The Artist Formerly Known As Prince: Ultimate Rave (NPG/Legacy)

Enough parallels exist between the lives of Prince Rogers Nelson and Elvis Presley to warrant a serious and interesting discussion. One could say that in the same way that Elvis wandered in a creative wilderness throughout the Sixties, Prince also wandered through a low period during the Nineties. But Prince had written a hit single designed to reemerge as an even bigger hit; his 1982 single “1999” was ubiquitous in that final year of the 20th Century, and all eyes and ears were once again on the eccentric little man from Minneapolis. But for many listeners, the purple one hadn’t been Prince for a long, long time. Ultimate Rave compiles the material that marked his creative comeback

After such a tumultuous and creatively unsatisfying decade, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic felt like a creative reset. In its way, it actually was; now freed from what he felt was an oppressive record deal with Warner Brothers, he began to record again. Although he had released three albums of  “new” material since his 1996 album Emancipation, the material came from his vaults. The news of his new relationship with Arista Records raised both interest and hopes that The Artist Formerly Known As Prince would finally, well, be Prince again.

But even a Prince can be vulnerable and unsure, and it’s impossible to ignore Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’s awkwardness.  The use of guest vocalists may have seemed like a good idea—Eve, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, and Chuck D are certainly no slouches—but surprisingly, the star turns proved to be the album’s weakest moments. The songs themselves are weak pastiches of the commercial airwaves at the time, and come across as a blatant attempt to get Prince back on the air.  Furthermore, Rave is simply too long; setting aside the five minutes of dead air between “Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do” and the funky weirdness of Maceo Parker collaboration “Prettyman,” the album clocks in at seventy minutes.

Yet there are moments of the old Prince magic. The romantic side is in abundance on hip-hop ballad, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” and the gorgeous and light melody of “The Sun, The Moon And Stars” is a sublime reminder of his seductive side. “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore” is a classic Prince heartbreaker, and is accentuated by the gorgeous acoustic guitar of Ani DiFranco. “Wherever U Go, Whatever U Do” is an unpretentious moment of romantic sincerity, as is “Tangerine”–albeit at a minute and a half, it is all too brief. Rave felt like a good album hiding in a mediocre one, a record needing a steady editor’s hand to make it shine.

About a year later, he would do something quite similar to that. He would offer up an exclusive “remix” album entitled Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic, one that offered remixed versions of several album tracks, alternate takes, and a few repeats from the original, and this new version is surprisingly a much more satisfying affair. The segues are left out, and gone is his Sheryl Crow cover of  “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” which was a curiosity at best. His collaboration with her, “Baby Knows,” sounds much more vivid than the album version, which oddly felt quite flat. The same is true with his collaboration with Gwen Stefani, offered here in its original form, strips the polish from the finished version and brings her voice back up in the mix. The full version of “Tangerine” makes one wonder why he settled for the ninety-second version. Better still is “Beautiful Strange,” which highlights how the album’s lowest point—the by-the-numbers funk of “Strange But True” had a completely unrecognizable twin, a mellow blues number that shouldhave been on the finished product.

Ultimate Rave concludes with a DVD of Rave Un2 The Year 2000, taken from a series of live shows recorded in December 1999 at his Paisley Park studio, and it shows that even though he may have had a less than stellar recording career over the past decade, he was still a killer live act. It’s truly a party with his friends and has the same electric vibe as the live performances for Purple Rain. The Time are here, doing their hits “The Bird” and “Jungle Love,” and Lenny Kravitz joins in the fun with “American Woman” and “Fly Away.” Prince sticks with hits from his 1980s peak; the opening “Let’s Go Crazy” is a call to party, and his takes on “Purple Rain” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” are easily two of his finest performances. Of course, the big star here is “1999”—the show was packaged as a pay-per-view concert New Years Eve to ring in the new millennium, and it was said at the time that this would be the last time he performed it. (It wasn’t, of course.)

Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic marked his return to new studio work, and it would also mark the end of his use of the Love Symbol as his moniker. Yet it wasn’t the complete return from the creative wilderness one hoped it would be. For the rest of his life, he would continue to make music on his own terms, releasing musical flights of fancy in extremely limited fashion, be it on super-limited fan club releases or short-lived digital only releases. When he did focus his creative efforts, as he did on 3121 and Musicology, the results were fantastic. In spite of the flaws, Ultimate Rave does find the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince reawakening his muse.

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