Near the end of “The Big Chill,” Jeff Goldblum is sitting and talking with Glenn Close and accurately observing something along the lines of, “I’m feeling vibrations…and I’m pretty sure there is sex going on in this house right now.” That’s sort of how I feel when I listen to “3121” – there is definitely something going on in Prince’s house on this album, and it’s not likely something that you’re going to see showing up on basic cable.
Frankly, it’s easy to make that leap even before perusing the lyric sheet that is provided with the album. This music is nasty – and above all else, “3121” demonstrates the remarkable proficiency of Prince as a producer and arranger. The bass and drums are turned up real loud, and there’s just something about the overall sound that distinguishes the album from just about every other Prince album I’ve heard. I’m not even sure I can put it into words – “swamp music” comes to mind because of its near-underwater quality, but it also sounds a bit like a 21st century version of the great sound developed by Willie Mitchell for Al Green and other artists like Ann Peebles.
Also a credit to the production is the fact that it’s almost impossible to distinguish the “all instruments performed by Prince” songs from those which feature guest players. In the past, some of his DIY records have come across sounding a bit thin, but that is definitely not the case on “3121.” Listening without having the credits right in front of you, I’d defy any listener to tell which songs among the title track, “Lolita,” “Black Sweat,” and “Get on the Boat” are “band enhanced,” and which ones are all Prince by himself.
Also worth noting is the design of the lyrics sheets, which contain photos of a house (mansion, really) that if it isn’t Prince’s house, certainly should be. And last but not certainly not least, a shout out to Maceo Parker, the great saxophone player who over the course of his life (73 now and still going strong) has played with James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Bryan Ferry, and many others. When Prince cries out, “Play it, Maceo!” during the bridge of “Get on the Boat,” you feel like you’re part of rock & soul history itself.
This, folks, is a good one. A very good one.
Christgau: A-. It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise – until you pay attention. Sure “Love” and “Satisfied” and “Fury” constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock – but only by genius standards. Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune – and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed “Lolita” by himself. The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are. I’m back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he’s in the mood. Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice.