5 Years Ago: How Prince Stormed Back With ‘Art Official Age’
Largely silent since 2009, Prince suddenly returned with two albums – a previously mentioned collaboration with 3rdEyeGirl and this surprise solo project. Art Official Age, released with Plectrumelectrum on Sept. 26, 2014, coincided with another career plot twist: A new contract with his old nemesis, Warner Bros.
Why return to the label he split with after famously scrawling the word "slave" on his face, then changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to sabotage his contract? "I've finally got something," he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune back then, "that is a cohesive statement."
There was also the opportunity to finally secure the masters to his old Warner Bros. recordings. An announcement that they'd reissue Purple Rain as an expanded, remastered 30th-anniversary set followed. But Prince was moving ahead, and at considerable speed.
Art Official Age was believed to have been recorded over the previous year at Paisley Park Studios, unlike some other contemporary Prince albums – including the subsequent HITnRUN Phase One – which were pieced together from various sessions. The frame of musical reference here isn't his Warner Bros. days., however, but rather the New Power Generation era, as Prince builds from a foundation of straight-on R&B.
He was just getting started, mixing and matching things tried and previously untried on a weird and erotic project that's nowhere near as rule bound as the more band-oriented Plectrumelectrum. Along the way, Prince deftly inserts futuristic EDM sound effects, turns a meme into a slow jam called "This Could Be Us," takes on the album's titular artificial age with "Clouds," and dabbles in diaphanous Weeknd-esque orchestration on "What It Feels Like." He even makes another run at "Funknroll," offering a suitably funkier redo of the final track on Plectrumelectrum, after unleashing one of his most deliciously sexy songs in years on "Breakfast Can Wait."
Listen to Prince Perform 'Breakfast Can Wait'
There's a loose theme here, one dealing with reawakening, but Prince also flashes moments of surprising introspection. "Way Back Home" seems to reference his surprise reunion with Warner Bros., even as Prince takes a bracingly honest look at growing old. Elsewhere, he sounds genuinely, profoundly remorseful to see a relationship fall apart on "Breakdown," singing: "I was sorry, so sorry for the things I used to do."
Yet Art Official Age is really the sound of an artist boldly reclaiming – and then expanding upon – his own legacy. In part, that's because he'd abruptly widened his circle. This album represents Prince's first extensive collaborations with Joshua Welton, the engineer/producer husband of 3rdEyeGirl drummer Hannah Ford Welton who would take on an even larger role with HITnRUN Phase One. Guests include Lianne La Havas ("Clouds," "Affirmation I & II" and "Affirmation III"), Andy Allo ("What It Feels Like," "Time") and Delilah ("Way Back Home").
That said, Art Official Age is no Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic-style bid for pop glory, even if it did reach the Top 5 on the Billboard 200 – and No. 1 on the R&B charts. ("I don't need to be on the radio," Prince told the Star-Tribune. "I've been on the radio all my life.") Instead, this felt more personal, like an intimate glimpse into where Prince's mindset was at this moment in time.
Prince seemed to be acknowledging that his feet were in two musical worlds, one older and one thrillingly brand new, but this time he never lost his balance.