233: Family Name

The Rainbow Children (2001)
Emancipation and The Rainbow Children have a lot in common. Both are deeply personal yet wildly experimental and see Prince flying with unclipped wings, high over mainstream tastes. But a lack of constraint means both have their indulgent lulls. Emancipation has listless soundscapes, added solely to pad out each disc to 60 minutes, while The Rainbow Children has a computer delivering a lengthy, impenetrable sermon at the beginning of Family Name. If Prince had ditched this intro along with the preceding three tracks – the atmospheric but disposable Deconstruction, a jarring show tune The Wedding Feast and the sweet but energy-sapping She Loves Me 4 Me – I honestly believe The Rainbow Children could stand shoulder to shoulder with his early classics. Eight minutes is all it would need to lose, but this desire of fans to meddle is probably why early releases of The Rainbow Children came as one single long track. Regardless, I’ll now do what Prince should have done and skip straight to part two of Family Name, which starts two and a half minutes in with a short skit about the slave trade. This sets up the central premise that African-Americans have had their ancestral names taken from them and when the vocals finally begin you realise the song’s worth the long wait. The lyrics, with its stereotypical Jewish surnames, may be responsible for the “controversial new album” sticker slapped on some copies, but what tends to be lost amid shouts of anti-semitism is that the lustre of the words “Gold-“, “Pearl-“ and “Rose-” highlight how slaves were given names, like Clay and Brown, that were deliberately demeaning. Controversy aside, Family Name grooves like a Burmese python. Then at 5:27 Prince spits on the floor and dark clouds of Maya Angelou’s rising dust start to block out the sun. The track soon gets obliterated by a ferocious guitar sandstorm, which hits us with the power of the moral arc of the universe finally colliding with justice. Car alarms go off. A broken-winged blackbird sings like it’s the dead of night. Thomas Jefferson appears through a wormhole to tell his fellow Americans “we’re going to pay for this”. A hurting world confronts its past. Then suddenly we find ourselves on the other side, amid a wondrously clear daybreak. Martin Luther King recites his dream as we stand on the verge of The Everlasting Now. Moments like these eclipse the entirety of Emancipation. And possibly everything since. You just have to wade through a lot of album overgrowth to get there.