LOS ANGELES — It was 11 p.m. on the night before New Year’s Eve, and I was doing something I hadn’t expected would crown my 2008: sitting in Prince’s limousine as the pop music legend lounged beside me, playing unreleased tracks on the stereo.
That morning I’d received an e-mail inviting me to preview new music at Prince’s mansion in Beverly Park. The summons wasn’t entirely unexpected. Prince has spent a year and a half consulting with industry leaders and media types with an eye toward taking control of his musical output.
His new mantra is: “The gatekeepers must change.”
Since relocating from the Midwest to the Left Coast, Prince has headlined the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and 2007’s Super Bowl halftime show. He sold out a 21-night run at London’s O2 Arena and released an album, a high-end photo book and a perfume. Most recently, he’s whetted fans’ appetites with sneaks of songs from three upcoming releases. .
This flurry of activity has been characterized by what might be called “methodical spontaneity.” Prince’s personality seems to be governed by two oppositional impulses: the hunger to create and a craving for control. Others might not anticipate his next move, but it is all part of the chess game for him.
More than a decade ago, Prince began experimenting with new methods of distributing music. Now he is about to unleash not one but three albums without major label affiliation, and talking to writers is part of the rollout.
At his house, which has the opulence of a spa, Prince was meeting with designers Anthony Malzone and Scott Addison Clay, examining mock-ups for a “highly interactive” Web site, still under construction.
“” Let’s go to my car, “ Prince said. ” We’ll listen to the first album there. “
He ushered me into a low-slung black sports car. I strapped on my seat belt, but we didn’t venture outside. Instead, he turned serious. Prince, who became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, views everything through the lens of his religion. No topic — sexuality, civil rights, corporate pop — comes up in which it doesn’t play a role.
Prince’s statements can sound extreme to a secular listener. Some have accused him of concealing his views to avoid alienating nonbelieving (and, particularly, gay) fans. But his desire to be tolerant seems sincere.
Prince’s faith fulfills a yearning that his songs expressed long before he became devout: a need for a ruling theory to explain the sorrow and violence that intertwines with life’s joy. Songs as early as ” Controversy “ (1981) focus on a quest for God. In his religion, he’s found a code.
Which leads to ” MPLSound, “ the album Prince recorded by himself mostly in 2008.
” People ask me, ‘Why don’t you sound like you used to?’ “ he said. ‘’But that music doesn’t have any wave energy to it. It’ll move a party, but that’s not what I’m doing here. “
These tracks did sound new: electronica-based, futuristic and subtly mind-altering. They also recall early Prince, including ” When Doves Cry “ and ” The Black Album. “
Some, like one about a ” funky congregation, “ could become live show pieces. Others, like the playful ” Hey Valentina, “ and the Space Age ballad ” Better With Time “ contained sounds that didn’t seem possible to replicate anywhere but in Prince’s imagination.
The key to this aural universe is the computer platform Pro Tools. Prince avoided the system for years. One thing he’s truly moralistic about is the use of artificial vocal enhancement by subpar artists, which — in his view — has reduced mainstream pop to a ” weak diet “ of sugary junk.
Yet he’s unlocked new elements within the very control surfaces Pro Tools employs. Using both analog equipment and digital technology, Prince has come closer to the body-altering music he wishes to make.
” I’m interested in the inner workings of music, the effect on the body, “ he explained. ” I’m trying to understand why we respond to beats differently. “
His former associate, producer Terry Lewis, helped him realize Pro Tools might help.
” Terry talked me into it. He said, ‘Don’t think of it as a digital machine,’ “ said Prince. ” ‘Don’t play by its rules.’ I just took it and started flipping things. “
As the music in his sports car played, Prince singled out lyrics.
” The songs we sing lift us up to heaven, “ he said as a song espousing ” old-school ways “ played. ” This one’s about Babylonian tricks. “
Then the music ended, and we moved into Prince’s bedroom.
No one in pop has written more powerfully about the transformative power of sex than Prince. His sometimes perverse, often humorous fairy tales opened up worlds of pleasure and possibility to listeners.
After finding Jehovah, however, fans worried that he would denounce his most fruitful subject matter.
” I’ve studied Solomon and David now, “ Prince said. ” (In biblical times) sex was always beautiful. You come to understand that, and then you try to find a woman who can experience that with you. “
Songs on all three of Prince’s new projects celebrate carnal pleasures, but the album he played for me in his white-carpeted bedroom explores the topic from top to bottom. It’s ” Elixir, “ the debut of Bria Valente, Prince’s latest protege.
Valente grew up in Minneapolis, but she registered on Prince’s radar in Los Angeles.
” She knows how to use her breath like I do on my falsetto, to make it glide over the track, “ he said.
Valente is Prince’s collaborator, along with keyboardist Morris Hayes, in reviving the quiet storm sound.
” This might be my favorite, “ he said, playing a steamy ballad. ‘’Remember those old Barry White records? A whole lot of people are gonna get pregnant off of this! I gotta call her. “
With that, he left me momentarily and I contemplated Valente’s songs, the heart-shaped mirror over Prince’s round bed and the Bible on the nightstand. It never became clear whether Valente is Prince’s partner in more than an artistic way. Beautiful women always have been important in Prince’s life, both as musical collaborators and companions. He has been married twice, separating from his second wife, Manuela Testolini, in 2006. Often citing famous beauties as close friends, he never mentioned a sexual conquest.
Prince does seem to require a muse. Valente’s project has allowed him to make more openly sensual music than anything else he’s recently produced. He even took the high-fashion-style photographs that will adorn the CD booklet.
For now, Valente is the conduit for Prince’s female energy. Her music sounds contemporary, but connects to earlier Prince proteges like the Family and Taja Sevelle. ” The art of making records, I give it so much respect, “ he said later. ” But it gets trampled on for the sake of commerciality. “
Prince led me out of the bedroom.
” Let’s get in the limo to listen to the last one, “ he said.
Directing his driver to take us for a spin, Prince explained that ‘’Lotus Flow3r “ emerged during sessions for his 2006 album, ” 3121. “
He selected the best of his massive output for this release, delaying its finish until he was sure every element hung together.
” Lotus Flow3r “ will likely be greeted by Prince fans as the central product of his latest creative spurt. It’s a full band album with a sound that ranges from cocktail jazz to heavy rock.
” The thing that unites these songs is the guitar, “ he said.
He’d fallen back in love with the instrument during a 2006 tour. He singled out a vampy solo in the samba-influenced ” Love Like Jazz. “
” When we do this live, that’s going to go on forever, “ he said.
Positioning ” Lotus Flow3r “ as a rock record is a canny marketing move, given urban radio’s focus on hip-hop-defined samples and beats. This music sounds more organic, meant to be played live, and Prince is trying out players for a new band, ones who’ll be able to grasp the tricky changes in the new songs. He makes decisions, he said, by ‘’listening to the universe. If a name is mentioned to me three times, I know I need to check it out. “
Whatever band he assembles will have to be able to leap from the funk of the song simply titled ” $ “ — about ” the most popular girl in the whole wide world “ — to the soul jazz of ” 77 Beverly Place, “ to the heavy-metal thunder of the album’s title track. That song references both Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. Asked about the influence of the latter rock god, Prince demurred.
” I try to play guitar like singers I like, “ he said.
As the night wore to an end, the conversation turned free-form, touching on topics ranging from Edie Sedgwick (he saw ” Factory Girl) to Ani DiFranco (he loves her) to his favorite guitar (the blue and white Stratocaster he played during the Super Bowl, named “Sonny” after an early mentor).
Then the limo pulled into the driveway.
He hugged me good night, and I drove away, asking myself, “Did that really happen?”
So many moments would seem fantastic in the retelling. But I realized how carefully executed this visit had been. Each “listening environment” had been ideal: the confinement of the sports car for the intense “MPLSound,” his boudoir for “Elixir,” and the limousine ride for “Lotus Flow3r.”
It was like a dream — a dream Prince had designed just for me. Which is what he’s been doing for his fans for 30 years.