The Gold Experience (Warners, 1995) Click here to listen. Gold Experience is the closest Prince ever got to a repeat of his most populist moment, Purple Rain: It's an album that constantly tries to please, rather than confound. Instead of switching from one style to another with every track—his signature mode after he first tried it on Sign O' the Times and too often an excuse for lazy genre exercises—he binds them tightly together, with the most aggressive guitar-playing of his career as the glue. "319," for example, sounds like heavy metal choreographed by James Brown. The serrated guitar riff stomps in tandem with the kick drums, but then we hear rhythmic counterprogramming from spare horn patterns, clicking camera shutters, and a chorus chant. There's an urgency here that's rare even for Prince. He's seldom sounded quite so horny, and that, of course, is saying something.
Emancipation (NPG/ Capitol, 1996) Click here and here to listen. Emancipation, Prince's first release on his NPG label, advertised itself as proof of his eclectic supremacy, spreading rock, funk, R&B, techno—even big band swing—across three discs. But really, it's about consistency: Everything is solid, yet nothing stands out. What's missing is Prince's ability to turn straightforward tunes into inspired oddities with radical arrangements or studio effects. The emotionally direct and down-to-earth ballads, however, are new. When he layers multiple vocal tracks on "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife," they reinforce each other and his feelings, rather than competing to ascend into the mirrored-bedroom delirium that's been his staple. On "Let's Have a Baby," Prince tenderly picks out a simple, halting piano melody. He's leaving it up to her; he'll do what she wants to do. For once, he almost sounds humble.
The Truth (NPG, 1999) Click here and here to listen. Acoustic guitar usually signifies sincerity and commitment. For Prince, it's just another style to fool around with. On "The Truth," the opening track of his only acoustic album, bluesy guitar and introspective lyrics seem at first to promise true confessions. But barely 90 seconds go by before he starts dropping odd little whirring noises into the mix, as if to tweak po-faced singer-songwriters. By the time we get to "Animal Kingdom"—a vegan anthem—lapping waves and eerie suspended synthesizer notes set the stage for bizarrely filtered vocals, screeching dolphin noises, and backward-recorded guitar. (There's some acoustic strumming in there somewhere.) Unfortunately, the strongest album Prince recorded in the last 10 years is also the best example of his inept marketing sense. The Truth is packaged as the fourth disc on the Crystal Ball outtakes box (the rest of which, luckily, is worth cherry-picking for some of his hardest and most playful funk), but it should have been an MTV Unplugged set.
The Rainbow Children (NPG, 2001) Click here to listen."Digital Garden" epitomizes the wayward, meandering songs on this concept album. Echoing chimes become a gentle tribal drum pattern before murmuring vocals and guitar creep up; then, a dissolve into silence. Finally, a misshapen wah-wah riff barges in, accompanied by a slowed-down voice-over about "the Banished Ones." It could be prog rock. It could be jazz funk. Whatever it is, it's beyond any norms of form or taste, and that makes it curiously fascinating. (Too many other tracks on The Rainbow Children are merely bland.) Prince had recently become a Jehovah's Witness, and the album's narrative about the salvation of the chosen ones—who, one suspects, subscribe to the NPG music club—is easier to stomach if considered as a sequel to his first sustained spiritual outburst, 1988's Lovesexy. (The apocalypticism is basically unchanged, but sexuality is no longer a direct route to God.)
One Nite Alone … Live (NPG, 2002) Click here to listen. Jazz is the one form Prince has never quite mastered. When he goes at it head on, he invariably lapses into lite-fusion noodling—see, or rather skip, the mellow, sax-filled snooze on the first of these three discs from his last tour. (The second, mostly a Vegas cocktail-hour piano-hits medley, isn't much better). But when he uses jazz to complicate his arrangements, he's more successful. Witness the knotty take on "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" on the far superior third disc, which documents his famously loose aftershows. The original, from Sign O' the Times, is a wistful reverie: Downbeat drum machines and burbling synthesizers sound like the bubble bath Prince jumps into with cocktail waitress Dorothy (keeping his pants on, for once). Live, a tangled bass line, pounding piano, and swinging horns translate into an equally dense, but much looser, more joyful jam—this time, when Prince chants her name at the end of the track, it's in celebration.