With this four-CD set, the transformation of Paisley Park into a fully dimensioned subculture seems complete. It's now a funky studio rat's glam answer to the Dead, a gungho audiophile republic of rockers and popsters and hip-hoppers who remain convinced that (the symbol) is the man. Crystal Ball is two and a half hours of previously unreleased tracks spread across three fitfully annotated discs (each labeled Bootleg) that comprise an overgrown overture to the fourth CD, an acoustic recital subtitled "The Truth." For Paisleyheads, Crystal Ball will represent a treasure; others may find it patchy — fun, yet annoying in its coy sprawl.
"D'Angelo's favorite bootleg," enthuses an entry in the priceless booklet that accompanies Crystal Ball. The track is "Movie Star," a jive-y piece written originally for the Time's Morris Day. Paisleyheads like D'Angelo will love Crystal Ball: It contains monstrous funk jams like "Hide the Bone," alternate versions of rare, previously released joints like "P. Control," and the Daft Punk-like "Poom-Poom." It even includes "Days of Wild," a Chinese-toned R&B workout where background voices implore, "Free the slave!" — that wry bit of sloganeering from a few years back, when the Artist was determined to leave Warner Bros. and go indie. There are the shadowy ballads built from harmonic microchanges, like "So Dark" and "Crucial"; a killer reggae tune titled "Ripopgadazippa" ("inspired by an episode on a weightlifting bench," the booklet explains); plus blues-and Latin-and gospel-driven songs, all in sexy trademark combinations.
On the title track of The Truth ..., the Artist comes off like Tracy Chapman's older brother, the formal genius, turning his meticulously natural singing voice to tough questions about responsibility and honesty. Of course, he knows as well as anyone that there's no more "truth," necessarily, in this style of music than there is in "P. Control." But the game here is up-close folkiedom, and hearing (the symbol) minus his usual musical constructs is interesting. On songs like "Don't Play Me" and "One of Your Tears," the Artist reconditions his sensational studio style, buffing everything down to a fine shine on a guitar line or two. The shocker is "Circle of Amour," a Joni Mitchell-ish ballad with a quietly twisted rhythm track. This remarkable portrait of female friendship before and after cheerleading practice hits with the same wallop of teenage truth as Big Star's "Thirteen." Certainly not all of Crystal Ball scales such heights. But for Paisleyheads, it's one long party.