The artist formerly known as Prince has titled his sprawling new four-disc set Crystal Ball: If the music inside accurately foretells [the artist formerly known as Prince]'s future, the purple funkster's next career phase should be one wild ride.
Following his much-documented battles with Warner Bros., [the artist formerly known as Prince] released 1996's Emancipation on EMI. Crystal Ball, though, remains the true sound of freedom -- operating without any major-label affiliation at all, [the artist formerly known as Prince] released Crystal Ball on his own NPG imprint. The DIY approach has its drawbacks -- the packaging looks so cheap it could have been whipped up at Kinko's, and the odds-and-sods approach (some material dates as far back as the early '80s) doesn't always cohere. Yet, while Crystal Ball lacks polish, it makes up the difference by offering an astonishing view into the Artist's breadth as, well, an artist, capturing sides of him never before exposed. ''Da Bang,'' for example, edges surprisingly close to jazz-bo speed punk, while ''18 & Over'' is [the artist formerly known as Prince]'s most convincing hip-hop attempt yet, its head-bobbing G-funk giving Dr. Dre a run for his gangsta dollars.
Ultimately, though, Ball is for aficionados, making crystal clear that [the artist formerly known as Prince] isn't a prepackaged pop star but an idiosyncratically brilliant fringe dweller who had a few big chart smashes. If that sounds unappealing, stick to the hits; true [the artist formerly known as Prince] followers, meanwhile, will be having a ball. B+