In his long-ago heyday Prince complimented Kid Creole’s backup girls by admiring how Adriana Kaegi “used every beat of the music in her choreography.” Evidence of that admiration loomed large this February on Saturday Night Live, when Prince’s new band broke into a fierce little fit o’ funk called “Fury” in which Mr. Nelson’s own distaff trio adopted several signature Coconut moves. Támar and her crew do Ikettes meet Isadora Duncan, while Adriana’s Coconuts did Ikettes meet the I-Threes. But you get the idea—just the way Prince wanted you to. Because as with all of Prince’s stylistic borrowings over the years, every strategic cross-reference is intentionally transparent.
In fact, the best thing about 3121 is the opportunity it affords its maverick creator to school the children by recontextualizing historically resonant pop riffs and icons. Setting this studio jam session in his mythologized West Coast home was a gesture of prideful ownership and genre mastery. Here he lets us partake of a proprietary blend of favorite licks culled from his encyclopedic musical memory. Duets with Támar can evoke Marvin and Tammi, Ashford and Simpson, or Jerry Butler and Brenda Lee Eager. The percussive cameo Sheila E. contributes to “Get on the Boat” recalls Santana, Tito Puente, and Latin boogaloo. And it was partly the effortless eclecticism of America’s big-band leaders that inspired mucho multiculti funk by Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Kid Creole, who also inspire Prince.
A mere 12 tracks in a digital marketplace where 15 or more is the norm, 3121 strives to replace quantity with quality. There’s no filler here, although the production values on a minimal track like “Lolita” don’t measure up to those of the more magnificently appointed compositions, like “The Word.” From a “Black Sweat” video single reminiscent of the kinetic minimalism of “Kiss” to the Sade-influenced lyricism of the flagship ballad “Te Amo Corazón,” His Royal Badness wants this album to sound comfortably familiar and yet fresh. So he doesn’t fall back on the classic soul covers of Emancipation or overly cryptic experiments like The Rainbow Children. 3121 plots a commercial course between these two extremes. “Satisfied” brings a touch of gospel blues to a Memphis-styled slow drag Sly Stone would envy; Maceo’s horn and Cora Coleman Dunham’s shuffle beat resurrect the spirit of the JB’s on “Get on the Boat.”
Yet provocative anomalies abound. Prince attempts multilingual sophistication on “Corazon” but uses a Spanish title when the song’s samba backbeat suggests Portuguese. He lets the nubile Támar sing lead on “Beautiful, Loved, and Blessed,” whose verses allude to Christian rebirth yet read like an exposé of how Prince routinely remakes his protégées. The stinging funk-rock of “Fury” could serve as a belated apology to erstwhile collaborators like Wendy, Lisa, Vanity, Apollonia, or Cat: “U must have heard he’s got another band/They’re makin’ $ and makin’ plans/U feel left out but you need 2 understand/Word on the street—he’s still Ur man.” Is all this refreshing candor a mark of maturity or egotism? Hard to tell with Prince. Long confident enough to conk his hair or dress in filmy caftans more fey than Maharishi-era Donovan, perhaps he’s finally also mustered the courage to admit a few personal flaws.
Named after the street address of Prince’s L.A. digs, 3121 also purports to offer fans a vicarious peek inside his Oscar-party palace where key tracks were recorded. The CD booklet is filled with lush pix of the stately pleasure dome, often illustrating (as described in “The Dance”) specific locations for spontaneous copulation. Finally, all the sex/religion/romance pimp-o-lean mind games we’ve come to associate with Princely pop have their visual counterpoint. If Kirk Franklin and Kanye West weren’t also making hits that blur the distinctions between evangelism and edutainment, Prince would still rule the controversial territory of gnostic r&b alone. But a little serious competition is just what the purple one has always needed to stay on point.