Welcome 2 America (NPG/Sony)
This was going to start with a line that we should try to set aside for the moment the ever-unresolved issue of whether posthumous releases are ethically or morally justifiable – while still alive the man didn’t want them released; why do we assume he had different plans when not around to stop it?
However, it’s not really possible to totally separate how people react to this new album of unreleased material from Prince’s “vault” from the imperative to exhume it in the first place.
That is, how eager you are to hear everything the spectacularly prolific and so often brilliant Minnesotan produced, will have some bearing on how you judge the music herein. This is especially relevant is you’re someone who starts from the basis that this was a genius who just kept producing greatness, and you want more.
And, to be fair, issues you may have with the concept of family and record labels - two entities not generally known for putting aside commercial gain out of respect for a now-dead artist - raiding the lost ark, emptying it of its treasures, before tricksing up highly dodgy “new” product, may well colour your attitude.
Two words for you: Elvis Presley. Four more words: Ronnie James Dio hologram.
This latest from the seemingly huge stash of unreleased material Prince Rogers Nelson kept at his Minneapolis studio seems to have been intended as a complete album in 2010, which makes it different from the bits and pieces compilations the Prince estate has released since his death in 2016.
Already it has been described as a lost gem, an album that speaks to the times, a return to form, (if it had been released in 2010) a prescient missive, a throwback to the music that formed him.
There’s truth in there. Lyrically, Welcome 2 America takes a sceptical and sometimes quite jaundiced view of race relations, class consciousness, corporate morality and the capacity of this nation to affect real change. Written and recorded in the first years of the Obama presidency but not out of place in the first year after the Trump presidency, it is not filled with the audacity of hope and “yes we can”, but a somewhat embittered realisation that the forces aligned against progress were literally and figuratively armed, usually still in control, and highly dangerous.
It’s worth noting here that Prince was not necessarily known for assaying complex solutions to diabolically difficult situations, preferring observation and expression: Ronnie Talk To Russia was at one end of his range; Sign O’ The Times at the other; and the word Slave written on his face during dispute with his label may be sitting in between.
Consequently, in these songs he focuses more on the facts and simple truths of worker/artist exploitation in Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master), opens with the title track’s observation of how the moneyed will usually fail up and the gullible will sell their souls to match them, and describes a life ill-fated and misjudged in Born 2 Die. In there too he lightly mocks the someday/somewhere/next year in Jerusalem thoughts and prayers of those who prefer to dream than fight now, in 1000 Light Years From Here.
Religious demarcations get a visit in Same Page, Different Book, there is a cryptic 1010 (Rin Tin Tin) that may or may not be about being an analogue person in a digital world, and the album closes with One Day We Will All B Free’s scepticism about the idea that praying, working hard, and believing in betterment will be rewarded on this earth.
Don’t worry though, there is some measured hedonism and pleasure, some humour even, elsewhere. Principally this comes in the second half, where pop and its intersection with funk and soul, in the style of Sly and the Family Stone, come to dominate. Take for example the fun to be had in the exuberant reimagining of Sly’s Dance To The Music in the short, snappy (if not all that filling) Yes.
However, this is where reality begins to intrude on the rosy glow. Welcome 2 America is at its most interesting in the first half of the album, where Prince leans into moody variations of funk.
Here, the title track has a chilled glide of bass and keyboards that balances, or counteracts if you wish, the rich female backing vocals and bursts of wah-wah guitar, and through it all Prince’s low talking recitation grounds everything.
Things slow down like a back-in-the-day Snoop party (or these days, a Snoop delivery app ad) in Running Game, which feels like it should be heard while you’re stretched out on the faux-leather lounge, and then the album gets progressively more sensual, sliding up into thinking-and-moving Curtis Mayfield in Born 2 Die before shedding extra layers of clothing while adding layers of jazz groove in the vibrant 1000 Light Years From Here.
After this, things are more minor hit and ordinary miss. Hot Summer and Check The Record put a bit of guitar grunt into zesty but hardly memorable party tunes that his New Power Generation band would have done in their sleep, and while One Day We Will All B Free pushes some Hi Records church-shimmy forward, and Same Page, Different Book swaps grunt for high-plucked bass and snap-shut drums, neither ever suggest the world was appreciably poorer for not hearing them.
There’s more to be said for the one out and out ballad, When She Comes, which isn’t genius but still finds the right delicious mix of trembling need and confident seduction, and to a lesser extent, 1010 (Rin Tin Tin), a song whose demeanour rises and falls like a mood ring being passed around a party late one night.
However, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a record that drifts away, that doesn’t catch fire, maybe providing a good reason why Welcome 2 America remained in the vault: the suggestion that he’d been here before and had done it better then.