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If he hadn’t choked to death in London’s Samarkand Hotel 37 years ago, how many mediocre records would Jimi Hendrix have dropped by now? Stevie . . . the Stones . . . Sir Paul . . . they’re all way past the point where any residual genius is still expected. Since at least The Gold Experience over a decade back, Prince—sadly, inevitably— is right there with ’em. Onstage, he’s still a sexy beast, as irresistible a force as Parliament-Funkadelic. But re Planet Earth, it’s hard to imagine a purple protégé—Jesse Johnson, say—putting out anything worse.
Which doesn’t make it suck. One of the best ax men of his generation, Prince energetically cranks through a Coldplay/U2-inspired riff on “Guitar,” an ode to loving his instrument more than his lady. (Something his two ex-wives must know something about.) Casting off the Linn drums that define his ’80s work, Earth instead follows the full-drum lead established on Diamonds and Pearls, and new tracks like “Lion of Judah” and “The 1 U Wanna C” (his first Wendy & Lisa collaborations in 20 years!) are the better for them. But the problem here isn’t technical, or even musical. Once upon a time, Prince strutted around the Bottom Line, strumming G chords in a G-string, screaming about blowjobs and incest. But hip-hop did shock and awe better—Prince could never be more salacious than BET Uncut dancers or rappers fucking for voyeuristic fans during song interludes. So in the ’90s, he went syrupy. (Think “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”) Earth‘s “Future Baby Mama” comes in that model, an easy-listening ballad passé by anybody’s standards, much less Prince’s. More successful is “Somewhere Here on Earth,” a slow jam with muted trumpet up front as Prince rues the BlackBerry era. (“In this digital age/You could just page me/I know it’s the rage/But it just don’t engage me.”)
Anti-war, pro-environment, religious (“Chelsea Rodgers” only gives up trim if you’re baptized), and funky, Planet Earth is still merely an excuse to tour, as obligatory for Prince as any other artist who’s been around this long. (He’s walked 29 years in those high heels since For You, after all.) Until an ’80s nostalgic like the Roots’ ?uestlove gets executive-producer duty—assuming Prince will ever deign to take outside direction at all—we’ll end up with mixed-to-middling records like this one: 3121, Musicology, etc. At least he’s starting to give ’em away free.