Crystal Ball/The Truth
The saga of Crystal Ball is one that goes back to the ’80s, when Prince set out to release a triple-album called — as you might have guessed — Crystal Ball. Warner Brothers made him edit the unwieldy recordings down, however, and what resulted was one of his most celebrated releases, 1987’s Sign O’ the Times. So when it came time for Prince to put together a sprawling triple-disc set of unreleased material in 1998, he chose the original name of his 1987 epic. Add to that the acoustic companion album, The Truth, and it becomes the most eye-poppingly massive standalone release in Prince’s entire discography. That alone makes this one a difficult set of music to wade through, which grows even more intimidating with colossal tracks like the 15-minute “Cloreen Bacon Skin” or the 10-minute title track. If you’re a Swans fan, this probably doesn’t seem all that out of the question. Then again, if you’re a Prince fan, it doesn’t really either. You learn to roll with the weird marketing decisions, wealth of material and inevitable filler that comes with it.
The filler isn’t overwhelming on Crystal Ball though. The box set is overwhelming in and of itself, sure, but there’s actually a lot of really strong material, including that 10-minute opener, gospel track “An Honest Man,” sensual funk of “Crucial,” hip-hop flavored “LoveSign,” light-hearted pop with spoken-word highlight “Movie Star,” and ultra-raunchy favorite “P Control.” The Truth isn’t half bad either, if not as vibrant or fun. And yeah, there’s definitely some skippable material throughout — that’s just an inevitability with any release that contains 30-plus songs. But that said, it says something interesting about Prince’s talent and abilities when his leftovers are nearly as good as his A-list material. – JT
Rating: 7.0 out of 10
The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale
(1999; Warner Bros.)
You can probably tell by the title of this set that it’s not a studio album, but in fact a collection of outtakes. And it’s a contractual obligation at that! In fact, it’s not even a contractual obligation — it’s a termination clause. In exchange for getting out of his contract, Prince allowed Warner Bros. to release some of his old material on a compilation of their choosing, and this is the result. It’s fairly short at 40 minutes, and skews heavily toward his early ’90s sound, blending smooth R&B and funk sounds with polished production and occasional nods to classic soul. And it’s not bad, but it’s also a bit slight. “My Little Pill” is barely a song. “There Is Lonely” never feels like it fully gets off the ground. And “Extraordinary” sounds like a “Purple Rain” reprise, though obviously not as good. But then again, there’s the string-laden John Barry funk of the title track, which is frankly incredible. The Vault feels more like an EP with bonus tracks, but it’s more or less what you expect from an outtakes collection — some good, some bad and a lot of unfinished material. – JT
Rating: 6.1 out of 10
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic
Prince’s 1999 offering, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, is widely considered one of the worst albums he ever released — maybe the worst. And whether or not you believe that to be true, Prince certainly doesn’t make this an easy album to defend. The title track is a pretty empty dancefloor auto-pilot exercise, so soulless and boring that I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for stopping there and never visiting the album again. But there are 17 more tracks! Two of them are segues. One is a commercial for www.loveforoneanother.com, and 1-800-New-Funk, and it’s pretty tacky/lame. One of them is a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” with more nu-rave drum machine magic. While we’re on the subject, Sheryl Crow actually makes a guest appearance on “Baby Knows,” which sounds a bit like The Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West.” Gwen Stefani also makes an appearance on “So Far, So Pleased,” which sounds like Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” And Eve lends her guest rap to “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” which sounds like Eve, basically. And by and large, a lot of the songs here — the ones that are actually songs — are passable, but it’s hard to single out any of them as actually being good, though “Undisputed” does kind of have that “Kiss”/”Gett Off” funk raunch that we all love so much. It’s a victim of the late ’90s, this album, and while some artists were producing their best work (The Flaming Lips, Wilco, Elliott Smith), it didn’t treat others so kindly, Prince being one of them. Call this one inessential at best. (Also, that uncanny valley album cover is definitely the worst of his career.) – JT
Rating: 3.5 out of 10
The Rainbow Children
One thing you can’t say about Prince’s 2001 concept album is that he cared about the risk in creating a work which linked his newly-adopted Jehovah’s Witness faith, a curiously monarchial twist to erotic exploits, lofty gnostic interpretations of the metaphysical history of the world, the struggle for racial equanimity, and a jazz-fusion resurrection nobody could recall asking for. He knew, I am sure he knew, this was going to be a mess, and that was fine with him. This album is therefore guaranteed no lower than a 2.0 rating for force of will alone. You want your receipt, Prince?
That The Rainbow Children manages to sustain active listening for an hour and ten minutes is a miracle in itself, although following the plot should be abandoned around Track 3. It’s not so unlike any of his other stranger-in-town narratives. What’s different is that his ideas constitute new interpretations of Christ’s kingdom (“Rainbow Children”), outcasts are now the enemy (“Digital Garden”), sex is fine but it’s got to be for the betterment of future power generations (“Muse to the Pharoah,” “1+1+1=3”), and instead of standing alone at the end he’s willing to submit to the Lord and keep on preaching the “good news” (“The Everlasting Now”). The racial identity component is almost a subplot, outside the main religious message in a strangely self-contained history lesson (“Family Name”).
The Rainbow Children isn’t an outright flop, but boy does it seem like it’s trying to be. Prince’s decisions seem like dares: If you could make it through the annoying narration – voice pitched way down to slow-mo mode, a la “Bob George” from The Black Album, yes, we get it, this is mega-gravitas – and the workmanlike but organic fusion of the first three songs, not all of this will suck. “The Work Pt. 1” is a reasonable James Brown cop that swings with pleasure (the totally moral kind, I mean). “She Loves Me 4 Me” is a sweet piece of wonderment that ranks with his finest love songs. And this is a shock: The last three songs, all of which are extensive jams that approach eight minutes apiece, are not wastes. They actually work.
But here’s a plot twist for you all: I was actually raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I quit at 15. And listening to The Rainbow Children as a reborn exaltation of the singer’s new faith – A Love Supreme for the door-knockers – was a bizarre bit of incongruity. No everyday Jehovah’s Witness would dare pull from external myths to complete the story, the way Prince cites the Akashic records. Hell, very few JW’s would own Bitches Brew, which this album recalls more than once, because of its title alone.
If the person who made this album was not the highest-profile Jehovah’s Witness convert of all time, but just a 23-year-old, rank-and-file JW making music about his own vision of faith, I guarantee you he’d be in trouble with the elders. They would counsel him and watch closely for any misstep. But it’s Prince making this album, mixing elements of the Watchtower Way with very, very “worldly” strains they would consider by-products of the Devil’s work. And he gets away with it. Just for that, I’m giving him another point. – PP
Rating: 5.4 out of 10
Prince does smooth jazz! Who wouldn’t want to jam to that? Well, uh… this is where it gets a little awkward. Prince is such a talented performer, and such an unstoppable musician, that he can basically follow any flight of fancy he feels like and still make it sound impressive on some level. But some ideas just aren’t worth pursuing. To wit: N.E.W.S., his 2003 smooth jazz-funk album featuring four instrumental tracks, each of which extends beyond 14 minutes apiece. One hour of extended meandering jam sessions, basically. And that works if you’re Miles Davis. But Prince is a pop musician; when he does honest-to-God songs, he knocks it out of the park. But this is indulgent, boring and pointless. – JT
Rating: 2.0 out of 10