By: Will Hermes
What should the greatest pop musician of his generation do when a new generation has the reins? Compete, or become a museum attraction? Prince wants to do both. The medium-hot Musicology (2004) was mostly anthropology, praising James Brown, dissing hip-hop “if it ain’t Chuck D or Jam Master Jay,” and issuing a challenge: “Take your pick — turntable or a band?” In Kanye’s world, however, that equation ain’t so simple. Prince’s old-school funk remains superlative: He can still outplay and outperform most any pop act, hip-hop or otherwise. But songwriting and production chops remain the coin of the marketplace, and in those departments, dude’s definitely lost some shine.
The title track of 3121 chants the room number of a pleasure dome where champagne flows and clothes are optional — where, in the spirit of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” you “can come if you want to / But you can never leave.” The title also conjures a future millennium, as does the song’s music: angular guitar blasts and pitch-shifted voices on a lumbering groove. And finally, the numerical title echoes Prince’s landmark 1999, a recording 3121 often looks back to musically — as well it should. With retro dance rock and synth pop in full flower everywhere (see Gwen Stefani, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Jamie Lidell, and countless German laptoppers with voice-processing software), Prince would be a fool to court the future without pillaging his own past, just like everyone else is doing.
Yet the best songs here, like the title track, find him pushing forward. “Black Sweat” is a horny (yet oddly chaste) single with a halting electro rhythm and a spectacularly nagging Dr. Dre synth whine; elsewhere we get Timbaland-style beats and a talkbox rap with some Houston flow. Both “Te Amo Corazón” and “The Dance” smartly court Latin crossover by bringing back the cha-cha rhythm. But the latter, along with the missionary-minded “Get on the Boat_ — another jazzy, idea-packed, fireworks-show finale — reveals that Prince’s main weakness is the urge to display his own mind-boggling talent. In pop, a little well-turned brilliance goes a long way, which is why lesser talents top the charts.
See also: Jamie Lidell, Multiply (Warp, 2005)