Halftime Leisure

Critical Voices: Prince, Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum

October 2, 2014

The summer of 1995 saw an ugly divorce between Prince and Warner Brothers Records, with whom Prince had signed in 1978. While under contract with Warner Brothers, Prince released several classic records, including Purple Rain and Sign O’ the Times, and became one of the world’s biggest stars. Tensions arose between the electric performer and Warner Brothers, with the musical icon at one point writing “slave” across his face in protest of the treatment that he and other artists received from Warner Brothers.

In a homecoming of sorts nearly twenty years later, Prince resigned with Warner Brothers and released not one, but two albums on September 30th. While the two albums, Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum, are each separate projects with unique sounds, when heard together, they cohesively unite to attempt to create a sound which harkens back to the Prince who ruled the 80’s.

Art Official Age thrives in creating the funky, synthy sound which made Prince famous. But here, Prince infuses his typical dancy pop-funk with EDM and hip-hop influences, yet still, for the most part, creates a cohesive, vibrant sound.

On the other hand, PlectrumElectrum serves as a treatise on the Jimi Hendrix-influenced guitar riffs which made tracks like “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry” immortal. The vivid rock sound throughout PlectrumElectrum is largely credited to Prince’s dynamic new backing band, 3rdEyeGirl.  Whereas Art Official Age can be seen as a pop concept album, PlectrumElectrum is strictly rock and roll, a rarity for Prince.

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The contrasting, yet complementary nature of the two albums can best be seen in the track “Funknroll,” which appears on both albums in two very different forms. On PlectrumElectrum, the track opens with a powerful guitar riff, couples it with a smooth baseline and continues to construct a tight funk-rock song, bolstered by Prince’s bursts of emotion, but lacking in any production flair.

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Conversely, on Art Official Age, “Funknroll” opens with the same guitar riff, but quickly cuts away to a funky EDM-inspired beat and continues to create a rhythmic dance track which would feel at home on a Top 40 station. The entire album seems to vacillate between attempting to recreate the slower, more emotional Prince circa Sign O’ the Times and the more vibrant Prince circa 1999. But while tracks like “Breakdown” are emotionally evocative and songs like “The Gold Standard” boast exciting beats, the album as a whole falls short of the impeccably high standard of Prince’s earlier discography.

My biggest criticism with Art Official Age is that, at many times, the album comes off quite evidently as a 56-year-old man foraying into the world of 21st century pop music. Take the album’s first track, “Art Official Cage.” While the track boasts a vibrant beat, often it tries too hard to fit into the musical landscape of 2014. Incorporating a guitar riff seemingly ripped from a Daft Punk song, an interesting but laborious rap verse, and, of course, a DJ airhorn sound effect, the song sticks out as Prince trying to create something he’s not, rather than allowing other musical trends to influence his music.  

And where Art Official Age at times can be trying to do too much, PlectrumElectrum often seems to be missing something. While songs like the first track, “Wow” do just that, with lively melodies and an emphatic chorus, some of the album’s other tracks fall flat. “Tictactoe” aiming to capture the slower, harmonious melodies of some of Prince’s earlier songs, comes off as too simplistic and one-dimensional.

Both Art Official Age and PlectrumElectrum succeed at recreating some of the elements found in Prince’s creative heyday, but are unable to completely capture the magic of Prince’s first several records.

Voice’s Choices: Art Official Age: “Breakfast Can Wait,” “Breakdown”

                             PlectrumElectrum:  “Fixurlifeup,” “Wow”

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