Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Emancipation," Prince (1996)

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this, but nearly all the music I’ve listened to (or even wanted to listen to) since the news of his death last Thursday is music by Prince.  The soundtrack for cleaning house on Saturday was comprised of the vinyl editions of “Controversy,” “1999” and “Purple Rain.”  And playing non-stop in my car this week (for once, a reason to savor the morning and evening commute) has been “Emancipation,” the gargantuan 3-disc, 36 song set that Prince released in late 1996 to celebrate his departure from Warner Bros. Records.

It may not have been clear to me at the time, but “Emancipation” is a remarkable achievement.  Not once over the course of the album is there is a bad song, and I’m not sure I can think of another artist who could pull that off with anything close to the level of consistency that one finds on this record.  And better yet, the album is a collection of nearly everything that Prince does well.  So you’ve got your raunchy/steamy songs, you’ve got your homages to 1960s/70s soul, you’ve got some outstanding cover versions, and you’ve got the typically amazing instrumental performances that are always a highlight, even on Prince’s “lesser” work.

Unlike Christgau, whose full review appears below, I don’t think the covers are the best thing on the album, although his version of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” is amazing, as well as totally unexpected.  For me, the highlights are “Slave,” which may be the most minimalist song on the album – not much more than Prince and a driving beat accompanied by some nifty synthesizer work – and “White Mansion,” which stood out for me then and continues to do so nearly 20 years later.  It’s hard to pick a favorite disc, but I guess I’d lean towards #3 – but maybe that’s only because it’s the freshest one in my mind.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t recall “Emancipation” setting the world on fire when it was released in 1996.  Maybe part of the reason is the sheer volume of the material – good as they are, 36 songs are still a lot to make your way through, and it requires more commitment than one might normally devote to a single album.  But one thing is for certain – anyone making that effort won’t be disappointed, and is bound to find a few gems that they’ve never heard or fully appreciated before.

Christgau: A-.  Writing the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hop R&B – three discs and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard.  Yet although there’s not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and hear nothing that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn’t the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway.  Great grooves abound, however.  As does great singing.  Harmonies too.  Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool?  And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor.

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