Finally, dear readers, we have arrived at The Rainbow Children. I confess I used this album as a punchline in past entries, turning it into shorthand for the odd creative turns the Purple One made as he entered the 2000s. I should also confess that I’d never listened to a minute of the album until doing so for this Project; I knew it was a concept album about his new life as a Jehovah’s Witness, and that, combined with the previous dip in creativity, was all I needed to know.
It would make for a better story if I came bearing news of how great the album turn out to be, but, alas, that is not the case. I can say it is more interesting than I expected it to be. It was the first album he released under the name Prince since his fight with Warner Bros., and certainly a huge turn in direction from the lifeless and desperate Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. And sure, the lyrics are among his worst, but the music is the real surprise here: jazzy and organic, and as light and fun as the words are heavy and self-serious.1
The album did not do well commercially (shock!), but it doesn’t seem as though Prince expected it to? After trying to work with a major label again for Rave he went back to indie distribution for this one, and does not seem to have bothered with much of an advertising campaign. There was a fascinating promo clip, however:
The first thing you hear, as on more than one Prince albums in the past, is a voice run through some serious effects, but we are far away from “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you/I only want you to have some fun” this time. “With the accurate understanding of God and His law,” the slow voice rumbles, “They went about the work of building/A new nation/The rainbow children.”’2
Uh-oh. Immediate flashback to the opening of the Graffiti Bridge movie.3
The good news? When the music kicks in, Prince sounds loose and jazzy. Even though most of the album features him playing everything, aside from drums and horns, it has the feel and swing of a full band. A lot of this must be credited to John Blackwell on drums; as readers of previous posts are no doubt tired of hearing me say, a skilled human drummer brings Prince’s music to life, and Blackwell joins Sheila E. and Michael Bland on the Prince MVD list.4
The title track that starts the album thus serves as a template for the next hour. Swinging music, moments of great melody (those held notes that kick in around 5:45, for example), and too many intrusions by Deep-Voiced Computer Prince. Oh, and at 11 minutes, it’s also far too long. If you’re looking for a shorter sample to give you an idea of how things go, “Muse 2 the Pharaoh” has a super slinky groove, and some super tight drums to stick the landing at the end. It also has a cringe-inducing spoken word section: “Whether the enemy makes a run on the palace/Or whether the enemy does not/The children will be laced with the protection of the word of God/The opposite of NATO is OTAN/And if the number thirteen is such a bad luck number/When there’s no such thing as luck/Then the berries, talons, arrows and stars/Are all superstitions, what the [last word left out, because this era Prince does not swear].”
This mixture of “Hey, better than I expected!” and “Um, did we need that bit?” live side-by-side throughout Rainbow. The weirdest song award goes to the fifty-four second “Wedding Feast,” which sounds like a reject from a Broadway play. “A feast, a feast/A smorgasbord at least,” the choir sings. “A brunch, a munch/Of cake, if just a piece.” Just when you’re ready to give up, though, the album segues right into “She Loves Me 4 Me,” which is probably the best song on the record. Nothing too ambitious or wild, just a great pop love song, one of those you feel like he think up as he walks the recycling to the curb. With it’s effortless groove and tight arrangement, it could be slipped onto any of his mid-90s albums with ease.
Rainbow closes with three long tracks. “Everlasting Now” tries hard, with a great drum track, popping bass line, and fiery guitar work, but 4 ½ minutes into that deep-voiced narrator comes along and pulls us right out of the song. The best part of that one is a line buried deep in the mix, delivered in the voice of an unhappy fan: “You know this is funky, but I just wish he’d play like he used to, old scragglyhead.”5 This clip shows how well the worked live, though, and as a bonus you get to watch Blackwell and Sheila E. bring work their magic:
“Last December” actually succeeds as an album closer. It’s no “Purple Rain,” or even on the level of “Gold,” but Prince and his trusty drummer play beautifully, and the way the dynamics rise and fall creates a sense of momentum missing from the rest of the record. Maybe it works so well because the narrator leaves us alone, so we can just listen to the music and find our own story.
After Rainbow, Prince will offer fans who subscribed through his website a series of releases, sometimes delivered directly as downloads. The Prince Project is going to skip those—because of the nature of their release, because there are still so many records to go, but also because none of them are particularly memorable. Our hero was searching for a way to go forward, and at our next stop we’ll see how manages to perhaps, maybe, start to do that.
1 In the interest of fairness, I point out there are those who argue for a more positive reappraisal than I am about to: https://albumism.com/features/prince-the-rainbow-children-turns-20-anniversary-retrospective
2 I should note that there is a plot for this concept album. I’m not going to go into it here, but if you want the summary, once again Prince Vault has you covered: https://princevault.com/index.php?title=Album:_The_Rainbow_Children
3 Another spoken intro, this time without effects, but just as self-serious: “ Are there really angels, or are they just in our minds? It all comes out in the wash… in time.”
4 Most Valuable Drummer, but you knew that. Sadly, Blackwell, who later played with D’Angelo on the tour for his amazing Black Messiah, passed away at 43: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Blackwell_(musician)
5 I missed that line on my first on my first listen, a bit worn out after almost an hour. This review pointed it out to me, and also seems a pretty fair assessment of the whole album: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/12/10/the-royals