Prince’s hype-man instincts defy categorization every bit as much as his vocal and instrumental talents beggar description. Though he’s fallen off since the 1980s—who, in his shoes, wouldn’t?—it’s this artist’s strange and frequent urge to over-promise that helps keep everyone harping on Sign ‘O’ the Times as his apogee. Yet here we are again. An album title like HITNRUN Phase One promises a fair amount, not least the possibility of a concept worth serializing. And that’s before the album is announced by its creators as being“experimental” in construction. Though after stripping away the promotional language from this streaming-only platter, exclusive to Jay Z’s Tidal service (for now), one finds something far less earth-shaking: a casual, slightly-weirder-than-usual release with one very good R&B song (that’s reportedly been kicking around in his vault for a while), stranded in the album’s penultimate slot.
To get to that very good song—at least in the manner that Prince and his young co-composer, producer, and mixer Joshua Welton intend—you’ll plug through a half-hour sequence that contains a throwaway intro, a trio of putative party-starters cluttered with the confetti of modern-dancefloor production-debris, two reworked (as opposed to improved) songs from 2014’s superior Art Official Age, and a tweaked version of the “Fallinlove2nite” standalone single that failed to make that prior album. (Ditching Zooey Deschanel’s backing vocals doesn’t much elevate that breezy tune’s mild charm.)
Among the remains, “Hardrocklover” would seem to be an opportunity for one of pop’s most reliably sensuous guitarists to make up ground. But the song seems strangely subdued and bored with itself. While the lyrics (“Turn my guitar up so I can make this woman scream”) suggest that the inevitable appearance of guitar-heroism will be climactic, Prince’s unfurling of his distorto-wail cape feels rote. The loopy-but-hard-hitting funk of “X’s Face” is initially promising, though it too is thin on development. Elsewhere, the (mostly) instrumental “Mr. Nelson” riffs with a modicum of inspiration on remnants from Art Official Age standout “Clouds”.
On a first listen, you might suspect that the album’s opening sequence of not-disastrous (but not-terribly-memorable) EDM-influenced jams is going to be the focus of HITNRUN Phase One. Though this, too, is part of a formula: compare Prince’s almost-rap flow on “Shut This Down” to that of 1992’s “My Name Is Prince”, and it’s easy to see that the artist has a template for approaching ascendant pop trends. There are stray, tasty touches in this opening salvo—a brief electric-bass clinic in “Shut This Down”, the integration of saxophone, rhythm guitar, and digitally programmed curlicues in the last minute of “Like a Mack”—but experimental this ain’t. Not for the artist who wrote and recorded “Crystal Ball”, anyway. (By point of comparison: Prince has also made newly available some truly chancy and obscure work from the late 1990s—like the extended paranoid-freakout “The War” and the mostly-acoustic album The Truth—on Tidal.)
Disappointments and missed opportunities aside, it’s still great to have an official, Prince-sung version of “1000 X’s & O’s” (an old composition once intended for Rosie Gaines). When Prince sings in an environment unmolested by contemporary cliche, he gives us more than at any other point on HITNRUN Phase One—including that iconic, multi-tracked one-man choir, in addition to lyrics that, while they might not be much on the page, snap with a seductive pull when placed in his mouth (“Every drop of sweat on your brow/ Is well-earned/ So you best believe”). Even if, this time around, you can forget the familiar discographical parlor game of comparing each new Prince record to earlier triumphs—this one isn’t his best album in the last twelve months, let alone years—songs and performances like that one show why it remains unwise to count him out.