Prince for a day

The Roots and friends party like it's 1982.

By Jon Caramanica

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Listening to Prince's "1999" album today, in the year of supposed Armageddon, it's striking just how ... well ... millennial it sounds. In the early '80s, just as popular music was moving toward its post punk-angst, carefree phase, Prince dared to make troubled funk, deep with lechery and riveting in its profound sadness. To this day, "1999" (originally released in 1982) is unique in its ability to invigorate a dance floor while also being able to tear at the heartstrings -- all the petit mort fatalism of dance music captured on 11 fleshy tracks.

Oddly, when the Roots, a hip-hop outfit from Philadelphia that uses traditional rock instruments, came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music over the weekend to re-create "1999" from top to bottom, they checked their gloom at the door. Rather, the performance approximated a good, old-fashioned revival, with the sold-out crowd often finding itself at its feet, either drawn in by the music or cajoled into standing by an eager slew of guests stars. Unlike Prince's album, it was all overwhelmingly innocent, replacing doom with exultation and sexual anguish with simple lust.

The change was obvious as Joan Osborne stepped to the stage for her rendition of "Little Red Corvette." Decked out in a floor-length crimson gown, a feather boa and heavy makeup, she purred her way through the song with echoes of Ma Rainey and Mae West, yet failed to even capture the energy of her musical accompaniment. Former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Leonard Hubbard (bass) carried the tune powerfully, but their handiwork was only tapestry compared to the thunderous drumwork of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, percussionist extraordinaire of the Roots. His drums were miked to top volume and each crack of the snare seemed to displace Osborne just one notch more. Thompson did the same thing to singer Pierre Andre on "Let's Pretend We're Married," but this time with the bass drum, pounding holes in Andre's far-too-literal interpretation of the song.

Though Thompson shined throughout, certain performers (each of the tracks featured a guest vocalist) rose to the material. Angelique Kidjo, Benin's Afropop diva, cavorted her way through "D.M.S.R.," though she couldn't quite achieve the Artist's vocal perfection. The same could be said of former Living Colour frontman Corey Glover, who took his stab at the sensual "Lady Cab Driver" and then scaled to the balcony, ran around the theater and eventually, five minutes later, returned to the stage, having exhorted the crowd to antiphonal chant all the while.

But Glover, despite his energy, missed the point. Sure, it feels good to cheer, but Prince hurt good, an aesthetic picked up on only by the vocalists on the album's final two tracks. Carl Hancock Rux brought his characteristic disaffected intellectual charm to bear on "All the Critics Love U in New York," while newcomer Bilal Oliver, a Roots crew protigi, nailed the erotic head of "International Lover." Tempering his natural Marvin Gaye style with a splash of Jodeci-worthy histrionics (grinding on the floor, etc.), Bilal captured Prince's ecstatic spirit more capably than his twice-as-old peers. After he snuck offstage, there was visible relief among the crowd; if smoking were permitted, a cloud of nicotine fumes would have no doubt filled the air.

Of course, great sex is never complete without afterglow, and that's just what politically conscious folk singer Toshi Reagon, with her slimmed down reprise of "1999," managed to provide. Reagon's voice is an explosive gift. It was the unexpected, perfect complement to Bilal's aggrandizing carnality, and just the voice to cut through Prince's purple haze and reveal the liberation of a new power generation.

Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

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