Saturday, June 24, 2017

Emancipation (1996)

I was never as offended as others by Prince's insistence on equating the contract difficulties he had at Warner Bros. with slavery, as it was literally a battle to control masters and Prince was the black person in the equation doing the work. But I understood the point. I thought it was a little strange to start his formal manumission with two albums totaling some six hours of music on six CDs, with very few singles emerging from the assault. File under "ambitious," after four albums in the previous two years. In other words, Emancipation, his first album out from under the major label, is typical Prince product. Unfortunately, I considered that a small problem at the time. Like a science experiment, I was saturated. I could not absorb any more. I never even bothered to buy the follow-on two years later (at least he gave us those two years), Crystal Ball, and thus began my slow drift from following him closely, though I picked up several more of his new albums over the years. So it was good to give myself the chance to return to Emancipation at last and finish the job of absorbing. In 1996 I had stalled on the first CD and the one song that distinguished itself (after the covers), "White Mansion," which put me in a Minnesota mood with a high lonesome sound. The other two discs, no surprise, are equal to the first or better, affording hours rewarded with the solid good stuff. He's still attempting to accommodate latter-day developments such as a couple of spotlights for rapper Scrap D. There's also a rave / techno workup, "The Human Body." And more worthwhile-to-special tracks have distinguished all through: nice guitar play in "We Gets Up," a disclosure of his favorite cereal in "Joint 2 Joint," name-checking for everyone in "Style," and of course lots of good grooves.

Now about those covers, which have always stood out to me most on casual listens. I take that as partly a matter of my attention to the radio over the years, though maybe it says something about the original material. But like many I'm often fascinated by covers, attempting to divine something about the two artists involved, only one by deliberate choice. They are declarations of identity in mysterious ways. Emancipation has four, two each on the first and third CDs, one each per CD of a soul classic and a ballad made famous by a woman: the Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow," Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin), the Delfonics' "La-La-Means I Love You," and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" (written by Eric Bazilian). All titles rendered in Prince, natch. As always the image is of Prince alone in the studio, working this stuff out. The soul songs are impossibly sweet, even in their original forms, and the ballads are impossibly vulnerable. He's a little better I think at accessing the pith of the ballads—he's not afraid they might be maudlin or trite, and thus he makes sure they are not. He's notably brave taking on "One of Us," which had been a big hit earlier that year, much disdained in many quarters. I have always loved it but often still feel a little constrained to keep my mouth shut. I hate to use the term guilty pleasure. But Prince really brings it for this one, underlining the themes (yes, including "slave" for "slob") even as he makes it all soar. A liberating moment for me for sure. There are many others in this generous set too.

No comments:

Post a Comment