Leaving aside the Super Bowl halftime show and the assless pants, Prince is like Woody Allen: They're both reclusive, sex-obsessed geniuses who release new material relentlessly and without any regard to the law of diminishing returns. Prince's recording career now spans 31 years: Counting fan-club records, he's averaged more than one studio album per year. His latestrelease actually contains three separate albums, including one he wrote and produced with his new protégée, Bria Valente. The package is excessive and uneven, of course, but it's also intermittently brilliant and a real bargain (that is, if you buy it for $11.98 at Target — not so much if you download it with a $77 membership at lotusflow3r.com).
Prince played every instrument on MPLSoUND — just like the old days, only now he gets obsessive with Pro Tools. He isn't as bawdy as he once was (becoming a Jehovah's Witness will do that), but he's still got a lot of humor and swagger. On the funky "(There'll Never B) Another Like Me," he sings about his beauty routine (it involves olive oil in his hair), and on the seven-and-a-half-minute "Ol' Skool Company," he covers issues from the TARP bailout to the state of radio ("If the White House is black/We gotta take the radio back").
Five of MPLSoUND's nine songs sound like lost B sides from assorted classic Prince albums (Dirty Mind, 1999, Controversy, etc.); these days, even a really good Prince song usually reminds the listener of a better, earlier one. What really hamstrings the album, though, is a four-song sequence in the middle: Two syrupy ballads, one overlong tribute to Valente and one Caribbean-inflected number that sounds like a SmooveÂ B seduction.
On LOtUSFLOW3R, Prince has a specific mission: showcasing his long-underrated guitar playing. Whether it's the spare funk of "Wall of Berlin," the metal grind of "Dreamer" or the hazy cover ofˆ"Crimson and Clover," the music kicks into high gear when Prince starts soloing, delivering one epic face melter after another in a style halfway between David Gilmour's and Eddie Hazel's. The drawback is that when he isn't playing guitar, the music on this disc is oddly muted — you keep waiting for Captain Six-String to fly in and save the day. It's OK to call a song "Love Like Jazz," but the jazz in the title shouldn't be cocktail jazz.
It's been more than a decade since Prince successfully launched the career of a female sidekick, but he's trying again with Valente. Prince has touted Elixer as a quiet-storm album in the Sade mode, but most of it is just generic pop ballads. The lyrics are memorable only when they're clunky ("Taste the rainbow," goes one line, which sounds like it could have come from a Skittles ad). Valente has a pleasant, if thin, voice — she doesn't have the chops to elevate this material into anything memorable. There is one gem here: The catchy dance number "2Nite," where Valente whispers over insistent disco keyboards. One day, it, along with the best tracks from MPLSoUND and LOtUSFLOW3R, will sound right at home on Prince's inevitable box set: 2 Much of a Good Thing.
MPLSoUND - Three and a half stars
LOtUSFLOW3R - Three stars
Elixer - Two stars