Prince’s latest album was released via Jay Z’s music streaming site Tidal, because Prince has changed his mind about the internet just being a fad that was about to die. Prince changes his mind often enough, so there are no surprises there. The fact that he’s once again let his latest producer on to share credit isn’t surprising either, given that Joshua Welton worked on last year’s double album Art Office Age/Plectrum Electrum. HitnRun is very different from last year’s offerings though, and sounds a whole lot more confused - at least, at the initial few times it’s heard. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, it’s a strange beast - not great, but with enough in it to stop me from saying it’s bad.
Joshua Welton shares credit as songwriter and producer on HitNRun, as he did on September’s Art Official Age. Joshua is married to Hannah, the drummer in Prince’s current band, 3rdEyeGirl, so let’s just assume they’re all living at or very near Paisley Park. We know Prince likes to have someone on call at all hours of the day and night to lay down tracks, so having an in-house producer sounds right up his purple alley.
The odd thing is that Prince, who once was known to play every note on every instrument used in his albums, is only playing lead, rhythm and bass guitar on this album, with Joshua Welton on the keyboards, etc. Prince even shares the vocals very generously with a whole slew of guest vocalists, almost as if he feels that he doesn’t need the attention. And he doesn't - of course he doesn’t! - but hey, this is a Prince album. Must we suffer Rita Ora on it?
The thing is, we know Prince has a sense of humour. We also know that you can’t write Prince off. Ever. You just can’t. There’s too much history, genius and passion, even in the worst of his songs. And this is his third album in two years. Three albums. In two years. He’s always been madly prolific and, since he’s had control of what he’s producing and how it’s being published/released, he’s gone ahead and done it as frequently as he wants. It’s a bit strange to me that he’s got this EDM-influence going on in HitnRun, but perhaps it’s all producer Joshua Welton’s fault - who is just 25 and seems to be quite into dance music. The fact that Prince let’s him do what he wants - well, that’s a little weird.
One thing most Prince fans have had to reconcile themselves to is the fact that he just won't sing about sexytimes any more. It’s sad, but there you go. There have been moments in the last decade that he did, of course - "Black Sweat", for instance, is hella sexy. But things are mostly PG now and that’s okay, as long as the beats are R, right? Sadly, this isn’t the case with HitnRun. Here are my initial thoughts on the tracks in HitnRun. Will they get better when I hear them more often? That’s not the right question. The right question is, will I hear them more often?
1. "Million $ Show" with Judith Hill
‘I know I shouldn’t put my faith in heroes/but I can’t seen you any other way’
This stars with false hope, sampling the ‘dearly beloved’ of 1999. But it sure isn’t 1999. When the track itself kicks off, it’s kinda… awkward, in that Taylor Swift dancing at the Grammy’s way. Judith Hill’s vocals are just fine. But she’s not fine, she’s a better than fine vocalist, even if she got kicked off The Voice. Give her something more, Prince, give her something with girth so we can believe you produced and released her debut album based on faith in her talent alone. Hand claps, hip shakes, Judith’s voice and a track that should be great but is instead a little bit repetitive. Especially odd because, at times, it sounds as if there are a whole bunch of songs shoved in here. And Prince really shouldn't rap. It’s not his thing. I thought we’d established this by now?
2. "Shut This Down"
‘How I got so funky is a mystery’.
Why is Prince yelling at me? I just want to love him. I don’t really like the EDM-influenced beats and I don’t like being yelled at. This feels incredibly unfocussed and juvenile. I’m suddenly reminded that Joshua Welton is young and very inexperienced. I can’t believe Prince let this track through to the final cut. Hell, I can’t believe this is the final cut of this track.
3. "Ain't About to Stop" featuring Rita Ora
‘I got a rockstar salad crusher can o’ trick way’
What? Oh please stop. Right now. Pseudo eastern vibes here, no-oh-oh, don’t go there, Prince. House music-esque synth beats and eastern vibes jammed together? No, please. Wendy and Lisa tried out some sitar and tabla action for the original version of "Strange Relationship" and that worked well, forming a solid thick base for the the passive aggressive original version of the song. Those eastern vibes could have stayed, but Prince took them out, changed up the lyrics a bit and made "Strange Relationship" a lot less gritty by the time it was released on Sign o' the Times. Why throw those eastern vibes out and keep these, now? Who knows. These should have stayed on the cutting room floor too. Hey, do you think the cutting room is part of the Vault?
Here’s where I admit that I don't know much about Rita Ora and that I haven’t heard much of her music. And now I’m going to keep it that way.
4. "Like a Mack" featuring Curly Fryz
‘Not an autograph, cue the DJ/everybody dance when I say’
‘Never let a man pick out my clothes’ say duo Curly Fryz, but what if he was your girlfriend? Not even then? Seriously though, this one is kinda fun. A little more of the funky fresh stuff that Prince can pull out every so often. Plus, he doesn't try to do the rap himself thankfully and Curly Fryz do just fine on their own. They’re pretty good - why don’t I have more of their music? Because the bits without them get a bit… stale, eventually. Luckily there’s also there’s this whole bit with silky horns that’s fun.
Random factoid: they say the only reason Prince kept horn players around was because that was the one thing he couldn't play himself. Wonder why he’s keeping Joshua Welton around then.
5. "This Could Be Us"
‘Sex with me ain’t enough/that’s why we got to do it metaphysically’.
What?! Why? We just heard this an album ago! This sounds like some outtake remix over-cooked scramble. Includes some hilarious lines (see above). But there’s some lovely guitar work in here that’s basically just Prince reminding us of his skills (again). But then loads of dubstep takes over and um, no, please somebody stop Joshua.
‘Anybody wanna fall in love tonight?’
So this is the song Prince and that adorkable Zoe Deschanel did when Prince was a guest on The New Girl. But where did whatsherface go? Because she’s totally gone! This is all Prince, with vocals a pitched a little higher and it’s all chair-dancey and frothy disco fun. And, though I hate to admit this because I’m not a Zoe fan, removing her from this makes it just that tiny bit flatter. But it’s a decent enough pop number, not trying to be anything other than fun. Fun is good. Fun doesn’t need me to think too much about what all can be wrong here.
7. "X’s Face"
‘Black don’t crack, beige don’t age/Go on take that banana & get back in your cage (oh lord)/monkey noises’.
This is okay. I don’t mind this. It’s a steady synth groove that basically sounds like something Prince turned out between takes of other songs and we all know that even his throwaway tracks can be good. Given that, it’s not bad at all. A little repetitive but then again I’m blaming Welton for that. Honestly, I don’t even mind the little monkey sounds and the ‘go on take that banana’ madness. Really. I don’t mind.
‘If I don’t really get to kiss you, I’m really going to make a scene/ I said oh you just want me to be another rip in your jeans’
So there’s some seriously solid guitar in this. The track swings between some campy breathy seduction with growly vocals from Prince and some violent guitar riffs. Also, the most abrupt ending I’ve heard from him in a while. Otherwise, it’s fine, just fine. I think.
9. "Mr Nelson" featuring Lianne La Havas
‘Where you are now, is a place that does not require time’.
Here’s something cool. Lots of the pretty, pretty guitar playing that Prince can do so easily when he wants to, some fun synth stuff that just about escapes being bogged down by the heavier EDM beats. This track has the sort of guitar that brings to mind the Carlos Santana comparisons Prince has always had. Lianne La Hava’s pretty, pretty voice is used through the track though without any singing from her, which is a bit disappointing. She’s the singer whose house Prince showed up at in London a few years ago at the start of the HitNRun tour for a press conference. They drank tea and played a gig together. She’s was also on a track called "Clouds" on last year’s ART OFFICIAL AGE, bits of which come up in this too in the very few sections with Prince’s vocals, which makes me think this too is recycled. Or upcycled, if you will, with Welton shoving in some annoyingly catchy Guetta-type EDM beats.
10. "1000 X’s and O’s"
‘You can lock the door, better turn off your phone/I’mma give you a thousand reasons why we need to be alone’.
‘I wanna hold you, tie you up in lace/ I’m going to kiss you, kiss you all over your face/ I’m going to give you love all up and down/give you love like you never had, blindfold, gagged and bound’
This works. It’s smooth, it’s sweet until it’s dirty. It’s also a couple of decades old. This version almost feels like one of the better, more smouldering tracks off Emancipation, though it was actually originally recorded in 1992 when Prince was touring in Australia for Diamonds & Pearls. Initially written with Rosie Gaines as the vocalist, it was recorded by Nona Gaye at some point as well. Now, it’s all Prince. I wish he wouldn't do the spoken word thing, though it’s better than the rap thing.
And WAIT! Is that Prince singing about sex? So openly? Now? What what what would God say?! But 20 years ago Prince didn’t care. It’s odd that he didn’t drop those lines though. But who cares! I’ll take it.
‘Sometime’s I feel I was born way too late/ Should’ve been born on the Woodstock stage’
So now this last track is sad. And funny in the way only Prince can be. It’s poetic, haunting, quite lovely if it wasn’t for (again!) the electro-crap. Almost feels like a bookend to Parade’s final track, "Sometimes it Snows in April", in it’s casual lyricism. But of course, where "Sometimes it Snows in April" was all lean, clean music, this is peppered throughout with random bits of electronic noise that are meant to sound atmospheric, I assume. Thanks again, Joshua, bro. Thanks.
The entire arc of the album is interesting, because it definitely improves about half way through. Obviously I want to believe it’s because Prince had enough of Welton mixing the music and took over, but that’s probably not true. Welton seems to be distancing himself from the music Prince came from, the funk, the soul, the tick, tick, tick bang all over you. And Prince, from what I’ve read in recent interviews with him, seems to like that. We are clearly not in agreement, Prince and I, but perhaps it’s harder for me to let go of his incredible past than it is for him. I suppose if you’re a crazy creative genius who can write many songs a day things may get boring and it may be fun to bring in some new blood. I grudgingly suppose.
The problem with HitnRun is that the best songs on the album, by my standards, are still only average Prince songs. I don’t say this because I expect everything to have the genius and accessibility of Purple Rain, or the brilliance of Sign o’ the Times, because I don’t - but even compared to some of the more recent work he’s published, this is is just an over-cooked goulash. There’s too much of everything in here - all the things we aren’t expecting or haven’t loved from Prince recently like dubstep and EDM and show-off guitar riffs - too much of it all. Here’s hoping the next album leaves aside some of those elements. And his current producer.