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Prince For a Day 

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The Artist

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic

(NPG/Arista)

By Josh Goldfein

This year should've belonged to the artist once known as Prince, and not just because he wrote the theme song. Prince Rogers Nelson is a millennial figure in his stature (not to be confused with his height) among the greatest composers of the century, in his thematic obsession with apocalypse and transcendence, even in his pioneering use of the Internet. But instead of taking over, he's fallen so far off the cultural map that some wags have dubbed him the Artist Formerly Known. His new record, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, is already out of the Billboard top 100. How did he end up missing his moment in such a spectacular way?

Of course, New Year's Eve will belong to Prince, even if the Artist continues to frustrate us. At the stroke of midnight, MTV will air a performance of "1999" from a pay-per-view special taped December 18 at Paisley Park. And earlier this month the Roots and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid got a head start on the party, taking over the Brooklyn Academy of Music to stage a song-by-song performance of 1999 with a rotating cast of vocalists, including Rachid, Prince Be of PM Dawn, and Angelique Kidjo. The performances had to compete with the material, and a few came close. Joan Osborne, stunning in a red gown and matching feather boa, channeled Sophie Tucker (or was it Bette Midler?) for a sultry "Little Red Corvette." Living Colour front man Corey Glover worked the crowd into a frenzy with a relentless "Lady Cab Driver," and beat jazzbo Carl Hancock Rux told us why "All the Critics Love You in New York" (and he should know).

It was fun, remarked one friend, but not as much fun as a Prince concert. The Artist has never been the single greatest singer, dancer, songwriter, musician, or performer in pop music, but he certainly has the highest combined score. If there was an era he did lay claim to, it was the 80s, when he hit his artistic and commercial peaks. With Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981), 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), Parade (1986), and Sign 'o' the Times (1987), Prince established a canon that seamlessly synthesized rock, soul, funk, and R & B. He's never had a firm grasp on hip-hop, but maybe he was just born too soon. He was inconsistent, but he was smart, funny, fast, horny (and often sexy), and he had buckets of tunes.

For the last ten years, though, the most distinctive aspect of his work has been the absence of an editor. The Artist's talent may be his own worst enemy: after proving with his first record that he could compose, play, and produce an album by himself, he rarely collaborated, and his self-reliance led slowly to isolation. He's made more news in the business pages than in the music section lately: after branding himself a "slave" to Warner Brothers (as Chuck D put it recently, "If you don't own the master then the master own you"), he hired New York attorney L. Londell McMillan to break the chains. Having boxed himself in with this rhetoric--what record company would not exploit him?--he declared that in addition to composing, playing, and producing his records, he would henceforth also release them himself.

For a moment, it looked like he was on to something. Emancipation (1996), the inevitably named first record--first three records, actually--from his own New Power Generation label (then manufactured and distributed by EMI) was nearly great; soulful and serene, it proved the Artist was still growing. In a show at New York's Roseland ballroom not long after the set was released, he was on fire from the get-go, tearing through Emancipation's "Jam of the Year," "Face Down," and maybe a dozen others without stopping to let himself or the audience catch a breath. He danced on the piano, dropping into splits and popping back up again in one fluid movement. He dedicated a song to McMillan, calling him "the great emancipator," and seemed energized to party right through 1999.

A few months later he provoked pandemonium at Jones Beach by cruising into an outdoor show in a purple motorboat, but by then the bloom was off the rose--the record had tanked, and the show hadn't sold out. He'd lost the spark he had at Roseland, and to keep the audience excited he offered a rapid-fire succession of invocations of his vast catalog. It's a trick few artists could pull off, but at one point he sent the crowd into delirium by singing a single word--"scandalous!"

Disillusioned with major-label distribution, he decided to cut out the last middleman, setting up a mail-order house, 1-800-NEW-FUNK, with a Web page (www.newfunk.com) to detail the merch. One product there, purportedly a cassette of the Roseland show, listed for $15. When I called to order it, the operator couldn't tell me what was on the tape, but confirmed the price. "With shipping and handling, that comes to $13.50," she added, and I didn't bother to question her math. The package arrived a week later, and included (at no additional charge) a glossy booklet with publicity photos and lyrics from Emancipation. The tape turned out to be just the first two songs from the show, "Jam of the Year" and "Face Down." (The page has since been updated to correctly describe the contents and the price, but the item is sold out.)

Not long after releasing Emancipation, the boss announced that his next record, Crystal Ball, wouldn't be available until he had received enough orders to pay for it. While eBay and Priceline.com seek to eliminate inefficiencies in pricing by allowing buyers and sellers to negotiate prices for surplus commodities, the Artist tried to eliminate the surplus itself. Which is not to say he didn't release too many records: Crystal Ball was two CDs longer than Emancipation. Still, he claims to have sold 250,000 copies of Crystal Ball without spending a cent on promotions, and he didn't have to share the profits.

But unlike Ani DiFranco, who has slowly but steadily built her record company on the strength of an expanding fan base, the Artist wasn't winning many new converts. In fact, he managed to piss off many of his most loyal fans. In a colossal E-error earlier this year, he unleashed his team of "emancipators" on Uptown, a Swedish magazine and Web site dedicated to all things lovesexy. In February, under the name Prince Rogers Nelson, he sued Uptown in federal court in Manhattan for publishing his unpronounceable glyph without his permission, alleging among other things that Uptown was making money off his image and his work. Uptown counterclaimed that the Artist was trying to stifle criticism and "clear the commercial landscape" for a print spin-off of his own official Web site, www.love4oneanother.com.

Uptown posted the legal documents on-line, prompting fans to wonder what their hero could have been thinking. In July, after a judge ordered that Uptown could depose the Artist under oath and on video about the claims in his lawsuit, the parties settled. Although the agreement remains private, both sides have confirmed that no money will change hands and that Uptown will still have the right to use the glyph editorially. The Artist issued a press release whining that Uptown had created a "circus" out of the case, but of course he was in the center ring.

As two-thousand-zero-zero approaches, the dawn of the New Power Generation doesn't appear to be any closer. Instead, the end of 1999 has seen the return of the Artist to the mainstream distribution machine--albeit via Arista, which has a reputation for coddling talent. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic also marks the return of "Prince," who's credited with the production, which is the best thing about the record: the compositions, which are credited to the Artist, are not his best work. He starts strong, with a pair of supple funk numbers, including the sizzling title track. "Tangerine" recalls the best of his 80s pop, but the first single, "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," is not a keeper. His cover of Sheryl Crow's "Everyday Is a Winding Road"--unlike Emancipation's version of the Joan Osborne vehicle "One of Us," which put some meat on the song's dorky bones--gets a flat Kirk Franklin treatment.

Crow obviously didn't mind; she plays harmonica and sings backup on the vampy "Baby Knows." Gwen Stefani duets with the Artist on the synth-poppy "So Far, So Pleased." DiFranco plays barely audible acoustic guitar on the piano ballad "= Love U, but = Don't Trust U Anymore," Maceo Parker adds JBs-style sax to "Prettyman," and Chuck D rhymes on "Undisputed." But the most successful cameo, oddly enough, belongs to rapper of the moment Eve, who remains her surly self in "Hot Wit U."

All this collaboration has a faint whiff of desperation. Arista mogul Clive Davis pulled a guest-star-studded quintuple-platinum record out of his hat for Carlos Santana this year, and perhaps the Artist is hoping for the same magic. But once again he may have made a bad bet. Euro megacorp BMG, which owns Arista, is reportedly considering dumping Davis despite his success with Santana--in part because of overspending by its joint venture with Sean "Puffy" Combs, Bad Boy Entertainment. In the end, the Artist may yet be undone by two 20th-century forces he never really mastered: hip-hop and the consolidation of the music business.

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