Prince — Welcome 2 America
Qobuz new release review (July 2021)
Broadly speaking, Prince’s musical output was almost always improved when he was collaborating with musicians who kept him on his toes creatively. The man released albums’ worth of superlative material that just poured directly from his brain with no intermediation. When it comes to the work he did with his bands, there is a clear difference in quality with the Revolution, the first incarnation of the New Power Generation, and 3rdeyegirl versus what he did with other lineups, which largely consisted of highly skilled but mostly personality-free players who tended to fall in line, rather than raise the stakes or add colors to the mix. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century Prince was often surrounded by highly talented musicians who were a little too in awe of his royal badness to push him into new directions. The resulting music Prince made tended toward the clinical and anodyne, including the mediocre-to-disappointing albums Planet Earth and Musicology that consisted of boring songs played expertly. Even these albums — being Prince albums, after all — managed to each have a few spectacular moments (20Ten, while among the weakest of all Prince studio outings, still contains one of his very best ballads — “Future Soul Song.”)
Emerging from the vault as a relic from this era is Welcome 2 America, a putative “lost album” that Prince reportedly shelved at the last minute. (Despite his estate’s insistence, there is still some debate as to whether this is actually a true “lost Prince album,” as it was never mastered or given artwork at the time, and Prince would often cobble together sequences of contemporaneous songs for consideration as an album. Still, given that he booked a tour with the same name and that this sequence has a distinct consistency to its vibe and lyrical approach, it’s not a stretch to take the estate at its word.) Had the album been released as a follow-up to 20Ten it would have been a welcome improvement and may have even made that lazy LP seem like a discographical aberration. However, it still suffers from many of the same faults as other Prince albums released during that era; it’s an album of boring songs played expertly, punctuated by a few moments of head-spinning brilliance.
Positioned as “a political album,” the current-events commentary here is pretty on-the-nose, lacking any of the weird nuances of The Rainbow Children or the fiery forcefulness of later tracks like “Baltimore.” (There’s a George H.W. Bush reference?) Only about a third of the cuts here are actually issue-oriented, with the rest treading more familiar Prince lyrical territory. “When She Comes” makes it quite clear Prince was no longer feeling constricted by his faith regarding lasciviousness. Musically it’s consistent to a fault, lacking much in the way of dynamics. Relying primarily on low-key and mid tempo grooves that vary between somnambulant and autopilot, there’s not a lot here for a listener to grab onto. Some songs (“Born 2 Die” especially) even sound unfinished, while others don’t even feature Prince on lead vocals. Of those, a cover of Soul Asylum’s “Stand Up and Be Strong” is just baffling, with vocals given over to Elisa Dease and a slick, lifeless production that makes one wonder why it was even included. “Hot Summer” is a goofy and slight pop-rock confection that, despite being one of the few tracks to bristle with any sort of energy, is almost embarrassing to listen to. Likewise, the uptempo “Yes” tries to conjure up a Family Stone-style bit of positivity, but its cloying lyrical approach — they spell out “Y! E! S!” — is a masterclass in cringe. Much better is the spare, funky rocker “Check the Record” which, despite mostly staying in the mid tempo groove of the rest of the album, is dripping with plenty of weird, Princely touches from churning organ and overdriven guitar to stacked harmonies and playful lyrics. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s fun and a reminder that weird Prince is always the best Prince. © Jason Ferguson/Qobuz