As it stands, this is the final major label release from Prince - his Hit & Run albums were released independently. It’s amazing how things came full circle for him by signing back with Warner Brothers- 16 years after he had fallen out with them over a well-publicized feud over the rights to his music. Because of his untimely passing, this can now be viewed as a sense of closure he’d been searching for since he acquired back all the rights to his catalog. To be honest, I was happy to see both the label and Prince mend their differences since his work as an independent artist, while it was met with some degree of success, never quite felt as comfortable as his work with Warner Bros. He did indeed record all of his classic material with the label- there’s no debating that. But I’ve always considered his post-Warner material as being inferior to his classic catalog - since solid songs like “Call My Name” and “Black Sweat” didn’t leave the same lasting impression on his fans that ”Kiss”, “1999” and “When Doves Cry” did. While there were occasional flashes of his brilliance and had a major comeback with Musicology, many fans were kind of hoping for him to revisit that classic feel of his Warner albums. That’s asking a lot because Prince is a pure musician where anything he records at any given moment has to be heartfelt. He may not always be in a “Sign O’ The Times” or “Parade” sort of mood. The beauty of the relationship that Prince fans had with his music is trying to reconcile Prince’s own musical ambitions with their demands as to what they expect from him on an album. But since an artist like Prince had to constantly grow and expand their art, the chances of fans getting another Purple Rain or Sign O’ The Times was slim to none.
Art Official Age is a fascinating project where Prince does have moments of Warner-era nostalgia but in the same token incorporating modern elements into his sound. By returning to his original recording home, Prince seemed to have found a musical balance between His own artistic ambitions and the level of expectations his longtime fans have of him. And with the help of Joshua Welton, Prince created an album that’s clearly rooted in his core sound from the 80’s, but also looking outward as a way of acknowledging how much contemporary music has changed- and embracing it in the process. While this meant that Prince wasn’t exactly breaking new ground, he hasn’t seemed this self-assured in modernizing his sound since “Emancipation”. I love how both Prince and Welton streamline the trademark aesthetics of his 80’s sound and make them sound contemporary. “Clouds” has his trademark snare drum beat on top of a slinky smooth groove while “The Gold Standard” sounds like it could be a variation of “Kiss”. The ballad “Breakdown” has an airy and ambient quality that kind of recalls his 90’s material with NPG. The more contemporary sounding tracks fares just as well. “U Know” which is based on the groove from Mila J’s “Blinded”, contains Prince best attempt at rap since Sexy MF. “Breakfast Can Wait” incorporates a standard drum sound with subtle acoustic guitar instrumentation that makes the track two-dimensional since it can play well as a soft rock and R&B. Prince’s otherworldliness do come into play on “Way Back Home”- reminding listeners that his trademark conceptual quirks are still firmly intact. “Funk & Roll” incorporates vintage and modern together with a guitar freak out at the beginning, a skeletal dance groove that will sound at home on radio today, and a new wave styled electronic vamp to close out the track.
Conceptually, Prince seemed to have taken on the role as the chosen one to save music and pop culture from itself- hence the title of the album. Depending on which generation Prince fan you are, this could be either good or bad. If you’re a first generation Prince fan who experienced him at his peak in the 80’s, you may find Prince’s lament to be insightful since older generations has traditionally been indifferent with how the younger crowd presented themselves socially. But, if you’re a younger Prince fan, you may feel indifferent with Prince’s lyrical critiques regarding obsessions smartphones and musical taste that’s not linked to the instrumentation that made Prince a legend. So for every clever lyric like the hook for “Clouds” ( You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck, When she doesn't expect…….And every time you catch her singin' in the shower, You should go and get her a flower, Don't matter what they what they are, Just rub it on her back), You also find Prince in the next breath becoming preachy with lyrics from the same song (“In this brand new age, We do everything quick, fast in a hurry , All of our lives a stage Everybody stars, reality so blurry”). This is where AOA falters in my opinion. While Prince has some cleverly written lyrics, he breaks a cardinal rule by undermining the younger generation’s habits and pop culture norms. When young kids listen to an artist, they like to feel like the performer is identifying with them on a personal level. They’re not too keen on being preached to- just think of how we all dreaded hearing those lectures every time we screwed up as kids. The difference is young kids expect that from their parents because they’re one of the main people they will look to for social guidance - outside of their peer group. But if Kids choose to spend their spare time posting YouTube videos promoting themselves for self-gratification, they expect a popular recording artist to understand that because chances are their favorite performer is behaving in a similar manner. Critiquing the young generation occasionally with some of the lyrics makes Prince show his age more than he should have. Thankfully, not all of AOA is a pseudo-sermon geared towards the social media generation. AOA is at its best when it melds new age sensibilities with Prince’s own sense of style. “U know” is a song that works well, even if lines and phrases like “you better ask somebody” and “playa” sounds dated in this modern age. Prince especially gel well with the new age on “This Could be Us”, a song which Prince blends old and new school love seamlessly into a cute text message any girl wouldn’t mind waking up to (U know u want me like a new pair of shoes, This could be us But u b playin’…. Cuz what I got make u weak in the knees/ Take your energy (oh baby)/Make u sleep for a week/Sex with me ain't enough/That's why we gotta do it metaphysically).
AOA is a strange proposition for any Prince fan. Lyrically, he’s taking stabs and pokes at the pop culture trends, but he incorporated various production styles into his sound that these kids listen to on a regular basis- even bringing in an outside producer to help him craft a sound to reach this demographic. But being in the in-crowd means you have to conform to their values rather than go against it. It’s all about finding that space in which you can co-exist in a specific environment without compromising your individually. If Prince was going to become somewhat philosophical about the habits of this modern age, AOA should’ve been purely a throwback album with little to none of the modernizations on here. Because then you’re telling the younger generation that this is the way we did it in our day - take it or leave it. It’s not like Prince had anything to lose since he’d already made his mark and was still a major concert draw - so it wasn’t really a necessary for him to stay relevant with the younger generation. So what he ended up with was an album that’s a tad too condescending in tone for younger kids and not nostalgic enough for his older fan base. That probably explains why the album didn’t really catch on to a lot of buyers upon its initial release. But just because the concept contradicts itself doesn’t mean that it’s not a charming album in its own right. And it’s a lot to be said about how the overall sound and modernizations work so seamlessly here. For the first time, Prince was able to update his music without sounding desperate. He does seem more at ease doing so than he did in the NPG era when he incorporated hip hop into his sound. Maybe it can be accounted to Prince’s own understanding of his icon status and not feeling the pressure to stay relevant as he did in the 90’s- a time when he wasn’t quite looked upon as an icon at that point, so he had to constantly update his sound to maintain his prominence in popular music. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to welcome the concept as it is, AOA can be an enjoyable listen no matter which generation Prince fan you are. The head-scratching concept does have the trademark sense of mystery that defines so many of his songs and albums, in which it leaves you wondering “What was he thinking?” Welcome back class!
This is a guest review by Patrick Frierson. Patrick is an avid music lover and collector. He's spent the past five years or so collecting nothing but the finest in vintage recordings that range from well-known classics to underground gems. Hopefully, you’ll find his reviews to be inspiring enough to make you want to groove out to some of the coolest albums ever recorded. As a rule, he doesn't write negative reviews, so if he takes the time and effort to review a recording, he genuinely loves it. His passion ensures that he will place a great deal of care and detail into analyzing albums and sharing the info with the readers of The Penman Post. He hopes you all enjoy it as much as he enjoyed sharing his musical experience with you.