With three of Prince’s albums from the mid-2000’s getting a vinyl reissue in February the time is ideal for me to compose my long-overdue love letter to Prince’s most underrated work: 3121. Allow me to meander a bit first with a story to lend some perspective.
I first heard Prince when I was six years old. Even at that young age, not only did I love “Little Red Corvette” and “1999”, I thought he was the coolest person I’d ever seen. He was looking cocky as hell doing the splits in his sparkly purple jacket. To add to Prince’s cool factor, I was certain future Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew was his guitarist. Turns out he wasn’t. Apologies to Dez Dickerson. I don’t see the similarity now, but you couldn’t tell me otherwise in 1983. For the record, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized “Little Red Corvette” wasn’t actually about a car.
Over the years, despite my age, I loved Prince’s hits as much as anyone. From the early-80’s through high school when I was bumping “My Name is Prince”, “Cream”, and “Gett Off”. Then he entered his “The Artist Formely Known as Prince” phase, I started listening to a lot of hip hop, and I essentially forgot about Prince for a decade or so.
In September of 2003 my work sent me to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, for a two-week paper machine shutdown. My job was to sit in a job trailer for 12 hours a day, enter timecards in to a database that I created, then submit reports to the customer because they demanded daily updates on labor costs for the duration of the project. I worked 6 AM to 6 PM, grabbed dinner at Subway, then played Madden on my PS2 until I fell asleep. That was the routine for two weeks straight. I did this every September/October for three or four years and I hated it. I had to miss the opening weeks of duck hunting for it. But, the guys I worked with there were nice and getting paid OT for working weekends and 12-hour shifts produced the biggest paychecks I’ve ever gotten.
This work took place slightly before the era when I had an iPod and headphones everywhere. While it’s common now, wearing headphones all day at my desk with my discman would’ve been frowned upon then. I wasn’t about to walk in to a job trailer with a bunch of old boilermakers and steamfitters and insist that they play my Mos Def CDs. I was at their mercy. Fortunately, they had a radio playing Top 40 music. It could’ve been a lot worse. If they were playing the country music I was expecting I probably would’ve quit. 168 hours of that would kill me.
Even with the Top 40 station occasionally sprinkling in some hits from the 80’s and 90’s I was noticing that I liked only about one out of five songs they played. I recall wishing death upon Avril Lavigne and her barrage of hits at the time. However, two or three times a day they’d play something by Prince and that was the highlight. One evening I decided it was time to revisit Prince’s music, so I went to Wal Mart and picked up The Very Best of Prince and Purple Rain on CD. I drove around rural northcentral Wisconsin and rediscovered the GOAT while enjoying a footlong turkey on wheat. When I returned to Green Bay trips to Best Buy and The Exclusive Company followed to fill the gaps in my Prince discography. I heard Dirty Mind and Controversy for the first time. I experienced the incomparable brilliance and creativity of songs like “Darling Nikki” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”.
Coincedentally, while my Prince mania was taking hold he released his first physical CD in several years, Musicology, in spring of 2004. I remember feeling like Prince was returning from exile after the love symbol/slave/NPG days. On June 24, 2004, I was able to witness Prince live for the only time at Summerfest in Milwaukee. To this day the best concert I’ve ever seen. I’d give damn near anything to re-live that solo acoustic guitar set.
Musicology was a cool album and a deserved return to the spotlight, but I wouldn’t quite put it up with Prince’s top tier stuff. I was still going back to his old stuff when I needed a Prince fix. In 2006 I caught word of more new music and it was the first time in my adult life I was eagerly anticipating a new Prince album. On March 21, 2006, he dropped 3121 and it did not disappoint. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s my hot take: 3121 is Prince’s best post-Sign ‘O’ the Times work. Better than Lovesexy. Better than Batman…or Diamonds and Pearls…or The Gold Experience…any of them.
3121 was Prince’s first album to debut at number one. I find that difficult to believe. It was his first album to reach number one since 1989’s Batman. It earned him five Grammy nominations including Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song for “Black Sweat”. On February 4, 2006, Prince performed “Fury” and “Beautiful, Loved & Blessed” on Saturday Night Live and it earned the highest ratings of any episode that season. I wasn’t the only one enjoying Prince’s comeback. He no longer possessed the shock value or cultural impact of his early years, but the music was better than it had been in a generation.
The album itself has a little bit of everything. It opens with the title track; a banger filled with trippy vocal effects. “Lolita” and “Love” are old school keyboard and drum machine tracks that would’ve fit right in Prince’s glory days of the 80’s. There’s plenty of baby making music with “Te Amo Corazon”, “Satisfied”, and my personal favorite, “Incense and Candles”. “Get on the Boat” is a six-minute party featuring Sheila E. on drums and Maceo Parker on sax. The album takes a brief religious turn, but “The Word” is a smooth track with a positive message. “Beautiful, Loved & Blessed” is the funkiest, most beautiful Christian Rock (admittedly, I listen to no Christian Rock) I’ve ever heard. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and play it frequently when I’m putting my daughter, Lucy, to bed. The song reminds me of my girls even though the heavy religious message doesn’t necessarily apply. “Fury” is fire from start to finish because it’s basically a four-minute scorching guitar solo.
As much as I love all of the tracks mentioned above, the masterpiece here is “Black Sweat“. I consider it to be Prince’s best song of the last 20 years of his career. I would describe this track as the slightly-more-mature brother of “Kiss“. Funky as hell with his signature falsetto over the top. A few laugh-out-loud funny lines. Keep in mind: Prince was 48 at this point. I’ve never heard music like this from someone pushing 50. The video (click the link above) would’ve been creepy with any other 48-year-old, but Prince was ageless. Not only does he fit right in, he’s the baddest MFer I’ve ever seen at any age.
For most artists I would consider 3121 their best album, or at least in the top three. For Prince that’s a ridiculously difficult list to crack. I struggle to rank his albums because at any given time Purple Rain, 1999, or Sign ‘O’ the Times could be #1 for me. I’ll call those three albums his top tier. That second tier is loaded with classics from the 80’s. I put 3121 among them. Prince released several albums post-3121 loaded with plenty of tracks I love (see “Dreamer” and “Breakfast Can Wait” for starters). Art Official Age comes close. but none of those albums were as consistently good from start to finish as 3121. I can’t wait for it to arrive on purple vinyl in mid-February.
Rest in peace, Prince. You’re still sorely missed here.