Prince’s “20TEN” … the SPB review

{Sorry for the delay in getting this posted. Life sorta got in the way of blogging last week. Thanks for coming back. Enjoy.}

“My reputation precedes me/Call it a ‘claim to fame…’” ~ Prince, “Beginning Endlessly,” from 20TEN

Did you know that you can actually buy the 80s Prince drum sound? From places like here and here?

To be frank, I miss the creativity of Prince’s use of that rigidly rhythmic drop-kick of the early Linn-drum. There was something comforting in the way it introduced some songs and tricked up the backbeat of others, propping up the funk one minute (like “Kiss”) or rocking hard the next (like “Let’s Go Crazy”). Add the soaring and space-commanding keyboard work, and it was clear that Prince was doing nothing less than re-arranging the way pop/r&b/rock was supposed to sound on the radio and in clubs and concert halls. He’d had the ability to will music into his own distinct sound.

I haven’t played a lot of Prince’s recent music. Unlike him, I guess I was stuck in the past, reveling in the beauty and passion and ground-building of those early days. Sure, he was good for a great tune on some of those records, and as an artist he has every right to move beyond the sounds that made him famous, rich, popular, and my favorite artist. But I often felt as if he was either trying too hard to be relevant or legendary or contrary. I’m sad to say I just didn’t want to pay attention again. Then I heard 20TEN, and it feels odd to say: Only Prince would release his best, most consistent album in a while, for free in a European newspaper.

So this is a very selfish piece of writing. I got what I’ve wanted from Prince for a long time, a blast from the past that manages not to sound like a retread or placeholder. And I like it. So stop reading now, unless you just wanna hear the musings of a lifetime Prince fan who finds himself jamming to supposedly “lesser” Prince like Lovesexy and Batman almost as often as the standard-approved “great” Prince albums—and who prefers his Prince in full-on 80s/Linn-drum/vocal distortion/playtime mode.

Here’s what I’m not going to write about 20TEN: I’m not going to call it the best Prince record since The Gold Experience or The Symbol Album or Lovesexy or Sign ‘O’ the Times.

I’m not going to suggest that Prince has found his form again.

What I am going to write is this: If someone had given me this album to listen to and asked me my opinion of it as a piece of pop music this is what I’d say: Damn, this shit is good: It’s fun, topical, I can dance to the hot songs and might wanna fuck to the slow ones if I had someone to hook up with. I’d say, damn, these are some sturdy-as-fuck, sexy-ass, smart tunes, and gee, that Linn drum-machine sound is a real throwback to some 80s funk-pop that sticks in your mind, to quote one of the songs, “like glue.”

Something else I might say is this: Prince hasn’t sounded like he was having this much fun in years and years. I might say that this album sounds like Prince is finally cool with being Prince, the pop-funk-rock genius who changed the game so many times it’s sorta hard to name many of the players he left dry-heaving on the playing field. What I mean is, he doesn’t seem pre-occupied with declaring his greatness with this record. He seems fine with not changing the world and just being cool with entertaining us—which can all be summed up in one lyric: “From the heart of Minnesota comes the purple Yoda”, which he raps on the hidden track “Laydown.”  I laugh at that line but then I also realize that I can’t really remember the last time I could imagine Prince smiling in the studio as he sang a lyric into the mic (okay, maybe 3121’s “Lolita”?)

My favorite Prince albums—Dirty Mind through to Batman—have always felt like they were recorded in bursts of sonic and thematic inspiration, one song flowing into the next with the same intensity of spirit. This record feels that way, almost orchestral in the way that musical themes recur from track to track, either slowed down for emphasis or enhanced by some exquisite musical detail.  Like those sorts of Prince albums, this one feels organic, un-labored over, not tossed-off exactly but simply in the moment, vibrant with its own swagger, its own raw melodic and rhythmic exhibitionism.

The record feels nostalgic yet contemporary, reaching back to the sounds that made his name yet informed by maturity and life lessons. What this record does do is this: it reminds you that Prince actually came to maturity as the most creatively wily radio-ready star of the early 80s with a sound that was more New Wave-meets-Funk than anything. That percussive thrum of  “Sexuality”? The cool bounce-to-the-ounce coyness of “Private Joy”? Both of those are from 1981’s Controversy, and 20TEN references the pluck and whimsy of that album more than any other Prince album I can think of, though much of this CD reminds me too of “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” from 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, where Prince worked that playful, go-for-baroque pop style to within an inch of its catchy life.

20TEN even has a touch of Prince’s old Utopian Visionary days, when the possibility of war, bombs, political corruption and social discontent threatened his (and our) desire to just dance, fuck and be free.

Track-by-track:

“Compassion”: Starts with a “Horny Toad”-ish blast of keys before a sinewy guitar wraps around the whole rave-up, before it dovetails into a wild pop tune asking listeners to look at the world with clear compassionate eyes—“the start,” Prince sings, “of a brand-new something.”(And does that keyboard riff sound like a big, bad updated and funky take on “It’s Not Unusual”? Tom Jones did cover “Kiss” back in the day!)

“Beginning Endlessly”: My favorite song on 20TEN: a bold mix of majestically martial drums and monumental-sounding 80s “Stand Back”-era keys. By the time the squiggly funk guitar laces the latter third of the track, Prince’s vocals take on a raw quality that feels so direct and honest it feels like the funkiest personal confession you’ve ever been privy to: “Maybe every shooting star is just another start/If you and I could ever open up our dirty hearts.”

“Future Love Song”: In terms of tempo, direction and multi-tracked lover man vocalizing this song is like a sequel to “The Beautiful Ones”—only without the glamorous cynicism. Lyrically, it’s just a straight-ahead seduce-you now love song that has one of the finest guitar parts he’s ever laid down—winding through the song like a lament of love lost and found. Only Prince would record a complete soul-man throwback to the kind of lush jam he invented (or at least perfected) and call it a “Future Soul Song.”

“Sticky Like Glue”: Tight little ditty sung with a clipped attitudinal delivery, driven by a walking bass and plucked guitar licks that’s like “Kiss”-meets-“Alphabet St.” The multi-tracked almost-gospel-ish background harmonies might be the best Prince backgrounds since the Rosie Gaines/Diamonds and Pearls days.

“Act of God”: Topical stuff, full of anger and blistering references to “fat bankers” and “tax dollars” and the politicos who “drop a bomb/supposedly to keep us safe from Saddam.” Tackles religious freedom, homeland security, foreclosures, and the “boogie man” that drives the Culture of Fear we all seem to be living in.

“Lavaux”: “Whatever path I choose will lead me home,” Prince sings here, and presents the funkiest geography/political lesson you’ve ever heard, narrating a tale of obtaining personal freedom referencing Switzerland, Portugal, and, I think, President Barack Obama (but don’t quote me!)

“Walk In Sand”: A shimmering, simple love song, a piano ballad poked through with guitar, light percussion, flute and one of the man’s sweetest falsetto vocals. It’s the romantic, be-together-forever song that mixes right into—

“Sea of Everything”: which is clearly meant to be the “I’m fucking you tonight” track. This is classic Prince-the-seducer mode, like Prince was the Chi-Lites all by himself.

“Everybody Loves Me”: “Ain’t no shame in having a good time,” Prince intones on this track, which seriously sounds like something left off “Controversy” or like one of the great early 80s b-sides: a bouncy, silly joyful romp of a sing-along, like “Jack U Off” or “Horny Toad”. Crackajack lyric: “If you’re the king of hate or the queen of misery/Tonight I love everybody and everybody loves me.”

Laydown” (hidden track): All I’ll say is a lyric of it goes: “Everybody wanna be me.”

Probably the best thing I can say about this record is this: 1983’s “Little Red Corvette” came on my iTunes just after 20TEN ended, and it sounded right, like these new songs could stand up to that classic 4 minutes of brilliance, a then-startling blend of soaring keys, squiggly-then-roaring guitar, metronomic beat and passionate scream-singing. Of course there are few songs (by Prince or anyone else in the pop genius pantheon) that can stand up to “Corvette,” and I’m not saying the songs on 20TEN do. But I will say this: of course Prince has every right to be as deep or ambitious or ground-breaking as he needs to be, but it feels good to hear a Prince pop record that seems to just wanna make you sing along with the choruses and dance the end of the world (or just the workday) away.

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10 Comments

Filed under music, Prince

10 responses to “Prince’s “20TEN” … the SPB review

  1. James

    Brother Scott, I’ve been riding with Prince since the beginning with great guitar tracks like “I’m Yours” off the “For You” along with the beginnings of his great vocal work on “For You” from the same album. (1978) Flash forward to 20Ten… The problem I have with SO-CALLED Prince fans is everybody was heavily influenced by the media of the time back then. MTV, BET, VH1, VIDEO VIBRATIONS, ect… Prince music was accompanied by a video and mass distribution. Look at todays artist and the mediums that they are using to force feed us their garbage. Cell phones, internet, IPhones… Britney Spears, Drake, Lady Gaga and too many more to name, what makes their music relevant or any better than Prince’s music if he was distributed the same? You say that you stopped listening to Prince at one point, do you know why? “Rave” album released 1999… Did you listen to “Sun, Moon and Stars”, “Silly Game” or “Man O War” these to you were terrible songs. “Rainbow Children” 2001 easily some of his best if not BEST instrumentation. That album is beyond consistent, with a solid theme even if you didn’t like the religious overtones. I could keep going Scott because I’m a true fan of Prince and his MUSICAL genius. Some of you are reliving the past, but what you should realize is that Prince has grown up and so have we. He has always been 10 years ahead of his fans and we have not caught up. Maybe it’s just not your time to hear Prince’s new music. Maybe when your in the late 40’s early 50’s you’ll hear this music and say I guess I wasn’t ready back then. You said Prince didn’t seem happy in the studio? Have you heard the amazing work on Lotus Flower? Maybe your just not a fan of guitar Prince, you want the R&B Prince. Everybody has a Prince they like, that’s why he’s KING! Go listen to the albums Scott and ask yourself why his music is bad compared to todays artist. “Incense and Candles” off of “3121” are you gonna tell me that’s not a sexy song? had Usher or Justin done it we would have said it’s a hit, why didn’t you mention it? “Somewhere Here on Earth” off of “Planet Earth”, is one of the best slow songs of the decade of all music in the 2000 era. (my opinion of course) Dee Jay’s don’t play Prince because he’s not connected to the industry like he was. If they did we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    • Yo man. THANKS for your note…I’m glad you wrote it. That’s why i said in my review that it was completely “selfish”…we all have the artist that we love, that we want to hear. And Prince is probably the greatest example of an artist who’s SO unique and special that all the “fans” he has will never completely agree on what the greatest music he produces is, was or will be. My favorite Prince album, based on the one i play more than any other? Lovesexy. I get castigated all the time by people who tell me that’s “lesser” Prince, that he never did anything worthy after “Sign” … As for the songs you mention? “Sun, Moon, and Stars” IS briliant, but that entire album? To me it’s elf-conscious, TOO produced for radio, and full of guest starts unworthy of Prince’s time, energy, and attention. As for”Rainbow Chilldren” I’ve recently re-discovered it, and am actually enjoying it quite a bit. That said, tho? I admit to living in the past in many ways, and the Prince I love is the one most often referenced, in my opinion, all over 20TEN. Let’s just agree to disagree, I guess, but there’s enough Prince love to go around, right? Be cool brotha!

  2. I feel ya!!!!! And I agree with you too… Rave did have too many guess, (EVE, CHUCK D, SHERYL CROW). It was a bit too much and It made it an average album. My favorite Prince album is “Parade” and I understand your love of “LOVESEXY” I saw the concert in 88 and it’s still my favorite concert to date. “Anna Stesia” and “Positivity” are my classics. We’ll talk again on the next Prince joint! Peace and be wild!!

  3. I’m not all the way sold on “20Ten”, but I think it’s easily Prince’s best album since “3121”. It does sound looser and more tossed-off without sounding especially lazy. I’ll agree…he sounds like he’s having a good time. I’m a little over Prince in sanctimonious mode, which is why “Act of God” will compel me to hit my skip button every time it comes up, but a decent Prince album is still reason enough to rejoice.

    As an aside, it took me a Loooooooong time to dig “Lovesexy”, but in retrospect, it’s a very good album.

  4. Alicia

    Dang Scott we are music peeps! Your thoughts on Prince very much like mine, difference is your eloquence. Can’t wait to tap into my European connections to get this!

  5. Seems like just yesterday you made a copy of “Thieves in the Temple” for me up at Set to Run…

  6. muleFunk

    Good review and a good album.
    But Lotusflower was better.

  7. Pingback: popblerd.com » Blog Archive » Critical Mass: What Does Everyone Think of Prince’s “20ten”?

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