We gave it an A
Back in 2013, Paul McCartney released a solo album called New, an exceptional batch of pop tunes that featured collaborations with a number of of-the-moment producers (Paul Epworth and Mark Ronson among them) and seemed to genuinely reinvigorate interest in McCartney’s solo career. It contained some of his best songwriting and performances in decades, and holds up as the platonic ideal of a late-period solo album by a living legend.
But in the pantheon of albums crafted by Paul McCartney, New might only barely sneak into the top 20. That’s not a comment on its quality but instead a long shadow cast by six decades’ worth of work leading up to it. Even if New was the best album of 2013, it would still crumble under the historical weight and innovation of the Beatles catalog, certain Wings releases, and first wave solo joints like Ram.
Prince has the exact same problem. His early run, particularly the period between 1982’s 1999 and 1990’s Batman soundtrack, is impeccable, and the legacies of Purple Rain and Sign O The Times overwhelm even the exceptional albums that live in the second tier of Prince’s discography (like 1991’s Diamonds & Pearls>, 1995’s The Gold Experience, 2004’s Musicology and last year’s Plectrumelectrum).
But of all the albums Prince has released since the days when people used to debate whether he was better than Michael Jackson, HITnRUN Phase One comes closest to matching the Purple One’s vaunted pantheon. Currently available as a streaming exclusive on Tidal, HITnRUN is an invigorating, eclectic modern pop record that takes a now-familiar (but still no less impressive) formula—equal parts hedonistic arena rock, chugging funk, and art-mutated pop—and tacks on a handful of new sounds and twists that give is a satisfying, visceral edge.
There have been stretches wherein Prince sounded somewhat disengaged (the turn of the century was particularly brutal), but HITnRUN contains the same kind of hunger, swagger, and sheer joy of creation that has always informed his best work. The bridge between past and future is apparent right away: First track “Million $ Show” opens with a series of nods to the past—a few drum tracks from the ’80s and a drop of the “Dearly beloved” speech that opens “Let’s Go Crazy”—then snaps into the kind of double-time rave-up funk jam that Mark Ronson is always chasing. Elsewhere, “Shut This Down” marries several generations of hip-hop tricks (including first wave breakbeats and modern day electro-trap) to an icy, slinky groove. In fact, HITnRUN seems to be the album on which Prince has finally grasped rap music, a genre he has always struggled to incorporate into his own work (the rap to “P Control” notwithstanding). “Ain’t About to Stop,” “Like a Mack,” and “X’s Face” all manage to capture the energy currently being churned out of the MCs that have made 2015 one of the best years in hip-hop history (though that could be because some of those releases, particularly Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, are pretty much just Prince records).
Prince also has a knack for making genres his own, and the EDM flourishes on HITnRUN (particularly on “This Could Be Us”) don’t sound like an aging legend chasing a trend but instead a skilled veteran bending contemporary technology to his will. There’s plenty to dance to on HITnRUN, including the pure disco froth of “Fallinlove2nite” and the stutter-stepping “1000 X’s & O’s.” Of course, all of this sonic innovation gets propped up by the fact that each one of the tracks on HITnRUN is a pure, infectious pop tune—even the super weird closing track “June,” a gauzy ballad that finds Prince free-associating his heartbreak (“Somebody famous had a birthday today/ All I saw was another fool/ What’s that?/ Something’s burning on the stove/ Must be the pasta/ Oh yeah, it’s June”).
Time will ultimately tell where HITnRUN Phase One lands on the Prince spectrum, and it’ll take generations before anybody can accurately assess the entirety of his discography. But I keep waiting for the initial rush of HITnRUN to wear off, and it just won’t happen. I’ve mixed these songs into a playlist that also features classic jams like “Raspberry Beret” and “Cream,” and they absolutely sound like they fit perfectly in that context. Nothing can ever hang in the same VIP room as Purple Rain, but HITnRUN is certainly good enough to get on the list and get comped a bottle or two.