Finally freed from the evil clutches of Warner Bros., Prince celebrated with a three-CD album called Emancipation. It’s one of the key pieces of the Prince puzzle for me, since I got to see him live for the second time on the following tour. He opened with “Jam of the Year,” which means that song will always thrill me in ways that go beyond its strengths and weaknesses as a track, for the same reason “My Name is Prince” does.1 “Jam” actually makes a nice synechdoche for the whole album, which is nothing if not a collection of strengths and weaknesses.
Clearly he had planned this out for some time. Each CD had twelve songs, ran exactly one hour, and had a different theme. The first is intended to be a collection of pop hits, the second an extended suite of songs inspired by his then-wife, Mayte, and the last is designed to Get You On the Dance Floor. The first two discs have more of the stronger tracks than the last one—by this time it should have been clear to Prince that his songs desperately urging everyone to party were becoming the weakest part of his work. There were also evidently thoughts of hiring an outside producer to help shepherd the project, but instead Prince produced it himself. Listening again, I can’t help but join those wishing he’d found some outside ears and ideas; there’s a sonic sheen there that I could do without.2
There are also lots of great songs, though. There aren’t thirty-six great songs, mind you, or even half that, but still more than enough to overstuff a single amazing CD, and more than enough to prove that the man still had lots of great music to make. “In This Bed I Scream” is wonderfully layered pop, with lots of melodic candy, and while some of the Mayte Suite gets a little cloying, it is also nice to hear him sound so much more in love than lust this time out. As with most overlong albums, my guess is you would not get every Prince fan on which songs should be kept. I for one, could do without all of the covers, but one of the lists I found has two (!) covers as keepers, which just baffles me. The same list left off “Holy River” and “Somebody’s Somebody,” two of the biggest highlights for me.3
“Holy River” in particular is a standout. It’s one of those long Prince songs that ends with a long guitar solo—think “Gold” or “Purple Rain”—and once again he pulls it off well. It is funny, though, that more than once he talked about his freedom from Warner Bros. meant he didn’t have to release a shortened version of this song for radio, but then he went ahead and worked up a shorter version for the VH1 Honors Awards (which used to be a thing, I guess?)
That live clip, and all the live clips from this time period, show how much the man and his songs benefited from having real musicians behind him. Videos from the release party for the album feature Prince with a band firing on all cylinders, and even when it goes from a great version of one of my favorite deep cuts (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”) to one of the oddest covers he even spent time on (“One of Us”), everyone is in top form. And as much I as I have always liked “Somebody’s Somebody,” for example, a live clip from The Rosie O’Donnell Show (!) is better than the studio version. It’s funkier, slinkier, more dynamic, and Bandleader Prince with Guitar in Hand is one of my most favorite Princes.
The marathon album ends with the title track, which features popping bass, a good old-fashioned falsetto vocal, and a chorus that rhymes “See you in the Purple Rain” with “Break the chain, break the chain.” Free to do what he wants, Prince set off on that tour I was lucky enough to see, and seemed to be having more fun than he’d had in years. The biggest question was what he would do next.
1 For those who do not remember, that was the song he opened with the first time I saw him. I just reviewed the setlist from the second show I saw, and noticed a) 36 songs! and b) “Purple Rain” was 5th?
2 For a nice overview, see https://albumism.com/features/tribute-celebrating-25-years-of-prince-emancipation
3 The list in question is here: https://en.apoplife.nl/prince-emancipation/