Even Prince seems to realize there's a lot riding on his new album, Diamonds and Pearls. No longer the funkiest game in town, the aging wunderkind has seen his record sales slip, his movies bomb, and, even more humiliating, seen lesser lights, like Paula Abdul, copy his psychedelic-R&B innovations and outsell him. So, for the first time since 1988's Lovesexy, Prince has ditched his solo method of making records playing, singing, and producing it all himself and made a record with an actual band, the New Power Generation, in what could be seen as a way to help conjure the old magic.
On paper, the proposition sounds promising. But too many years churning out records by himself in his Paisley Park complex have taken their toll. The first sign of stagnation was his appearance at the MTV video awards several weeks ago, where he performed ''Gett Off,'' the album's slight initial single. The song is little more than a drum track with words, yet there was Prince, acting as if mooning the audience and singing lyrics like ''Tonight you're a star, and I'm a big dipper'' were still innovative. In fact, the performance had the look and sound of the old uncle who keeps repeating his familiar Depression-era stories at holiday get-togethers, and the same can be said about Diamonds and Pearls.
We should have seen it coming. In recent years, Prince has let his muse wander, creating coy, often gimmicky throwaways (much of his 1989 Batman soundtrack and last year's Graffiti Bridge) that had the sound of a man who spent too much time in his own hermetically sealed world. In that regard, his use of the New Power Generation is a major step. The band isn't completely distinctive, but for the first time in years his songs the plush ballads in particular have the bounce and friction that stem from interacting with humans. The clattering cymbals of drummer Michael B. (yes, real drums on a Prince record) and the gruff harmonies and churning organ of Rosie Gaines perk up musical trampolines like ''Daddy Pop'' more than Prince could on his own.
And yet we've heard it all before. The songs are formula; there's nothing shocking or fresh about ''Cream,'' for instance, a standard-issue funk workout with oh-so-daring lyrics like ''U got the horn so why don't U blow it!'' Elsewhere on the planet, producers like the Family Stand have out-funked Prince, and bands like Living Colour have taken his fusion of rock and funk and catapulted it into the next galaxy. Prince's concession to changing times is to insert the deep-voiced raps of Tony M. into several songs, which makes him seem a trend follower, not a trendsetter.
For at least one startling moment on Diamonds, hope rears its head. ''Money Don't Matter 2 Night,'' the tale of a loser, is sung in a soulful growl that sounds utterly unaffected, and it sports a slinky, subtle groove that recalls the maturity of Stevie Wonder's early-'70s heyday. With more songs like that and perhaps some songwriting collaborators and an outside producer Prince might actually seem vital again. Otherwise, the imp continues spinning his wheels, the hole in the road growing a little deeper with each new record. C