Rockin' the limo, boudoir ballads, Prop. 8, Barry White, sex, faith, Pro Tools. Was it a dream?
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 legend
lounged beside me, playing unreleased tracks on the stereo. "This is my car for
Minneapolis," he said before excusing himself to let me judge a few songs in
private. "It's great for listening to music." He laughed. "I don't do drugs or
I'd give you a joint. That's what this record is."
That morning I'd received
an e-mail inviting me to preview new music at Prince's mansion in the
celebrity-infested estate community of Beverly Park, where he's currently
keeping his shoe rack. The summons wasn't entirely unexpected. Prince, who's
less reclusive than his reputation would indicate, has spent a year and a half
consulting with culture industry leaders and occasionally entertaining media
types, with an eye toward taking complete control of his own musical output.
His new mantra is "The gatekeepers must change," and he's refashioned his career
to become one of them.
Since beginning his gradual relocation 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, first on the popular "Jonesy's Jukebox"
radio program on Indie 103 and then on two websites, the now-dark MPLSound.com
and the still-evolving Lotusflow3r.com.
This flurry of activity has been characterized by what might be called
methodical spontaneity. Everything happens quickly, whether it's a show that
takes place only a few days after its announcement or an evening interview
arranged that morning. But Prince's personality seems to be governed by two
oppositional impulses: the hunger to create and an equally powerful craving for
control. Intense productivity battles with meticulousness within his working
process. Others might not anticipate his next move, but it is all part of the
chess game for him.
That's why I was there, on the eve of a holiday eve,
as the mainstream music industry was enjoying a break from its ongoing plunge
toward insolvency. The turn of the year is a slow time for pop, not the moment
blockbuster artists usually release material. But Prince has been hinting for a
while that his upcoming recordings might not be tied to a conventional label.
Abandoning that machine, including its publicity arm, requires other ways of
getting the word out.
Prince began experimenting with new methods of
distributing music more than a decade ago, and his early efforts with the
now-defunct NPG Music Club paved the way for later bold moves by Radiohead
and others. Most recently he's partnered with major labels to get copies into
stores. Columbia handled the release of 2006's "Planet Earth," except in
Britain, where copies were distributed free via a London newspaper, the Mail on
Now Prince is about to unleash not one but three albums without
major label affiliation, and talking to well-vetted writers is one part of the
rollout. How well vetted? "You're blond," he said when we met. "I thought you
were a redhead." (He'd done his research; I'd changed my hair color only the
When I entered the house, which has the vaguely European
opulence of an upscale spa, I found Prince with designers Anthony Malzone and
Scott Addison Clay, examining mock-ups for a "highly interactive" website. "It's
a universe," said Malzone, showing how a mouse click could make the whole screen
rotate. "There's a lyric in one of the new songs about an 'entirely new galaxy.'
We took that cue, and from there on, we thought that everything would emanate
The website, still under construction, revealed the
recognizable logo of a major big-box retailer with whom Prince is finalizing
negotiations to distribute the albums. The three will hit the Web and that
retailer, the artist said, "as soon as the holidays are over."
hearing music from each of them.
"Let's go to my car," Prince said.
"We'll listen to the first album there."