By Sam Bleazard
The phrase HitNRun was first used by Prince as a label for concerts on the 1986 Parade tour (think “kiss” and “raspberry beret” era). These were notable for being announced relatively last minute and creating additional excitement in the process.
Prince has continued to look for that sense of excitement and spontaneity with potential listeners over the last 30 years, both onstage and in the studio, with varying results.
The other challenge for fans of Prince, or those looking to purchase his music, has been the increasingly fragmented nature of when and where that music appears (he tends to pop up in quite a big way, think “21 nights” at the O2 in London, then disappears for long periods). Again this is more than likely a deliberate ploy to maintain the sense of mystery around his various career twists and turns. The latest twist is signing up with Jay Z’s subscription based Tidal.com service, the rapper and music mogul’s attempt to elevate artists (and give them increased royalty rates) while taking on the likes of iTunes and Spotify. You can see why Prince is on board.
For HitNRun the album, he’s proudly enlisted Joshua Welton as the producer (and creative partner in crime). Welton is the 25 year old husband of his 3rd Eye Girl drummer Hannah, and their partnership kicked off in earnest on last year’s Art Official Age, producing some of Prince’s most promising moments in recent years. One of Art Official Age’s best, the old school ballad “this could be us” is remixed for this project. At first listen it seems like a pointless exercise, but further examination reveals hidden depths.
The album opens with snippet samples of classic 80s Prince as a tease (1999 and lets go crazy’s “dearly beloved!”) and This could be us, as it appears here, is Prince treating his music as something fluid that isn’t fixed. The suggestion is that his tracks are a template that can be bent and shaped into new forms, and the outro to a number of tracks in the first half of the album feature bass solos reminiscent of his best concert moments with 3rd Eye Girl. On recent tours he’s elevated classic album tracks and B sides into showstoppers in the set list, breathing new life into songs such as Something In The Water and She’s Always in My Hair, turning them into extended workouts with moments of light and shade.
In the spirit of his challenging his listeners, but more likely in the spirit of challenging himself, Prince has made not only his most commercial sounding record but also one of his most marmite. Prince fan boards online are red-hot with many of the faithful rating his latest effort 1/10 and dismissing it as trend chasing throwaway pop, and beneath someone of his age and musical stature.
On first listen the first four tracks seem so brazenly commercial that they wouldn’t be out of place on a Rita Ora album, so it’s no great surprise to hear her duet on one. The track Like a Mack is light and fluffy fare (as is the segue track ‘Mr Nelson’), but there’s no doubting how catchy the opener Million Dollar show is, driven along by another purple protege, Judith Hill, star of American X Factor and documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.
I found myself chuckling at the audacity of it, but also admiring the risk taking involved. How many recording artists or musicians 38 albums old, with an international reputation and legacy to protect, would give an untested producer the reins and allow them to guide their sound? The results are actually quite satisfying if you get over pre conceived notions and go with it, as Prince succeeds in refreshing his sound and allowing it to morph into something else. While his fanbase continue to crave the release of seemingly hundreds of unreleased gems from his 80s heyday from the fabled “Vault” in Paisley Park, he seems to be saying with this latest release that he’s still around, still vital and isn’t finished yet.
HitNRun is a breezy 37 minute pop record which will make kids dance, giving a big head nod to lovers of electronic dance music, but also provides some great funk bass and classic Prince moments – the X’s face and 1000 hugs and kisses being two examples of those. You will find yourself singing along to it in your head when it’s not playing, which is surely the mark of a good record.
In trying to figure out why someone as musically revered as Prince is, would make a record like this at this stage in his career, I looked in more depth at the music he’s been uploading to the Tidal service. In the week of the album’s release the first thing you saw on their homepage was a video exclusive of a Prince & 3rd Eye Girl acoustic track called ‘Indifference’. This home-made sounding recording, shot in turquoise blue and psychedelic Thai dye is either a pastiche or a tribute to some of the best Bob Dylan moments of the 60s and 70s. The song is a witty and acidic brush off to a lover who is equal parts frustrating and boring, but the track has groove and is played for laughs. What strikes you is how easy it all looks, and how brilliantly different it is to the electronic music on HitNRun.
Prince is close to creative nirvana in that he has created a situation where he could be almost all things to all listeners, balladeer, rock god, popstar, producer, Svengali and multi instrumentalist. Who else could release an almost shameless commercial set which plays with their own classic sound, while simultaneously having one of the best rock groups around touring venues worldwide? Then when you consider the endless great pop, jazz, soul and funk records he has to draw upon at will, the phrase embarrassment of riches is surely justified.
Here is one 58 year old who doesn’t want to be canonised and won’t be pigeon-holed into heavy rotation on retro radio stations, or treated as a legacy artist. You have to admire him for that.