Prince’s “Musicology” Reviewed
After three instrumental jazz albums in succession at various degrees of shruggable -there to prove Prince could, and before that a triple live album that was great on one and not great on two, Prince could sell out any arena he chose but as pop stars go he wasn’t popular on the charts. His 30th album, 2004’s Musicology, was Prince’s response. Distributed by Columbia Records (when not being tacked onto the price of his concert tickets), Musicology did the trick through completely legal trickery (Billboard would later change the rules governing sales). The album was certified platinum by The RIAA in June 2004 and was certified double platinum in late January 2005.
Good for Prince, it is a very good album. A consistently well written, well performed set of funk and r&b tracks that rewards close listening with immense pleasure. Prince called it a music education for the fans and I’ll buy that. The opening songs, “Musicology” and “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” are as terrific as funk got in 2004 or 2016 for that matter: they are as good as Funkadelica or the Isley Brothers or… well maybe not Curtis Mayfield but close. That falsetto scream at the start of the title track and the little beats leading in and Maceo Parker all parenthesis and interruption. Just as great as you can get. As for “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”… it is just a great dance track with who pimping who a question mark and the bumper sticker of the year: “Hips and lips chips and whips”. It is so funky and sexy and if you don’t like it Prince isn’t for you. On top of which there is a great lost ballad “Call My Name”, Prince in full blown Gamble And Huff the sound of the Philly Stylisticallly brilliant mode. The rest of the album isn’t quite as good but none, I mean none, is thrown away, nothing isn’t fully formed.
However, there are problems that find Prince not what he was. In the 21st century, Prince lost his pop chops (an exception would occur a decade later, in 2014, with “Baltimore”). The two songs that should have made the case don’t. “Cinnamon Girl” is the sort of number Prince would have never missed in the 1980s, conceptually both sweet and savoury, the verses savoury and are fine but the chorus should be sweet and it isn’t, an emphatic organ slams it hard where it should shimmer and the tune feels unformed though the track doesn’t. It isn’t that “Cinnamon Girl” is a bad,, it is that it isn’t what it wants to be. The question as to Prince’s, for want of a better term, whiteness, becomes much clearer in his rethinking of “Nothing Compares To You”., “A Million Days” -a sad, sad song where his language isn’t disciplined enough and he doesn’t have Sinead O’Connor to find its inner melody.
The rest of the album is what Prince claims it is: lessons in funk formulas but the thing about educations is that they are one size fits all by definition, they are consensus and generic and while when the lesson is the art of funkiness and the teacher is Prince, it won’t be that bad, it will also be a little dry. “Life O’ The Part” is a fine dance track but that is all it is. It does its job so well that fits in his excellent 2004 MSG gig towards the end of the second set with ease but without profoundness, Prince used it solely to up the energy level. The guitarist performed it 104 times between 2003 and 2004 and never again. It was as utilitarian as the song itself.
Still, why can’t music be useful? Why can’t an album be a masterclass even with all the limitations it places upon the artist. Musicology lives up to its name, it is a lesson in black dance tracks and it is a fine achievement. Hips, lips, chips, whips and sales slips.