Purple reign

He was once the biggest pop star in the world, bar, perhaps, Michael Jackson. On the eve of his new album release, Chris Mugan wonders if Prince can be king again

February's Grammy awards were dominated by a young generation of stars, such as Outkast, Coldplay and The White Stripes. But the show was stolen by a figure who had not been in the charts for years. It was Prince who hit the headlines, opening the ceremony in a sensational duet with Beyoncé that took in his classics "Purple Rain" and "Let's Go Crazy", as well as the diva's hit "Crazy in Love". The performance appeared to be a bid to have His Purpleness inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, an event that duly occurred last month. But it was also a bittersweet reminder of a time when the dimunitive musician was a colossus on the musical landscape, a seemingly effortless, immense and maverick talent.

February's Grammy awards were dominated by a young generation of stars, such as Outkast, Coldplay and The White Stripes. But the show was stolen by a figure who had not been in the charts for years. It was Prince who hit the headlines, opening the ceremony in a sensational duet with Beyoncé that took in his classics "Purple Rain" and "Let's Go Crazy", as well as the diva's hit "Crazy in Love". The performance appeared to be a bid to have His Purpleness inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, an event that duly occurred last month. But it was also a bittersweet reminder of a time when the dimunitive musician was a colossus on the musical landscape, a seemingly effortless, immense and maverick talent.

So why has Prince chosen now to re-emerge from the shadows, after spending much of the past decade holed up in his Paisley Park studio complex? Can it be that, with the release of his new album, Musicology, the man who at one time painted "slave" on his face to protest at major-label ways has once again embraced the music industry? Just what has it taken for Sony to entice him back into the corporate fold; and what does it portend for the online empire that has of late been his principal means of communication with his fan-base? And, perhaps most crucially, is Prince about to regain the dizzying heights of his glory years?

The Grammys appearance was, it seems, just one of the steps in his rehabilitation. In recent weeks, Prince has embarked on a tour, ditching the elongated jazz-fusion jams of previous outings for a run through the hits that made his name. "Purple Rain" and "Little Red Corvette" have been dusted down and sound as fresh as ever. "School was in session," raved the Indianapolis Star, praising a bravura acoustic segment that sounded more Delta blues than R&B. The Des Moines Register saw the artist "reclaim his royal sparkle" in Ames, Iowa, when he covered "Crazy in Love" and Outkast's "The Way You Move". His Los Angeles date was broadcast live to cinemas in 43 US cities.

Rolling Stone was there to note that the LA show opened with a video history of Prince's career. Perhaps the 45-year-old star of the show was trumpeting his own feelings of vindication, but he was also looking back. The Rolling Stone critic went on to say that Prince delivered a "two-hour-plus history lesson on both his rich body of music and the history of American music". His relevance was beyond doubt - shown by the way he could cover tracks made for the young generation that monopolised this year's Grammys. They have all grown up in Prince's shadow and, in many ways, are following in his footsteps. That is not a new phenomenon, as you can trace his influence in Macy Gray and Beck's Midnight Vultures, but nowadays it is all-pervasive. On "Hey Ya", Outkast's Andre 3000 is a carbon copy of Prince, while N*E*R*D's funk-rock hybrid builds on Prince's genre-defying work. In the UK, our very own Basement Jaxx fly the flag for his wilful eclecticism.

It has been well over a decade since a Prince album has been as fêted as Musicology, though you have to wonder how much of the noise is down to the record itself and how much is relief that the diminutive icon can remind us of his genius. Judging by present form, it is unlikely Prince will write another masterpiece. "Musicology" (the song) is decent enough, but hardly an equal to "Sign O' the Times" or "1999". Musicology's title track is as taut a piece of funk as you will hear this side of the Millennium, but there is none of the intensity of "Kiss" or the drama of "Nothing Compares 2 U". The intriguing "What Do U Want Me 2 Do" sounds more like west London's jazzy broken beats scene than US R&B, but, apart from that, Musicology is sonically conservative.

Prince is no longer breaking new ground, as he did throughout the Eighties; or displaying the audacity of "When Doves Cry", a song played entirely on one chord. It is refreshing, though, to hear Prince sound focused across a concise 12 tracks, after a series of releases in the Nineties that were either flabby, running to three discs, or just plain bizarre, like the 2001 jazz-funk paean to his Jehovah's Witness beliefs, Rainbow Children.

There are only fleeting moments that remind us of when Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the few artists that could hold a torch to Sly And The Family Stone or Funkadelic, perhaps the only figure once Michael Jackson had released Bad. Like Jimi Hendrix, Prince looked like he could have come from another, free-loving planet. The iconic artist used the peacock posturing of the decade to portray a sexuality that veered away from macho norms. He surrounded himself with like-minded people. The image of his kaleidoscopic backing band, The Revolution, was almost as strong as his own. He transcended genre and race boundaries, especially by breaking through to a mainstream audience on MTV. Even more precious was the creative control he demanded when he signed to Warner Bros in 1978, unprecedented for any black solo artist since Stevie Wonder.

Prince's artistic decline was shadowed by personal tragedy and eccentricity that bordered on serious mental problems. Even at the height of his powers, he was hugely secretive, spurning interviews in favour of sanctuary in his Paisley Park recording studios. Then, such idiosyncratic behaviour was an excused adjunct to his unquestioned brilliance. Only when his records began to lose their edge did the eccentricity overshadow the music. Graffiti Bridge was a poor sequel to Purple Rain, and the exquisite Diamonds and Pearls, with its hits "Cream" and "Gett Off", was barely balanced by Symbol.

Prince disowned his name in favour of the symbol, something more easily transcribed as TAFKAP - the artist formerly known as Prince. This was only a precursor to the war of attrition that accompanied the souring of the relationship with his record label. He wanted out of a contract that had shackled him in gilt-edged handcuffs, but the record company refused to budge, continuing to demand its one-record-a-year pound of flesh. Prince released an lacklustre succession of records and compilations to appease Warners, but got more attention for appearing in public with "slave" daubed on his face. He finally cut loose in 1996 to set up his own label, though his first release was the three-disc, three-hour behemoth, Emancipation.

With freedom, Prince was able to pander to the strangest of whims, surrounded by acolytes and yes-men in his Minneapolis fortress. He was one of the first artists to take advantage of the internet to form a direct relationship with the public, though he used NPG Music Club to put out releases of interest only to his hardcore fan-base. That same year, his then wife, Mayte Garcia-Nelson, gave birth to a son; rumours soon began to circulate that the baby had died shortly afterwards. No word came from Prince himself, though it did not take long for his home city newspaper, the Star Tribune to discover the death certificate of a "Boy Gregory" that it traced it back to Mayte. The baby had died from the rare skull disorder, Pfeiffer's syndrome.

While emerging to promote Emancipation, Prince refused to acknowledge his personal loss. A month after his son's birth he appeared on Oprah and said, "It's all good. Never mind what you hear." That week the album was released, with a track that sampled his child's heartbeat from an ultrasound scan, while a pregnant Mayte appeared in the video for "Betcha by Golly Wow". Prince was not to speak openly again until the new millennium gave him a chance to start afresh. At the end of 1999, his publishing contract with Warner Chappell finished and the symbol could regain his name.

He still needed to rebuild his personal life, though, a matter that took on some urgency with the deaths of his mother and father within months of each other. Prince found stability through remarriage and religion. Spirituality had always been as important as sex to Prince's oeuvre, but it soon took much more importance. One of his mother's dying wishes was that he would convert to her faith, the Jehovah's Witnesses, which he duly did in 2001.

Throughout this time, one Manuela Testolini had been working at Paisley Park, and was rumoured to have become close to Prince after Mayte had annulled their marriage the year before. The couple married on New Year's Eve 2001, and were baptised together the next year. Reports then began emerging from Minneapolis of residents opening their doors to greet a familiar, sharp-suited figure who wanted to talk to them about Jesus.

Last year, Prince released, via NPG Music Club, the album N.E.W.S - four instrumental tracks, "North", "South", "East" and "West", each of which came in at 14 uninvolving minutes. Under-standably, then, Sony, the label that is putting out Musicology, is sitting on the fence. Having released a handful of records via EMI and Arista, Prince has now hooked up with another major in a deal shrouded in secrecy. It appears to be a one-off - Sony is to manufacture and distribute the album. Rumours abound, though, that the label has an option on further releases. Prince is keeping it at arms length: he recorded the album himself before allowing the label to promote the product. And he can sell the album to fans on his NPG Music Club.

While his best work sounded classic and contemporary at the same time, Musicology looks back rather than forward. On the title track, he is happier dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire and Sly rather than any contemporary sounds. The album is actually close in spirit to several of his Nineties releases, especially 1998's New Power Soul. Both albums were recorded mainly by Prince alone - he is a master of drums, piano and guitar - and sound rather retro.

So Prince is at a point where he is happy taking stock of his musical legacy, and creating music that befits a man settling down into middle age. One note of caution: as Sony says, Prince "continues to confound audiences".

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