ALBUMS / Funk as soap opera: Andy Gill on the latest from Prince, and others

PRINCE & THE NEW POWER GENERATION

(Paisley Park/Warner Bros 9362- 45037-2)

SEX, sex, sex. Get used to it, because over the next few weeks you're not going to be allowed to get away from it, what with Madonna's book and album blast, preceded here by Prince's latest excursion to the moist regions.

A few years ago, both Prince and Madonna spiced up their ideas of sex with religious subtexts, but both now seem to have reverted to the purely carnal for inspiration. They've become hyperbolic porno-fantasy figures in a world where real sex has become too dangerous. Prince acknowledges as much in 'I Wanna Melt With U': 'This is safe sex, New Power Generation style / A funky little story about U and me', the abbreviation here adding to the anonymity of the encounter: it's not even you that's involved, just U.

As with Graffiti Bridge, Prince relies on heavy work-rate, cramming with 78 minutes of music. The tracks are supposedly glued together into a 'rock soap opera' by annoying little bits in which Kirstie Alley, playing a reporter, attempts to get a phone interview with His Purpleness. But too many of these tracks are just routine funk workouts like 'My Name Is Prince' and 'The Continental', libidinal thrustings of a brutish, masculine kind, balanced by too few songs of more feminine grace and beauty, like 'Sweet Baby': it's the difference between raw animal attraction and seduction.

It's the musical equivalent of Dynasty, glamorous and hollow, with dropped hints that maybe we ought to be taking it autobiographically. Certainly, it's difficult to read 'Arrogance' any other way: 'What makes a man wanna rule the world? / Make him man enough 2 say he's 50-50 girl? / What makes a man wanna curse and swear? / Then blame it on heaven cuz he's already there / Pimp-rag, tootsie pop and a cane'.

But so what? For all his abundance of talent, he has no more to say than Michael Jackson, which is not a lot. Pushed for a grand finale to , all he can come up with is a couple of over- inflated blow-outs, '3 Chains O' Gold', all bluster, a grotesque pseudo-operatic arrangement more appropriate to Freddie Mercury, overlaid with heavy guitar, while the lyric offers up portentous nonsense about the eponymous gold chains.

The great shame about all this is that is decently done; Prince's enormous, Tardis-like talent is augmented here by rap acts NWA and Eric B & Rakim and old R & B stalwarts Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulsom. Likewise, the different shades of his production, touching on Bacharach for 'And God Created Woman' and Clinton for the funk, are handled with a rare deftness.

BETTY BOO

Grrr] It's Betty Boo

(WEA 4509-90908-2)

BETTY Boo has yet to elevate herself to the rarefied porno- fantasy status of Prince or Madonna, despite the black plastic and tiger-print outfits flaunted here. She's aiming at a slightly different market, but it remains to be seen whether the Sindy- doll presentation - each song is accompanied by a differently costumed Betty, from the PVC to a more demure gingham - pitches itself too knowingly at the Kylie generation.

The songs on Grrr] are mini- dramas of sexual intrigue, rather than the full-blown evening gown-and-tiara mini-series of Prince's album. There's less erotic headiness, but more self- awareness and wit on display. Her songs are very specifically- positioned scenarios of adolescent sexuality, first-love True Stories, involving much secrecy and hiding from parents as waves of uncontrollable urges crash wildly on young emotional beaches.

In a sense, Betty has come for your daughters, outlining the rules of the gang in her posse song 'Skin Tight'. Out are drugs, fags, streaked hair, Suzuki jeeps; in are 'four fly girlies on four fast wheels', exfoliation, sexual mores that are not kinky but 'kind of fruity'.

NINE INCH NAILS

Broken

(Island IMCD 8004)

TRENT Reznor, frontman of hardcore industrial band Nine Inch Nails, sets himself up, as have many of the same genre before him, as the voice of degradation, obsession and, judging by his lyrics, violent sexual fury: 'I want you to take me,' he screams in 'Last', 'I want you to break me / Then I want you to throw me away'. Oh, all right then.

This is ugly music, for ugly times. Fascistically aggressive, its beat is like steel forges on overtime and heavy guitar riffs loop implacably like Golem on the move. It's a compelling performance, the logical conclusion of NIN's concentrated dose of nihilism and misanthropy ('You know me, I hate everyone' poor Trent howls in 'Wish'). But the last track, 'Gave Up', admits a glimmer of deeper self-knowledge, being a frank admission of auto-destructiveness in the name of lust for life.

OMAR

Music

(Talkin Loud 512 401-2)

'THERE's Nothing Like This,' sang Omar on his acclaimed debut. How times change. There's plenty like this now. In particular, there are plenty of Stevie Wonder albums with tracks like 'Music' itself, a floaty summer's-day mid-tempo ballad which, like much of Music, acts like soft-soul balm. Then again, if you must sound like someone, it might as well be Stevie.

Omar is an abundantly talented multi-instrumentalist with a firm grounding in a vast array of mainly (but not exclusively) black musics. Music opens with a snatch of multi-tracked doowop, just to show you Omar's vocal moves, before settling into a cool flow that adapts samba and soul rhythms to his own ends. Most tracks feature airy vocals borne aloft on soft jazz-soul grooves, with Omar again playing most of the instruments himself, but augmented by string and wind arrangements.

Compared to his debut, however, there's a material shortfall here, with little beyond the romantic or social platitudes that are Brit-soul's stock-in-trade.

(Photograph omitted)

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