prince-clouds-coverPrince – Art Official Age
2014; NPG Records/Warner Bros.
: iTunes | Amazon

Prince is from that breed of old-school artists who tend to churn out about five projects every decade, making the music that THEY care to make instead of what they may feel pressured to make because of the industry or pulse of society at a given time. The Purple One staked his claim on 2014 – he not only headlined the 25th Annual Essence Music Festival this summer and returned to the public eye after a near four years’ absence, but also reconciled with Warner Bros. Records and released a double-album of sorts in Art Official Age and PLECTRUMELECTRUM.

Art Official Age, Prince’s first full-length project since 2010’s 20Ten – which flew much more under the radar than its predecessor Lotusflow3r in 2009 – can be summed up in two ways. First, it’s a culmination of the work Prince put out when 3RDEYEGIRL was still just a “mystery middleman” leaking songs to the public (“Breakfast Can Wait” first surfaced on the internets in early 2013). But it’s also The Purple One making himself accessible to the younger generation (aka the “artificial” age. Get it?). In contrast to PLECTRUMELECTRUM – the all-woman band 3RDEYEGIRL’s album which merely features Prince in the background of some tracks – whose funk-infused pop-rock sounds will appeal most to Prince’s more-dedicated fans, Art Official Age is suitable for all audiences, not sonically overwhelming and full of life maxims hidden within the simplest of lyrics.

Part of Art Official Age’s charm is how it plays upon certain pop culture references, further allowing Prince to bridge the gap between older fans and new initiates to his musical style. Look no further than “This Could Be Us,” which re-imagines the popular Internet meme of comparing where a couple wants to be versus what they are. “This could be us, but you keep on playin’,” thus evolves from a running joke to a serious appeal for more in a relationship and for the games to end so two people can get on to the getting on together.

The ballads serve as Art Official Age’s strongest point. You don’t become a legend in the game without knowing how to build an album and Prince intelligently assembles the LP to where the upbeat songs, the funkier beats, and the slow burners are mixed amongst each other, rather than following in succession. For example, “The Breakdown” hits listeners hard, with its pensive piano keys and Prince’s anguish blowing itself up at the 2:53 mark; then, having been beaten down emotionally by that track, “The Gold Standard” moseys on in to uplift the spirits and “make yo’ body move”; and then gives way one track later into the cockiness dressed up in soul that is “U Know,” an ode to an ex where Prince clears the air about their falling out and assures her that his feelings have never wavered and will still be there waiting when the next man falls short.

The interlude-like “affirmations” – which call to mind, not coincidentally, the DJ Crash Crash interludes from Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady LP, which Prince appeared on – carry the album forward well, with “affirmation I & II” smoothly melting into the EDM-lite “Way Back Home.” “affirmation III” actually becomes its own track, ending the album on a profound note with sweeping strings and the singing kept to a minimum.

Not to worry, Prince purists. The more classic Prince sound lives on Art Official Age as well, just in moderation. Like the intro track “Art Official Cage,” which all but throws listeners smack dab into the middle of a concert with droning horns and a pulsating instrumentation that the Jersey Shore cast would have loved to “pound the beat” to; or the hard-hitting guitars that soon give way to the finger-snapping, head-bobbing audio goodness of rhythm commandments outlined in “FUNKNROLL.”

In one album (technically two, but especially this one), Prince dares to take down the “artificial” sound that’s dominated much of recent music and replace it with something more, well, “official.” And he succeeds, effortlessly. So that by the time the female voice on “affirmation III” proclaims that “The only real destination is you,” you’ve already hit replay. For the fifth time.