It make me dance, it make me cry,” Prince purrs on the title track of his tenth album, “and when I touch it, race cars burn rubber in my pants.” Longtime Prince fans (you know, the kind whose eyes mist over when recalling the Minneapolis Wunderkind‘s funk-infested pre-1999 era) have been waiting for him to sing those kinds of lyrics for years. And if you don’t pay close attention at first, Lovesexy does indeed sound like old times. When he slyly sings, “Now come on and touch it, eye no U will love it,” in the same song, the mind reels back to the days — almost a decade ago — when Prince pushed the barriers of racial and sexual expression as he sang of oral sex and of getting extremely chummy with his sister.
That is where the similarity to the salacious Dirty Mind-Controversy era ends, however. At the threshold of thirty, Prince may still be obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh — the in-the-buff cover shot is more than ample evidence of that — but the Prince of Lovesexy is a different man from the teenager whose first Top Forty hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” sneaked in lyrics like “I wanna be the only one you come for.” Dense and murky even during its peppiest moments, Lovesexy catches Prince in moods we normally don’t associate with him — frisky but contemplative, sly yet introspective. “It’s time 4 new education, the former rules don’t apply,” he announces at one point, and he spends the rest of Lovesexy demonstrating just what those new rules are.
Beyond anniversaries and personal matters, Lovesexy arrives at a pivotal moment in Prince’s musical career. While he’s spent the last few years broadening his musical palette with soul psychedelia, movie soundtracks and the inspired patchwork quilt of last year’s Sign o’ the Times, plenty of lesser lights have built on his early trademarks, to the point where even a relatively flaccid talent like George Michael can successfully out-Prince the originator on “I Want Your Sex.” Prince’s initial retort was to whip out the now infamous “black album,” originally scheduled for release last winter. Crackling with James Brown horn licks, assorted grunts and groans, guitar leads that burned into your skull and enough expletives to make the PMRC open a new branch, that album was shelved at the last minute for unspecified reasons in favor of Lovesexy, a new record (save for one track) that’s as complex and indecisive as the black album was locomotive and sexual.
Lovesexy can be playful, too, when it wants to be. “Come a butterfly straight on your skin/U go 4 me and I come again,” he squeals in “Glam Slam,” a paean to simple physical urges. “Lovesexy,” which plops his deepening voice in a bedrock of plush funk, also romps in sexual bravado: “Dig me now/Anyone that’s ever touched it — they don’t want nothing else.” Fortunately, Prince still has enough of a sense of humor to mock his own bragging. In the spoken-word vamping that ends the song — “You want me to walk right down your halls/You want me to swim in your love sea, don’t you, baby?” — he distorts his voice electronically, from a low growl to a squeal, as if mocking the sexual zeal with which he’s become synonymous.
These blatant allusions to the earlier, hornier Prince could have easily deteriorated into self-parody; indeed, Lovesexy could well have had the dubious honor of being the first Prince record to take its cue from his own past, becoming his first regressive album in a career characterized by large strides. But thanks in large part to the seven-piece band with which he recorded the album — and which played on last year’s European tour and in the Sign o’ the Times movie — Lovesexy reveals how intricate and complex Prince’s concept of funk has grown since 1980’s Dirty Mind. “Eye No” opens the album with a jumbled barrage of Sly Stone wails, fatback bass lines, a grinding sax, wah-wah guitar and swarming backup vocals that continually collide with each other.
Similarly, the album’s first single, a self-confident blast of bragging called “Alphabet St.,” starts with chunky guitars and percussion, takes in bassist Levi Seacer Jr.’s popping bass line and meanders into a rap and a full-band vamp. The riveting “Dance On,” a more urgent and nihilistic take on the party-till-the-apocalypse theme of “1999,” is anchored by a machine-gun-like synth-bass part, squawking horns and Sheila E.’s jazzy, stuttering drums. By comparison, the linear grooves and near-disco rhythms of early classics like “Sexuality” and “Uptown” sound malnourished and underdeveloped.
Tracks like “Alphabet St.” and “Eye No” are important in the context of Prince’s recent work, for they show he hasn’t lost his touch for inventive dance music; even the relatively uneventful “Glam Slam,” which sports the album’s blandest melody, puts every Prince clone of the last five years to shame. But a good chunk of Lovesexy isn’t concerned so much with getting that special someone undressed and into bed as it is with making that elated feeling last. “When 2 R in Love” — the lone holdover from the black album — is a cushy R&B ballad tailor-made for the Stylistics. Couched in a warm bed of funk, Prince’s wavering falsetto pleads, “Bathe with me/Let me touch your body ’til your river’s an ocean…. Can U hear me?” (The difference, though, is that a group like the Stylistics would probably never sing a line like “When 2 R in love — their bodies shiver at the mere/Contemplation of penetration.”) Likewise, the swirl of gorgeous harmonies in “I Wish U Heaven” may sound comforting, but it can’t conceal the lyrics’ nagging sense of uncertainty. “Doubts of our conviction/Follow where we go,” he nearly whispers, and sure enough, by the end of the song, the relationship is over. “If I see 11, U can say it’s 7,” he concludes with more a sigh than a growl. “Still, I wish U heaven.”
The new, humbled Prince singing these songs comes to a crux on “Anna Stesia,” a slowly simmering ballad that brings Lovesexy‘s allusions to failure and loss to a (pardon the pun) head. An exercise in controlled intensity, the song builds from its simple piano-and-voice intro (“Have you ever been so lonely that U felt like U were the only/One in this world?” he softly intones at the song’s beginning) to its shattering finale of synth blasts and guitar bursts. But as the layers of instrumentation build, so does self-doubt. “Maybe I could learn 2 love, I mean the right way, I mean the only way,” he exhorts before turning to God: “Save me Jesus, I’ve been a fool/How could I forget that you are the rule?” Ultimately, the answer to this vague sexuality-versus-God issue goes unresolved — the song ends with the repeated lines “Love is God/God is love/Girls and boys love God above” — but the quest itself makes for a captivating ride.
“Anna Stesia,” as daring in its own way as “When Doves Cry” or “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” would have made a perfect finale for Lovesexy. Instead, that job goes to “Positivity,” seven minutes of workmanlike grind on top of which Prince and band lay down a stream of positive advice: “Hold on 2 your soul/Don’t kiss the beast, be superior at least…. We got a long, long way 2 go.” Although the sentiments are certainly admirable, the somewhat dull melody and overlong arrangement are anything but, and Lovesexy ends on something of a stalled note. “Positivity” is too simplistic a finale for a work that can’t begin to answer its questions of sex, love, God and morality, and it blunts the album’s overall impact. Maybe Prince preferred to end the record on an upbeat note so as not to discourage those listeners introduced to him via the ejaculating guitar in Purple Rain or the power pop of “Little Red Corvette.” But it wasn’t necessary: the most successful moments on Lovesexy prove that the hardest questions may not lend themselves to easy answers but make for much better music.