53: 3121

3121 (2006)
In 2004 Prince brought Michael B and Sonny T back into the studio for the first time since the Chaos and Disorder sessions. In a single, short creative burst they recorded the bulk of the Lotusflower album, some of Planet Earth and Prince’s last great title track: 3121. Within seconds of 3121′s opening bars you know the track’s in safe hands. The power duo forge a solid funk base that allows Prince freedom to really embrace his freak side and indulge in a level of goofing around not seen since the Emancipation album. Effects pedals are in full force. Horn synths bang out a big band solo. And most importantly, Michael B and Sonny T aren’t the only ones brought out of storage: Camille’s back baby! Other than a small cameo on 1+1+1 is 3 (and arguably a couple of tracks on the Slaughterhouse album) we hadn’t heard any new material from the pitch-shifted hermaphrodite since the 80s, a hibernation verging on the criminal. Camille’s vocals are sadly missing from live recordings and without them the beat, previously futuristic funk from an undersea city, gets reduced to the steady workhorse backing for a collection of ragtime numbers or a talkbox effect that fails to ignite the same flames as Prince singing through an effects pedal. On Indigo Nights Prince has to throw DMSR over the top to maintain the crowd’s interest. It’s fine for a stadium opener, but it’s no aftershow in Atlantis.

174: Te Amo Corazón

3121 (2006)
During a two-year period of my life, I listened to nothing but Colombian music and have since built up a tolerance against any song with corazón in the lyrics (which is roughly 100% of all cumbia). So Te Amo Corazón was ready to fall into my blind-spot and then – oh my god and then – Prince scat duets with his guitar and *kisses fingertips* mi corazón estalla! He could fill a whole album of this 30-second flight into the sublime and beautiful, and it would still end too soon. Salma Hayek directed the video whom he repays by hitting on her via her infant daughter on Valentina. He had obviously created something too smooth for this world and had to readdress the cosmic balance.

231: The Word

3121 (2006)
In the beginning was The Word and The Word was good. Not great – the beat seemed basic and the acoustic riff forgettable – but the melody was a hummer. Above-average filler. Not the first name on the teamsheet but a dependable squad player. Then The Word was heard through headphones and hordes of musical elements came scuttling from the shadows, like woodland sprites out of the presence of humans. The elves brought their turntable tricks while the faeries cast spells of ethereal ambiance. Dryads provided Latin percussion, the goblins wreaked havoc on the panning and a leprechaun upturned a whole Pro Tools folder labelled Numinal Shenanigans. In any other song, Prince’s Santana-style solo would have been the highlight, but here it turns in circles like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, overawed by the entire field of sound it walks through. Or maybe the wee folk were always there and I just need to get better speakers.

270: The Dance

The Chocolate Invasion (2004) / 3121 (2006)
The Dance first appeared on The Chocolate Invasion as an unmemorable but technically solid wail of unrequited love – the only song on the album that hadn’t previously been available to download. Prince wasn’t done with it yet though and re-recorded a version for 3121, crafting it into a smoother but still fairly forgettable filler track… until… OMG until… the final act. Then wow! Prince turns up the melodrama dial to full foot-stamping tantrum and screams “It’s not fey-eh! It’s not FAY-EHHH!!!” Histrionic fireworks that sear this broken-hearted breakdown into your brain. It has a redemptive twist on a par with The Usual Suspects. A slow-boil jam that’s three parts If I Love You Tonight, and one part The Beautiful Ones.

281: Incense and Candles

3121 (2006)
The dreaded autotune: refuge of the mediocre and the merely mortal. Music’s much-maligned MSG and the soulless jackboot stomp of capitalism’s expediency. 90% of pop now has this vocal-corrective software, papering over the cracks in singers’ shortcomings but Prince surely has no need for such a crutch? So when he debuted it on Incense and Candles fans cried foul like it was Dylan going electric. This was no patch-up fix or homogenising youth-appeal gloss though. Prince took a leaf out of the Cher playbook and wields the tool like a wizard, warbling in and out of key to stretch the algorithms to their outermost limits. At times imperceptible; at times full T-Pain. The sound of pop eating itself. Incense and Candles may don the standard-issue armour of the war for commercial exposure, but it’s worn in a style that is pure art.

322: Love

3121 (2006)
Originally a sweet little acoustic, airy number, Prince decided to armour up the amour for Love’s eventual release, putting his full force behind a loving but scolding message to his fanbase. You’re cordially invited to stop giving him your wishlists and sass and please find enclosed a top-drawer dance beat to show there’s no hard feelings. This series of admonishments is what Michael and Janet’s Scream would sound like if their tabloid-bashing tirade was toned down and interrupted with choruses of inspirational poetry that you normally find overlaying sunsets and waterfalls on Instagram. Shots fired with a loving kiss.

379: Get On the Boat

3121 (2006)
An end-of-times revelry, completely unlike songs such as 1999 and 3121 in that it’s still an invitation from Prince to party like the apocalypse may arrive tonight, but this time it’s on a boat! Totally different! If I dwell too long on the Watchtower-inspired lyrics it can begin to sound like the kind of religious recruiting literature handed outside train stations but I do like the idea that this vessel currently has, going by the JW’s heavenly quota, 143,900 partying souls aboard. Room for a hundred more though. The music is straight-up funk. A Latin-double-dipped rumpshaker performed by an all-star band, immaculate in its execution with Shelia E on timbales and Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer on horns, but slightly lacking that disruptive piece of grit to grow a true pearl. Although it survives the taxidermied ordeal of being pressed flat into CD form, its natural habitat is live and on stage, not trapped in recorded amber. The song ends with the party ark sailing off without the incredulous conga player, leaving him on the dock, locked into a groove desperately trying to ward off the darkening night.

403: Fury

3121 (2006)
If this was a list of greatest live songs Fury would almost certainly be top 20. Blistering performances on Saturday Night Live and The Brit Awards excited fans and girded them for a snarling rock behemoth on the upcoming 3121 album but the studio version couldn’t quite live up to the incendiary hype. Its influences were too evident. Made from rubbing the flint vocal structure of Girls & Boys with the steel synth hook of 1999, the resulting guitar flames that lick at the track never quite reach the heights of his televised inferno but playing it ear-bleedingly loud goes some way to make up for it. The single release also featured some his best artwork to date, going for a psychedelic Hendrix vibe, but if you were thinking of trying to convert any Jimi lovers I’d play the b-side – the Brits performance with Wendy and Sheila E – where his guitar immolates the minor-key recycling of the aforementioned 1999 riff. Hell hath no fury like a Telecaster shredded.

441: Lolita

3121 (2006)
Prince’s Humbert Humbert dutifully knocks back his underage admirer’s advances in this personal-space-invading atmosphere of tight, staccato synths. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel may now have its own dictionary definition but I find the name Lolita so inseparable from his glissading writing style that it sits uncomfortably on this claustrophobic machine funk. But that may just be the raving Nabokov fanatic in me. Literary references aside, Lolita is a fun romp from an older, responsible Prince. A funky click track clipping the wings of ripening desire. It’s cut from the same paño as 2009’s Valentina and I’ve heard it compared to the jerky, more lubricated Soft and Wet, but when held in the same light as his debut single Lolita becomes, to quote Nabokov, just “rust and stardust”.