"Isn't the sky beautiful tonight?" asked Prince as he welcomed me warmly into his Paisley Park studio complex in Chanhassen on a warm May evening.
Entering the famous sanctuary, I literally had no idea what was in store for me that night. We'd met at The Current's 5th Birthday Party at First Avenue in January, but when Prince called my cell phone the week before (after two assistants called me to confirm that this was indeed my cell phone number and to let me know to expect a call), he was under the mistaken impression that we ended our Member Drives with a gig at First Avenue — he wanted to come out that night! In the course of our phone conversation, he asked if I'd be interested in coming to Paisley Park to talk with him one-on-one about ideas, and maybe hear some new music. Are you kidding? Already in 2010 (the year, not the album) The Current had been fortunate to receive his support in the form of a World Exclusive debut for the song "Cause and Effect" and that appearance at our party, but an invite to his creative sanctuary. Too much!
So a few days later, I found myself being shown around by Prince himself, resplendent in white shoes, white pants, white shirt and looking in person 20 years younger than his age of 52. After checking my computer and cell phone at the door, Prince took me into Studio A and sat me in front of the big console and a ton of recording gear. "I've finished my next album, but first I want to play you some songs from the next record that I've been working on," he said, as he cued up a gorgeous track with an epic chorus a la "Hey Jude" with Prince working the multi-track mix on the fly. Then he played me "Hot Summer," the second song that The Current world debuted in June 2010. "I think this one has a B-52's feel to it," said Prince, as his ode to our precious short MN summers played loudly on the huge studio monitors. Just like any excited and nervous musician sharing his new music, he bounced around the studio, adjusting the mix and yelling ideas in my ear.
Then he switched over to the album he'd been working on the past few months that he said was finished. These are the tracks that have now been released in Europe as 20Ten, a CD that was included with July editions of the UK's Daily Mirror, Germany's edition of Rolling Stone, and other papers. While there's still no US release information available as of today, we expect that it will be in shops later this summer — although don't look for an iTunes type digital release, in his interviews before the UK Newspaper release, Prince told the world that to him "the internet is completely over." I can say that when I was listening to the record at Paisley Park and the topic of unconventional release strategies came up and I suggested the Radiohead pay-what-you-want model, Prince shugged it off, saying "Radiohead is the best at that. I want to do something different — something that can get my music in the hands of a million people at once," — and he wants to get paid, which he accomplished with his Euro newspaper deals on 20Ten.
So how does 20Ten sound? Opening with strong tracks like "Compassion" and "Beginning Endlessly," you hear the crazy vocal effects, instrumental virtuosity, and sonic creativity that ranks up to his best work. He gets political with "Act of God" ("Dirty fat banker sold a house today / sold it at an auction wants the family out today / kicked him to the street cause he couldn't pay the tax / call it an Act of God"). And while much of the album shows production tendencies that mix the style of his '80s peak with more modern flair (dry drum machines and slapped bass, phased vox lines, keyboards mimicking horn parts), on the bonus track "Laydown" Prince leaves the past behind — behind a metal guitar on top of a bouncing hip-hop beat, a solid rap from Prince, and the the playfully self-deprecating lyric of the year — "from the heart of Minnesota / here comes the Purple Yoda."
There are a few 'quiet storm' ballads like "Walk in Sand" and "Sea of Everything" that are too slick — Prince possesses the best vocal falsetto around, but fills the songs with dated synth sounds and chimes that fail to evoke the classic soul of Stevie, Curtis, and Marvin. Which is too bad. I found myself tempted to say "why not strip back the gloss and go vulnerable" to Prince, but how do you say that to someone who has sold 100 million records, at their house? So I complemented him on the sparser funk arrangement in the track "Sticky Like Glue," where the elastic groove made me feel like it was 1980 at the roller rink. And told me an amazing story I'd never heard: that there are actually 30 recorded tracks on his breakthrough hit, "When Doves Cry," but he couldn't find a way to mix all those parts in a way he liked. When he complained about it to a friend, the friend told him to "mix it the way you hear the song in your head," and the result became one of the biggest rock songs in history with no bass.
After we tracked thru the songs that would show up a month later as 20Ten, we moved the hang to his living / party / dining room, listening to albums and chatting, with Prince, his management assistant Kiran, and Bria, his girlfriend and the artist whose CD he produced and attached to his Lotusflow3r/MPLS Sound Target triple-release in 2009. I brought him some Rhymesayers CDs (Brother Ali and POS), and some of my favorite local releases (Mason Jennings and Jeremy Messersmith), and a few Live Current CDs, but we spent the most time listening to the not-yet-released at the time Janelle Monae CD. Prince is no doubt a huge influence on her, but he also clearly sees a little of himself in her — her ability to mix up Funk, Soul, Rock, and R&B not unlike the Purple Yoda years ago.
As to questions about spending an evening at Paisley Park with Prince... No — I wasn't forbidden from looking him in the eye; Yes — the walls are covered with memorabilia and he did quiz me on who was portrayed in a mural of his influences on the wall outside the studio (I failed to recognize Grand Funk Railroad, who knew that would be on his wall along with Sly Stone, Miles, and Jimi?); Yes — Chappelle fans, I did see the basketball hoop, although pancakes were not served; No — we didn't jam, though I saw his classic 'symbol' guitar in the studio; Yes — he is energized and glad to be back making music in Minnesota; No — he didn't try to convert me to become a Jehovah's Witness; Yes — he is still burning with passion for music and thinks his best is still to come. He was a gracious and friendly host, and seemed to have fun talking and listening to music.
At the Current we're proud that Prince is a member and supporter, and proud that he listens and we're helping turn him on to new music. Until 20Ten finds a home in the US, we're one of the few places you can hear new music from Prince, and we're excited to hear whatever comes next from our Purple Yoda.