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POSTHUMOUS PRINCE: DOES WELCOME 2 AMERICA LIVE UP 2 THE HYPE?

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Released on July 30, Prince’s Welcome 2 America is the first full previously shelved studio album to be released after the artist’s death in 2016. The album, pulled from Prince’s legendary vault, was originally recorded in 2010. Much of the buzz and marketing hype surrounding the work has focused on how surprisingly prescient and sharply political the songs are. Some critics have questioned why it was archived at all – with a common sentiment that Welcome 2 America is Prince’s best album in decades. And we have to wonder, did these critics just forget the rest of his expansive discography? Let’s break it down.

Prince Was Always Political

It’s not hard to find Prince pairing pop with polemics. The musician’s signature “1999” speaks to fears of nuclear annihilation (“Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”) and anticipates Y2K hysteria with a simple yet effective response: “So if I gotta die / I'm gonna listen to my body tonight… I’m gonna party like it’s 1999”).

Then there’s “Sign o’ the Times,” the bluesy and downcast title track to Prince’s 1987 magnum opus. The song makes reference to AIDS following an era where public officials and mainstream press remained silent for years about an epidemic killing gay men. In an interview with Chris Rock, Prince said of the song, “I was getting to a point in my career where I could say anything.”

This is only scratching the surface. Songs like “Uptown,” “Partyup,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” “Race,” “Avalanche,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Planet Earth,” “Black Muse,” and more make the prevailing narrative that Welcome 2 America is a prophetic political outlier somewhat shortsighted. It’s not even the first Prince song with “America” in its title.

And that’s just the music. Arguably the most identifiable aspect of Prince’s politics was his persona and his career itself. Prince was ambiguous, androgynous, and mysterious – his inimitable, far-reaching falsetto, his flamboyant fashion, his femininity – it’s what made him stand out, and what made him a cult artist who, through sheer will and irrefutable talent, found commercial success. Then there was Prince's public battle with former record company Warner Records over ownership of his master recordings – the kind of issue that still affects artists such as Taylor Swift.

Prince’s many incredible bands and collaborations over the years also paint the picture of an artist willing to challenge conventions and promote unity. The bandleader made it a point to work with and spotlight a diverse group of people, taking inspiration from Sly and the Family Stone. In particular, Prince worked with and spotlighted women artists in an industry that remains a boy’s club.

Actually Talking About the New Music

Title track “Welcome 2 America” is explicitly political, to be sure. The song’s production is taut, soulful, and funky – with a foreboding quality befitting of lyrics like “Truth is the new minority” and “Land of the free, home of the slave.” Prince is known for his signature falsetto, but the use of his lower register here adds weight to his words. Yet all the same, it’s hard not to be distracted by the overall lack of focused messaging, with throwaway lines like “Everybody and they mama got a sex tape.” Not to mention, the chorus sounds more than a little like Parliament’s “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).”

Which leads us to the main issue with the album. Like much of Prince’s output from the 2000s onward, the songs here play like they’re tracing lines. Expertly crafted as it is, “Born 2 Die” was “recorded as a rebuke to Dr. Cornel West, who said Prince was ‘no Curtis Mayfield.’” Superfly is a phenomenal record, but we don’t need to hear Prince do Mayfield. Prince in his prime was making music that sounded like it was from the future. Welcome 2 America sounds like an imitation of childhood inspirations. 

He would later compose more pointed and innovative tracks that he chose to release during his lifetime. On his 39th and final studio album Hit n Run Phase Two, the song “Baltimore” tackles systemic racism, directly naming Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. The song closes out with a final rallying cry: “If there ain't no justice then there ain't no peace.”

While Welcome 2 America is a welcome footnote, it’s far from Prince’s most coherent statement. And hey, maybe he knew that. Whether or not he ever wanted this album to see the light of day is unknowable, but what remains clear is his passion for people, love, and unity. Just listen to the music.

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