What could His Purpleness possibly have left to prove, nearly four decades and 38 studio albums into a superstar career? Nothing, of course—aside from the fact that he can release HITNRUN any way he wants; his latest will bow exclusively on Jay Z’s artist-friendly Tidal service on Sept. 7.
“I would say it’s an experimental Prince record for fans who just don’t care about him sounding like a certain thing,” coproducer, mixer, and engineer Joshua Welton told EW last week during a visit to Prince’s fabled Paisley Park complex in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ” I know he has different types of fan bases and this is kind of for the [hardcore] Purple Collective, the ones who say ‘I don’t care what he puts out! I love Prince.’ And because he’s such a creative, it gives him that freedom to say, ‘I just want to make music like this today.'”
Prince himself asked that EW not publish the still-unlisted track names before release date, but a few songs already floated online do give a sense of the record’s sound: the sinuous guitar anthem “HARDROCKLOVER,” with its shout outs to Red Bull and Patron and no-quiet-storm-allowed lyrics (“Gonna make her moan/Sade and Babyface/R&B ain’t got no place/Put some hard rock on/You better cover your ears”); and the Art Official Age reprise “This Could B Us,” upgraded with shuddering dubstep Doppler and circa-Purple Rain cover art.
Suffice to say that there’s a lot more dance floor whomp and industrial grind where that came from; a deeper dive into more aggressive sounds than 2013’s Art Official engaged with, though backing band 3rdEyeGirl does join him again here, and fans may recognize threads from his more recent releases. (Don’t worry; you’ll get your pretty bedroom ballads, too.) Prince credits a lot of that to Welton—who, at 25, isn’t familiar with some of the references floated during the day’s listening session, like Ministry or Nine Inch Nails—but Prince says he prefers it that way. “He’s pure, don’t ruin it!” he says, laughing. “I like that he doesn’t know all that stuff. This is what comes from him organically.”
Welton is well aware of his young age and relative inexperience, and how much it may surprise people that he plays such a prominent role on the record. Learning just to be normal around the star, he says, “happened in phases.” But, he insists, “He’s a really down to earth gentleman. When my wife”—that would be Hannah Welton, the drummer in 3rdEyeGirl—”and I first came to Paisley, we just saw him as, you know, another brother who’s real cool, real chill, loves people and loves God. And that’s how we connected initially, because I didn’t come here as a producer, I came here in support of Hannah. So it was easier for me to get normal around him because I got to know him in person first before we started to work. Just seeing him here at the studio or onstage, seeing him with other people playing Ping-Pong, you get it.” (There is, in fact, a Ping-Pong table in an adjacent studio that looks like it’s seen some serious session work.)
Still, Welton admits that there are catches to working with the man he calls “a genius” more than once: “When it comes to the mixing part it’s pretty stressful because, you know, he hears in Wi-Fi! A lot of times I learn just from being around him, and I’m flattered when I give him a track and he won’t even add any instruments but just write a song to it.”
For his part, Prince loves the fresh energy that Welton has brought to the table. “When you hear something you like that you can’t find a precedent for, that’s what you want more of,” he says. “That’s what gets me excited.” Having endured much-publicized battles with his longtime record label Warner Bros. over artistic control (their relationship, he says now, is “clean and transparent, just business”), Prince also appreciates that Tidal gave him full freedom to present the album exactly how he wanted it to be. “Jay allowed us pick the art work, the design of the page, the related-content features,” he says. “Why shouldn’t you be allowed to do that when it’s your music, your creation?”
It helps, of course, when Jay Z’s happy, too; when asked what the rapper-turned-mogul’s reaction was to hearing HITNRUN for the first time, Prince and Welton exchange an amused glance, and Welton does his best impression: arms crossed, eyes in an Eastwood squint, head nodding in satisfaction. Hova inspected, Hova approved.
Get exclusive details about fall’s buzziest albums in Entertainment Weekly Issue #1379, on stands Aug. 27, and for the full story on Prince and his new album, see the print issue of Entertainment Weekly Issue #1380 on stands Sept. 6.