HITNRUN Phase One is Prince’s third album in under a year, following in the trail of last September’s ART OFFICIAL AGE and the hard rock 3rdEyeGirl collaboration PLECTRUMELECTRUM. That marks a milestone that few musicians (much less ones over the age of 50 with millions of dollars to their name) ever achieve. Then again, Prince has always strayed from convention, and the mania of his music, however intricate, has always suggested the now 57-year-old could pump out an album at any point. “I come from North Minny and I never run from any/ And I ain’t about to stop right now,” he sings about his Minneapolis beginnings and subsequent endurance on this album’s Rita Ora assist, “Ain’t About to Stop”. While there are those who say he hasn’t released a truly great album since Sign ‘o’ the Times in 1987, Prince himself must think he’s at a creative peak these days. Is he right?
Phase One, a TIDAL exclusive, packs a lot of ideas into its 38 minutes, and more of them than you might guess are the thinking of co-producer Joshua Welton, who returns following his work on ART OFFICIAL AGE. Opening song “Million $ Show” features Judith Hill (who you may know from her work with Michael Jackson or her performance of “Heal the World” at his memorial service, her role in 20 Feet from Stardom, or her Prince-produced album Back in Time) and begins with a clipped version of the “Dearly beloved…” intro that kicked off “Let’s Go Crazy” 31 years ago, proceeding in a flurry of modern pop, big band, and even opera stylings. It serves as a mission statement for the album, not because it’s one of the best songs here (it isn’t), but because its confident strut functions as an introduction to Prince’s current musical world of complete freedom. Later, the synth-rippling, pitch-shifting “Ain’t About to Stop” has a frenetic bridge and another significant switch-up at the outro. None of this is to mention the arcing guitar solos on “This Could B Us”, “HARDROCKLOVER”, and “Mr. Nelson” or the vocal freakouts on “HARDROCKLOVER” and “1000 X’S & 0’S”.
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While some of that experimentation and ornamentation is thrilling, some is unneeded. Phase One works better when excess is lopped off. “Like a Mack”, complete with a smoldering horn-splat of a bridge and rapping from Los Angeles-via-Florida duo Curly Fryz and Prince himself, is like “Million $ Show” in its constant motion, but it still manages to stand up straight. “This Could B Us”, a rework of the ART OFFICIAL AGE R&B ballad of the same name, is a piano-tapping, gravity-defying song that sounds like a utopian FKA twigs composition, glistening and acrobatic. “Fallinlove2nite”, a rework of Prince’s Zooey Deschanel-featuring single from last year, is a glittery, dubstep-influenced explosion that doesn’t need lyrics much more in-depth than the title (“Don’t you wanna fall in love tonight?”) to be one of the most undeniably catchy tributes to the night’s possibilities since Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint anthem “The Night Is Still Young”.
HITNRUN Phase One finds further success when it really strips away unnecessary layers, which doesn’t happen until the last two songs. “1000 X’S & 0’S” is a highlight with little more than light synth wooshes, skeletal drum beats, and relaxed bass lines, Prince’s voice fluttering gracefully as he praises his woman’s work ethic in a way that might have you thinking the song was inspired by Drake if it didn’t date back to 1992. “June”, named for Prince’s birthday month, is next, and it’s another chilled, quiet number with the eternal poise of a smooth Prince vocal as he sings about being born “way too late.” It proves we’re lucky to have him around today.
Hill, Ora, Curly Fryz, and London singer Lianne La Havas (on “HARDROCKLOVER”) are all collaborators young enough to be Prince’s daughters, and they help him get closer to contemporary pop relevance. There are times when he can use it. The Weeknd’s ’80s pop moves couldn’t be more obvious, but it’s a tall task for Prince (who architected some of those sounds practically singlehandedly) to recapture the magic that flowed through his body as a determined teenager and 20-something in the late ‘70s and ’80s. Still, he’s used to bending the shape of popular music to his will, and when it’s not erratically overflowing, HITNRUN Phase One may get you to believe in him as he evidently believes in himself in 2015.
Essential Tracks: “This Could B Us”, “Fallinlove2nite”, and “1000 X’S & 0’S”