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Prince’s “HITNRUN: phase one” a hit?

On Monday, Sept. 7, veteran performance artist Prince released his 38th studio album, titled “HITnRUN phase one.” The album itself was only announced a month and a half ago and is still available, though only in digital form. For an artist who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol for seven years to get out of a contract, spontaneity is nothing new. Still, “HITnRUN phase one” is one of the most experimental albums Prince has come out with to date.

Musical experimentation aside, the biggest surprise of the album was the method of its release. Rather than a physical release, Prince gave the album exclusively to TIDAL, Jay-Z’s ill-received streaming service. It’s a confusing move for Prince to say the least, and a terrible one for publicity and access to the album. It becomes an even murkier decision with his previous comments that “the Internet is completely over,” published in The Daily Mirror in mind. The Purple One even took it a step further, removing his entire song catalog from all other streaming services across the Internet. A physical release has yet to be announced, and, considering Prince’s aforementioned stubbornness, it could stay that way for a while. If nothing else, it proves that Prince will still do whatever Prince wants to do.

Release aside, the album is an interesting blend of old and new, including many samples of Prince’s past work. It might sound like a rehash of old material at the onset, but the throwback moments actually add a feeling of coherency to the record within the context of Prince’s career. The catalyst for the album’s innovation is his collaboration with Joshua Welton, the producer of Prince’s last solo album, “Art Official Age,” and the album “Plectrum Electrum,” a project with 3RDEYEGIRL. Welton brings the purple sound into the electronic age, adding heavy elements of EDM and electronica to Prince’s long-established, funky style. The marriage has a number of rough patches, and, at its worst, loses its recognition as Prince. But when it works, it’s striking.

Keeping with the references, the album starts off with a medley of vintage Prince intros, including those of “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” This first nostalgia tour leads into “MILLION $ SHOW,” which features Judith Hill on lead vocals and the fat rhythm guitar you would expect from anything Purple official. The first taste of Prince’s new style is shown when the funkadelic bass and chopped guitar give way to horns, which blow into an operatic choir accompanied by a twinkling synth and underlined by crunchy background static. The variety of sounds in this first track show the breadth of Prince’s musicianship and act as foreshadowing to the overall tone of the album.

Like any experimental album, there are points where trial gives way to error, specifically the second track on the album, “Shut This Down.” Despite a nice bass riff under a smooth-voiced Prince in the middle of the song, the combination of Prince’s gritty vocals on the rest of the track and high saturation, electronic beats is something we never needed nor asked for. Thankfully, the mismatched mix is somewhat saved by the following track, “Ain’t About to Stop,” where the fusion of funk and EDM works. The contrast is still stark, but it fits. Unlike “Shut This Down,” it preserves Prince’s feel and features some of the best guitar and bass solos on the album.

The point at which the blend clicks best comes nine tracks in, with “Mr. Nelson,” a throwback to the track “Clouds” from “Art Official Age” and a reference to Prince’s legal name. “Mr. Nelson” is a primarily instrumental piece with Lianne La Havas’ hypnotic spoken vocals floating over the track as it transitions to its climax, where a smooth solo guitar is accompanied by a driving, club-electronica beat. As powerful as it is—and as well as the combo works—it’s still not the best song of the album. That title goes to “1000 X’S & 0’S,” and the story that accompanies its inclusion on the album is an intriguing one to say the least.

Like many parts of the album, “1000 X’s & 0’S” revisits Prince’s earlier career. According to the Prince Vault, the song was originally recorded in 1992 and was intended for a project to be titled “MPLS” which was never finished. It was remixed and re-recorded in the fall of last year, and played over the Paisley Park speaker system in November at one of Prince’s many surprise events at his exclusive venue in Minnesota. The song itself is much more reminiscent of older Prince records, before electronica came to disturb the waters. The unfortunate implication that the least electronic song on the album is the best one is that the addition of electronica didn’t add as much as Prince and Welton hoped it would. The upshot, though, is that “1000 X’s & 0’s” is an instant classic and shows that Prince is still at his best in a love song.

The album, its promotion and its release embody a pattern of operation for which Prince has become known: to show up without warning and do something unexpected. Despite a few rocky moments, the fusion of Welton and Prince’s musical personalities is a commendable and original effort, and, for the most part, it pays off. All in all, I give Prince’s “HITnRUN phase one” nine out of 10 purple raindrops on a raspberry beret. Here’s to hoping it becomes more widely available soon.

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