PRINCE LEFT US AN INSTRUCTION MANUAL
Yes. Pleasure is sexual, spiritual, and political in this ecosystem.
By Magdalena Edwards @magda8lena
I’ve been listening to and wanting to write about Prince’s third-to-last studio album Art Official Age since it came out in late 2014. Now is the time. The album contains 13 songs tracing a journey into a future where we no longer need language because we can communicate telepathically, and the musical arc is overall celebratory and uplifting, freaky tracks with ultra current beats revealing an exciting collaboration with a young artist named Joshua Welton. In his 2015 interview with Prince, Smokey D. Fontaine highlights the unusual nature of the joint enterprise: “For the first time in decades, Prince shared his spot on the ‘produced, arranged, composed & performed by…’ credit line that has been a signature of his albums since his 1978 For You debut. Joshua A. M. Welton is even listed as the recorder and mixer of 2014’s Art Official Age, an album many describe as Prince’s best crafted and most urgent in years.” With the album’s emphasis on connection — spiritual, sexual, temporal, creative, human — it fits that Prince worked closely with Welton, that he had to trust another artistic soul and let go.
Art Official Age also functions as an instruction manual of what we are to do when Prince departs the earthly realm to find his “way back home.” The time is now.
For the past 18 months I’ve been listening to AOA’s tracks while taking brainstorming walks, while driving with my three young children, while cooking at home with my husband. Our favorite song is “Clouds” with the refrain: “You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck when she doesn’t expect.” The refrain offers a pattern of repetition with variation in a set of three, much like the AOA of the album’s title: “a kiss on the neck / when she doesn’t expect / a kiss on the neck.” And then: “It’s in my power to love you / It’s in my power to love you up / It’s in my power to love you.” These are lines that speak directly to “Way Back Home,” the tenth song where Prince declares: “Power to the ones who could raise a child like me.” Now that he is gone, how do we do that spiritual and creative work? Of raising ourselves and the next generations.
The answer is in the music and for this reason I’ve turned myself over to AOA’s songs. I’ve been feeling them out, getting them into my bloodstream, puzzling them through. Mostly, I’ve been dancing and singing along, feeling the thrill of Prince doing what he does, which is to say making me feel like he is singing to me, about me, for me. What is even more radical, and something I am only now beginning to appreciate, is how the opening of the first song of Art Official Age immediately places me within the connective tissue of Prince’s tribe. He sings: “Welcome home, class. / U’ve come a long way.” Because we are his students, all of us, he salutes our efforts and welcomes us to his musical place of instruction, play, and enlightenment. By the end of our journey we will learn not only that he remains present for us, albeit in a new form, despite his passing, but that he also has specific expectations of what we are to do moving forward. The short version of this is as follows: 1. Put your phone down; 2. Connect with the special person who is right in front of you; 3. You are everything and everything is you.
When Art Official Age first came out at the end of September 2014, critics were largely pleased. Kitty Empire writes for The Guardian: “This is a far better album than you’d dare hope from the latterday Prince; ‘Breakdown’ is a heavy, plangent ballad, while ‘The Gold Standard’ just sounds like he’s partying like it’s 1999 all over again.” Neil McCormick describes Art Official Age as “a slick, seductive electro funk sci-fi concept album with a synthetic ambience evoking classic Eighties Prince pop” and calls it “all quite delightfully nuts” for his review in The Telegraph. In his Rolling Stone review Jon Dolan quotes lyrics from the album’s second song: ‘’‘Every time you catch her singing in the shower/You should go and get a flower/And just rub it on her back,’ Prince advises over the sumptuous synth funk of ‘Clouds,’ setting the psychedelic sex-doctor tone of Art Official Age.” And later concludes: “Prince’s genius remains intact, and as confusing as ever.” Robert Randalls describes the album’s opening song “Art Official Cage” in his review for the Los Angeles Times: “The future-freakiness of that jam moves like a compact, electro-botic Prince version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ with oddball U-turns, a synthetic bass-drop, a guitar solo, Prince vocoder, the sound of our hero being water-boarded (!), a string quartet and mini-movements that spin into double- and triple-time blasts. It’s a glorious mess, all in a song that clocks in at less than four minutes.” His review ends with the assertion: “I’ll take an exquisite Prince R&B album like Art Official Age over pretty much anything else released this year.”
The more critical reviews nonetheless praise the risks Prince takes in AOA. Stephen M. Deusner, writing for Pitchfork, says: “Art Official Age is not a return to form by any means, but a modestly exciting Prince album. That’s certainly more than we could expect in 2014.” He credits Prince for his bravado, for keeping himself in the ring: “Musically, Art Official Age is all over the map — gloriously so, in fact — as though Prince is trying to cram a triple album into a single disc. Opener ‘Art Official Cage’ cribs directly from Daft Punk’s more arena-ready moments, building a post-disco banger on some Nile Rodgers-style rhythm guitar. It sounds perhaps too familiar, but the song mimics its source with aplomb and what sounds like Princely arrogance. Cockiness has always looked better on Prince than assless chaps or satin frocks, and the song has a feisty energy that even a new jack swing rap can’t derail.” Jon Pareles of The New York Times concludes: “Art Official Age comes across as a concept album diverted by second thoughts. […] Prince sings about ‘a place in heaven far off in the future.’ Soon, spoken-word interludes have him waking up from suspended animation 45 years from now, in a new culture where ‘there are no such words as me or mine.’ A few songs continue the concept: ‘Way Back Home’ and ‘affirmation III,’ plush ballads with a backing chorus that could come out of a Philip Glass opera.” While Pareles contends “Prince didn’t write that full-length sci-fi album, which is probably a relief to those calculating its commercial chances,” I disagree.
Art Official Age also functions as an instruction manual of what we are to do when Prince departs the earthly realm to find his “way back home.”
I see Art Official Age as unfurling in five thematic movements or groupings of tracks that as a whole could be called a sci-fi album, a post-disco electro-botic opera, a journey into the future with our guide who transforms from human into something else. AOA is built as a carefully and tightly arranged arc while maintaining a spaciousness that invokes “a place in heaven far off in the future,” an album with a thread from start to finish, a celebration, a goodbye, a manifesto on what it means to be and stay human in “this brand new age.” The opening song “Art Official Cage” makes the elision of “art” and “official” into the single word “artificial” utterly clear. How do we negotiate the “art official age in the future” or the “artificial age in the future” that is now? How should we navigate the constraints of art, the artificial, the virtual, the technological, the limitations of the human body? Can a cage be a set of constraints that provides a kind of freedom? As a poet skilled in breaking all the rules while making new ones, Prince knows the answer is yes. “Breakdown” is the name of the third song, which closes the first movement within the album alongside “Art Official Cage” and “Clouds.” This trio sets up where we are and what is at stake. We are in the future, “this brand new age” where “life’s a stage,” and everything is ours to lose as framed by the question: “how do we engage?” The first three songs also establish the story within the album, which centers on the journey of Mr. Nelson who has been given medication to place him in “suspended animation for quite some time, well in fact 45 years…” I cannot escape the fact that if you add 45 years to the number of tracks, 13, you get 58, which is how many years Prince Rogers Nelson would have turned on his upcoming birthday on June 7th.
“The Gold Standard” is its own movement as the fourth song of AOA. “Everybody get ready to move,” Prince commands. “Turn it up, let me see that body move” repeats as horns and synthesizer accompany Prince’s riffing guitar. How do we engage in this brand new age? We must remember to stay in our physicality; this is the answer provided by a track that will make you shake your body and provides step by step instructions if you need them: “Now everybody just shake / Shake / New power slide / New power slide / Ha, ha, ha / Here come the chorus y’all.” I don’t see Prince as the curmudgeon suggested by some critics when he says: “24 karat hashtag. Put Ur phone in Ur bag.” Not at all. I see someone who recognizes the power, the gold standard of social media as a new kind of capital, and who simultaneously asks you to “put Ur phone in Ur bag” because of the human capital that will always trump money in the universe he creates with his lyrics and beats. Dance with your friends, shake your body, feed your soul.
AOA’s third movement is the album’s core, centering on the relationship between two people, you and me (U and me), in the songs: “U Know,” “Breakfast Can Wait,” “This Could Be Us,” and “What It Feels Like.” Here the relationship is erotic, sexual, steeped in desire, playful, even silly, as in “Breakfast Can Wait”: “Hotcakes smothered in honey /(wait a minute) / I’m gonna have to pass / Fresh cup of coffee, no, no / I’d rather have U in my glass.” But, as interpersonal experiences go, there are ups and downs, as we hear in the plaintive tones of “What It Feels Like”: “Everybody goes up and down in a lifetime love affair / Makin’ up, just breakin’ up and pullin’ each other’s hair / What I wouldn’t give 2 have U right here next 2 me.” Each song has its distinct groove and shifts within, as if to reassure us that no engagement with another person is without its bumps, thrills, disappointments, joys, and fights. Most of all, there is pleasure in the chase for connection.
Two additional elements that are fundamental to Prince’s lyrical ecosystem come to mind. First, the fact that Prince’s sexual preaching always has spiritual underpinnings, as detailed in Touré’s essay “Prince’s Holy Lust” for The New York Times: “The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.” And, to take a step further, sex is only one part of the whole package of sexuality that humans hold within themselves. That teaching, which I understood instinctively in Prince’s music from the time I was a young child, is something I heard later, expressed in quieter tones, from my “Morality & Sexuality” teacher, Sister Lisa Marie, in sophomore year of all girls’ Catholic high school. I also felt the spiritual sides of sexuality as preached by Prince when chasing the connection with my high school boyfriend who wore eyeliner and quoted Robinson Jeffers and PJ Harvey in equal measure. We were so chaste while being so voracious.
Prince’s politics of pleasure is the second element that comes to mind. Yes. Pleasure is sexual, spiritual, and political in this ecosystem. I rely here on the assessment of Prince’s radical work as outlined by Daphne Brooks, Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, and American Studies at Yale University: “He was the sound of post-civil rights freedom struggle. He was the sound of blackness as capacious and as unapologetic and as eccentric, as wondrous, as imaginative as you could possibly think in our contemporary world today. […] He was all about trying to celebrate pleasure and trying to find a kind of pleasure and joy for black people, but also for a multicultural world that can understand the ways that black music gave the world pleasure.” Prince’s politics of pleasure in a post-civil rights America spoke to me as a little girl born in Chile who suddenly found herself growing up in the north, first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles, and finally in Washington DC. Prince’s music and the music of the women he mentored like Sheena Easton and Sheila E. told me there was a place for me and my voice, my creativity and my sexual power, too.
Pleasure for all in a multicultural world offers a rich transition towards stripping the self of the temporal and physical strictures of human life, which we experience in the fourth movement of AOA with the songs “affirmation I & II,” “Way Back Home,” “Funknroll” and “Time.” “Way Back Home” with its foundational beat (can it be Prince’s heartbeat altered for the purposes of the song?) has elements of an elegy Prince wrote for himself. It becomes clear that he always has been ready for the final transition: “Most people in this world are born dead / But I was born alive / I was born with this dream / With a dream outside my head / That I could find my way back home.” This song takes its time and ends quietly, then slips into “Funknroll,” an extreme shift in mood and tone, a total celebration: “So finally beloved we meet at last.” Is this beloved the divine? We brush up against a serious spiritual question for a moment and then we’re back on earth: “Let’s party like you ain’t gonna party again.” A few lines later Prince instructs: “Put your phone down now and get your party on” because “it’s obvious dear” that “everyone you know is rocking up in here, so let’s funk.” The party is energizing, loud, big, all consuming.
In “Time” we return to the intimacy of two: “I need some time with you.” The lingering and coaxing of the beats in this song, the longest on the album at 6 minutes and 50 seconds, contrasts with the urgency of the final track “affirmation III.” Time’s up. The final song on the album opens with a voice asking: “How are you feeling today, Mr. Nelson? / I hope you are having a quick and enjoyable adjustment period.” This is when telepathic communication begins and we no longer hear Prince sing (there is an altered voice, which could be his, that says “telepathically” three times). Presumably he is communicating to us without language. “affirmation III” gives us a reprise of the song “Way Back Home” with the repetition of “until I find my way back home.” And then there is a Whitmanesque turn: “Remember there is really only one destination and that place is U / all of it / everything is U.” The song ends with 13 seconds of silence, one for each of the album’s tracks. He is gone.
How did I first hear the news that we had lost him? A woman friend who is a fierce artist and songwriter sent a WhatsApp message to a group we both belong to: “I can’t believe Prince died.” I couldn’t either. Another woman friend, a singer who recently moved to Los Angeles, sent seven sobbing emoticons in a tidy row. Then the first friend added, “I feel so fuking weird.” I don’t know if her misspelling was due to the wiles of autocorrect or out of respect for Prince, who never used curse words in his lyrics and had a swear jar guests filled up when visiting him at Paisley Park. While typing back my response — “Love him (purple heart emoticon) this makes me really sad” — I wept. I cried some more as I got ready for a meeting with a third friend, an architect and designer pregnant with her third child, that had me journeying across town in my purple Honda Fit, an echo of the purple Renault Twingo I drove when I lived in Santiago, Chile, back in 1999, a year that demanded a lot of Prince on the radio all over the world. A year like today.
Magdalena Edwards was born in Santiago, Chile, and raised in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Her undergraduate thesis on the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s first book Purgatorio (1979) was awarded Harvard’s James R. and Isabel D. Hammond Prize and led to a stint with the “Artes & Letras” section of Chile’s leading newspaper El Mercurio. She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA with a dissertation on the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) titled The Translator’s Colors: Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil & Elsewhere. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, The Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, The Critical Flame, Rewire Me, and The Millions. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband and three small children. More at magdalenaedwards.com.
If you like what you read, please hit the green heart button so others may find this essay. Thanks!