Is Prince Cool Again, Again?

Prince has a new album out (Planet Earth), so in recent days he's been cool again, again. It can be hard to keep track of whether he's up or down: even for someone as popular, famous, successful, and undeniably brilliant as he is, the public's adulation can be remarkably fickle. For a whole host of reasons, many of them unfair, the artist formerly and again currently known as Prince has had as many career ups and downs as John Travolta -- and is, God help us, even more eccentric. But while Travolta's a fine actor with occasionally horrific movie choices, Prince is one of the all-time musical greats, and he deserves to be fully appreciated in his own time.

For a man so freakishly talented, his catalogue is notoriously eclectic and breathtakingly inconsistent. For every Purple Rain there's a Rainbow Children, for every 1999 a Rave Un2 the Year 2000. Imagine if the Beatles' catalogue included all the albums by the Doobie Brothers alongside Rubber Soul and Revolver. It would make them much easier to criticize and malign, but the fact would remain that they still wrote the best songs ever played. That's Prince's career.

Prince's greatest weakness is also his greatest strength -- music comes so easy to him, all instruments, all styles, all modes, that can be stunningly injudicious about the finished product. So his failures are as staggering as his successes. It's hard to fault him for forgetting to restrain himself, as he's been casually able to pull off the completely inadvisable more times than one can count: a funk song whose chorus is a gay porn URL ("Emale"), an electronically-altered vocal he originally recorded for a nonexistent female protege ("If I Was Your Girlfriend"), and more than a few strip club anthems ("P Control"; "Nasty Girl").

But when his judgment errs, his inventiveness turns to self-indulgence, his famous falsetto to a screech, and his percussive melodies to tuneless thuds. And then there are all his personal eccentricities. I've been a Prince fan for years, a maddening exercise in how much you have to learn to live with. Dealing with all the purple and paisley in the costumes and album covers is the easy part. Underneath all that, the man playing the guitar is a five foot 50 year old sex symbol who grinds against the microphone stand and recently charged $3000 for a ticket. The name change to the unpronounceable symbol was disconcerting (though the indie crowd managed to tolerate a band called "!!!"); the "Slave" face tattoo, referring to his Warner record contract, was worse. His best albums of the '90s, The Gold Experience and Emancipation (yes, a reference to the slave thing), remain out of print. And his last three records sort of suck.

So, again, it can be easy to lose sight of Prince's historical greatness, especially because so many of his contemporaries in the 1980's are remembered only as one-hit wonders and guilty pleasures, and their reputation has unfortunately tended to rub off. Like his fellow multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder, Prince is one of the true heirs both to James Brown's sound and to his monumental legacy, across soul, funk, rock, and hip-hop, both in his dabblings and in the legions of musicians he's influenced. Much as the soul sound of the 1960's belonged to James Brown and his followers, the '80s belonged to Prince, whose guitar-synthesizer combo both perfected and best exemplified the music of the era and simultaneously created a new template for soul and funk into the 1990s and beyond. It could be another twenty years before his influence is fully recognized.

By then, this weird guy with scuzzy facial hair, frilly shirts, and a male/female symbol logo will be remembered as a sexual idol, a cultural icon, and one of the greatest musicians and performers ever. (Like the Rolling Stones; maybe the Super Bowl halftime show promoters saw the similarity.) Moreover, Prince hasn't lost his creative genius, even if, as David B. Wilson has pointed out, he's become a better marketer than songwriter of late. His ho-hum recent output has been very innovatively distributed, given away to members of his fan club, at concerts, and most recently in an edition of London's Daily Mail. (A few more brainstorms like that, and maybe dead-tree journalism could get a much-needed Heimlich.) He doesn't really need the money, but he's getting his music heard by a whole new generation, and meanwhile he's serving as a coalmine canary for a whole lot of new distribution channels. If any of this becomes profitable, he could revolutionize -- sorry, yes, pun intended -- the industry by accident.

But that would just be the cherry on the icing on top, as would be any incidental three-minute classics on the new record. Especially considering that many of Prince's greatest titles are double or triple albums, in his nearly thirty-year career, he's already given us enough to last a lifetime. In order to get a full appreciation, you have to look at all of it, the bad and the good, the inexplicable and the transcendent, which after all are frequently hard to distinguish. He's maddening and brilliant, incomparable and essential. And funky as hell.