''My name is Prince and I am funky.'' Over a roiling beat, that's what the man sings at the start of his new record-the unpronounceable [''Prince''] and even dedicated fans may shake their puzzled heads. After 13 years of stardom, could Prince really think we've forgotten?
But no. [''Prince''] is a ''rock soap opera,'' whose narrative unclear from the record itself will unfold in an upcoming comic book, and in videos to be filmed for each of the 18 tracks on the album. So it's not Prince the auteur singing those words, but Prince the ultrahip hero of the story, who rescues an Egyptian princess and dodges interviews with Cheers' Kirstie Alley (her voice is heard on the record in the role of a reporter).
And Prince is funky, funkier than ever before, maybe even the funkiest musician around right now. Listen to the churning, unstoppable bass: This is Prince's blackest (meaning most African-American) record since the never released but widely bootlegged Black Album of 1988. Even patches of rap, less than world-class on their own, make sense as part of Prince the character's musical ambience; they also show that Prince the auteur's dazzling current band, the New Power Generation, can deliver styles far removed from rock and funk (though it's far more impressive playing jazz, with rambunctious solo snippets on trombone and baritone sax).
Just about all the music on the album is irrepressibly catchy, and also impressively complicated: Prince brings a whole musical city to life, with new sounds roaring and twittering down every street. Even melting ballads, such as the drop-dead-tender ''Sweet Baby'' and the ironic, lounge-flavored ''Damn U,'' glimmer with a strange, furtive light.
However, all those fabulous, four-dimensional textures get tiring; the record lasts 70 minutes, and not even a Mahler symphony could sustain such complexity that long. And his lyrics, which enigmatically rattle on about ''3 chains o' gold'' and the mysterious evil ''seven'' who have to die, hardly exemplify his fairy-tale story, in which he seeks the clarity of redemption by battling evil. So what conclusion can we draw? In the end, the fabulous [''Prince''] retreats into obscurity, just as Prince (who never gives interviews) does in real life. But his songs are still pretty great. And, God, is he funky. A-