesizer). He is also in top vocal form, particularly on the title track. Unless the Artist decides to appear au naturel in the first video, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" is something a weathered Prince fan can bring up to the register without any qualms.