Prince – ‘Welcome 2 America’

Kanye West is notorious for his idiosyncratic album roll-outs. He recently previewed DONDA at a listening party live-streamed from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, only to delay the release. But that pop genius Prince was doing much the same even in the ’80s. In 1987, the Purple One was primed to unveil The Black Album – a set of aggressive street funk with pitched vocals and sly disses. Then he suddenly pulled the album, apparently deciding that it was “evil”.

Instead, Prince dropped Lovesexy – an epiphanous acid house LP. Meanwhile, promo copies of The Black Album became cult collector’s items and were widely bootlegged. The Black Album significantly magnified Prince’s mythology. Ironically, its official issue in 1994 proved anti-climactic. However, such a fate is unlikely to befall Prince’s newly recovered concept album Welcome 2 America.

Prince passed in April 2016, just weeks after he brought his intimate Piano & A Microphone Tour to Australia. Since then, aside from restoring Prince’s catalogue to streaming platforms, The Prince Estate has orchestrated remasters of his seminal works – the latest Sign O’ The Times. But fans have also heard previously unreleased music from the fabled vaults at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. This largely originated during his ’80s peak, going into the ’90s. In 2019 Warner Music presented Originals, comprising Prince’s versions of songs he gave to associates, including The Family’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (JAY-Z served as curator). Alas, it didn’t contain conceivably his greatest ballad, ‘Open Book’ – composed for Martika, but cut by the gospel/R&B singer Jevetta Steele.

Now, in tandem with the Sony heritage arm Legacy Recordings, Prince’s estate is rolling out Welcome 2 America, a rediscovered album from as late as 2010 – and its prioritisation is logical. Though completed under President Barack Obama’s administration, Welcome 2 America prophesies everything from heightened political discord, conspiracy culture and creeping fascism to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Prince signed to Warner as a teenager, premiering with 1978’s disco-fuelled For You. Despite being the architect of the Minneapolis sound, Prince approached albums as eras, with their own sonics and aesthetics. In 1991 he aired arguably his last commercial blockbuster, Diamonds And Pearls, absorbing hip-hop and New Jack Swing.

The prolific polymath constantly generated outlets to disseminate his music: launching side-projects (notably, the avant-jazz ensemble Madhouse) and demonstrating an under-appreciated A&R nous in developing acts such as Sheila E for Paisley Park Records. Prince likewise archived material, some of which leaked and circulated as ‘rarities’.

In the early ’90s, Prince battled Warner for creative control, seeking to release more music. He temporarily abandoned his name for an unpronounceable symbol. Contentiously, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince scrawled the word ‘slave’ on his face.

Following 1996’s ambitious triple-album Emancipation on his freshly minted NPG Records, Prince endured personal turmoil – and professional stasis. In 2001 he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. Prince’s ensuing homophobic pronouncements wounded cohorts like The Revolution’s Wendy & Lisa, as well as those fans who’d embraced his old androgyny and sense of sexual liberation. Musically, too, Prince trod ground, his output increasingly middle of the road. But he re-established himself by way of spectacular live performances.

Prince envisaged Welcome 2 America as an album of vintage soul and funk protest songs – revealing an inherent tension within his faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses not recognising nationalism and disavowing any participation in state affairs (down to voting). The Minnesotan wrote the lushly-arranged ‘Born 2 Die’ on viewing a clip in which his friend Dr Cornel West declared, “I love my brother Prince, but he’s no Curtis Mayfield” and discerning an artistic dare. Mind, Prince always respected lineage, freely acknowledging the influence of other Black auteurs. Welcome 2 America is a tribute to Mayfield’s message music, with the jauntiness of Sly And The Family Stone. Still, in narrating the story of a struggling woman in ‘Born 2 Die’, Prince moralises.

For Welcome 2 America, Prince formed a trio with new players – Australian bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman – while, unusually, inviting longtime keyboardist Morris Hayes to co-produce. Welcome 2 America also prominently features vocalists from his live band The New Power Generation: Elisa Fiorillo, Shelby Johnson and Liv Warfield. Prince first liaised with Fiorillo, a Jellybean Benitez protégé, in the ’90s and penned her single ‘On The Way Up’, a minor Australian hit. Nevertheless, for reasons unknown, Prince shelved Welcome 2 America, even as he proceeded with a Welcome 2 Tour.

In many ways, Welcome 2 America harks back to Sign O’ The Times with its socio-political consciousness. But, as Prince ruminates on race, class and advanced capitalism, his lyrics are sharper. In the title track (and lead single), with a taut bassline and opulent vocal harmonies, Prince lays out the album’s thesis in a spoken monologue, decrying the erosive nature of corporate consolidation, mass media and technology, plus the co-option of jazz. In the Biblical ‘Same Page, Different Book’, he asks why common values can’t triumph over pointless conflict.

In later years Prince has been commended for challenging the music industry’s exploitation of Black art – ever salient since the UK singer RAYE disclosed on Twitter how she was sidelined at Polydor. The deceptively groovy ‘Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master)’ dissects these machinations.

Welcome 2 America does diverge from throwback ’70s soul. Songs like ‘Check The Record’, about relationship drama, are rockier, Prince playing the guitar. It could be an outtake from 1996’s garagey (or grungy) Chaos And Disorder.

The album has light moments. A stand-out, ‘Hot Summer’ is akin to a mash-up of ‘Cream’ and Billy Idol’s ‘Hot In The City’ with chugging guitars. More unexpected is the quiet storm ballad ‘When She Comes’, recalling Prince at his most lasciviously romantic (cue: Diamonds And Pearls‘ ‘Insatiable’).

Prince typically performed covers in his shows, again paying homage to peers. And, in the ’90s, he started recording them. On Welcome 2 America, Prince transforms Minneapolis alt-rock band Soul Asylum’s 2000s ‘Stand Up And Be Strong’ into a soul jam. The album closes with the gospelly ‘One Day We Will All Be Free’.

Remarkably, the Welcome 2 America songs feel fully realised, with the possible exception of the utopian ‘1000 Light Years From Here’. Many posthumous releases are depressingly redundant – who listens to Amy Winehouse’s Lioness: Hidden Treasures now? Yet Welcome 2 America is credible – and dynamic. But only time, and fortune, will tell if it can connect with the Zeitgeist a decade on.

‘Welcome 2 America’ is the first full-length album of completely new unreleased music since Prince’s untimely death in 2016. It’s out today.

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