The new posthumous release, Welcome 2 America, from Prince, shows sometimes you can’t have it all – even if you are the Pied Piper of modern soul and funk.
Released on Friday, the album was done and dusted back in 2010, a period when The Purple One was at the peak of his concert performances, yet struggling in the recording booth.
On stage, Prince was slaying audiences worldwide, as his schedule included a staggering 21-show residency at London’s O2 Arena in 2007 and his debut Middle East performance in Yas Island as part of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – a show that helped place the UAE capital on the global touring map.
However, despite the packed shows, fans were not keen on his new stuff. With 2007’s Planet Earth and 2009’s epic triple album Lotusflow3r sinking without a trace, it was no wonder he wasn't fully confident about dropping Welcome 2 America.
The album was eventually buried and he opted to release the lacklustre 20Ten instead.
It was the wrong call.
The vibrant and luscious Welcome 2 America would have perhaps not been a hit upon its release then, but would have surely served as a welcome course correction.
The social commentary coursing throughout the solid collection, with songs detailing the scourge of racism and economic disenfranchisement of minorities, would have easily bettered 20Ten, which came free with copies of British newspapers The Daily Mirror and Daily Record.
Then again, maybe Prince – a musical futurist if there ever was one – knew we wouldn’t have appreciated the work at the time.
Now, stripped of the context of his career demise and a growing, painful appreciation of what we lost with his death in 2016, we can hear Welcome 2 America for what it was and is: a mostly strong collection of funk and soul songs that remain timely even 11 years after he wrote it.
Prince always had something to say
The album should also go some way to bury a misconception that Prince wasn’t political.
From 1981 track Ronnie Talk to Russia – detailing his concern of a potential nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union – and his 1987 album masterpiece Sign O' The Times, with its reflections on the HIV Aids epidemic and poverty, to 2015's Baltimore, about the death of African American Freddie Gray under police custody, Prince was always aware of the prevailing social currents.
Welcome 2 America is potent because the issues discussed remain relevant today.
It was recorded during the first term of Barack Obama's presidency, and clearly Prince wasn't satisfied with the state of his country.
Over darting bass lines and spiralling synths, the title track drips in sarcasm as Prince details, in a mix of rap and spoken word, the societal decline caused by advanced technology and popular culture.
Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of Apple products. “Welcome to America, distracted by the features of the iPhone," he says. "Got an application for each situation. In other words, taken by a pretty face. Somebody’s watching you.”
Google gets it too: "Welcome to America, where everything and nothing that Google says is hip.”
In the standout Born 2 Die, a homage to the gritty and cinematic soul music of Curtis Mayfield, he looks at the bigger picture.
By following the life of an African American woman forced to work and hustle on the streets, Prince questions why US minorities can't thrive in what is the richest nation on Earth.
Over yearning strings, Prince laments a life spent on the run: "Far as she concerned, crime does pay, ask her when, she say from the first day.”
While there is more pointed material, such as Running Game (Son of a Slave Master), about the machinations of the record industry, and the rallying cover of Soul Asylum's Stand Up and Be Strong, none of the material sounds overwrought.
A convivial recording affair
This is down to Welcome 2 America being one of Prince’s more collaborative efforts.
A notorious taskmaster, he loosens the reigns here with most songs built over jam sessions with long-time creative partners, including keyboardist and producer Morris Hays and (former backing group) New Power Generation singers Liv Warfield, Shelby J and Elisa Fiorillo.
The vocalists, sounding every bit as playful and strident, are all over Welcome 2 America, particularly in the futuristic soul workout of 100 Light Years from Here.
Such an open-house approach can have its limits, however. Welcome 2 America does suffer from the unfocused nature characterising Prince's later albums.
He may have wanted Hot Summer to be a jam for family barbecues, but it sounds tired and stiff. Meanwhile, 1010 (Rin Tin Tin) is a tune best left in the vaults.
Minor misfires aside, it is good to hear Prince sounding fresh and vital, even if posthumously.
Welcome 2 America is proof that even his discarded material can stand the test of time.