Pop music isn't kind to its geniuses. They have their moment think, among many others, of Frank Sinatra in the '50s, or Aretha Franklin in the '60s when they seem to speak for their age. But then time moves on, and new voices arise. Yesterday's pop geniuses hang on, often for years, sometimes with their power undiminished. But their music isn't as urgent as it was. It doesn't seem to matter.
Something like that seemed to be happening to Prince. He reached his popular peak in 1984 with Purple Rain (both the film and record). But his most consistent work since then is probably his so-called Black Album, recorded in 1988 but never released (it circulates widely on bootlegs). That year's official effort, Lovesexy, was fascinating in an introverted way, but didn't sell very well. His 1989 Batman songs sounded watery.
But now he's back with a double album that seems like a masterpiece. The soundtrack of his upcoming movie (also called Graffiti Bridge) may or may not reestablish him as the rough but compelling cinematic force he was in Purple Rain, but it's clear from the very start that Prince has done something both impressive and essential: He's recaptured his ease.
The opening song, ''Can't Stop This Feeling I Got,'' rocks along, every note even the lightest tingle on an acoustic guitar infected with irresistible bounce. Prince then moves on to an effortless meld of funk and R&B (''New Power Generation''), followed by blistering hip-hop (''Release It'') that's just as unforced. By that time he's covered more stylistic ground than most musicians manage in a lifetime.
The fourth cut, ''359,'' is a probing ballad, in which a snaky melody uncoils over low, implacable drums. But the song won't take any common shape. It poses questions the lyrics ask ''What shall I do? Which way do I turn?'' and then ebbs into purely instrumental explorations, which themselves soon fade away. The opening queries are left unanswered. ''Can't Stop This Feeling I Got'' is unusual, too. Midway through it interrupts its own easy flow and, after a few darting surprises, simply dissolves; like ''359,'' it's shaped more like a question than a statement.
Eventually as Graffiti Bridge tells its story the questions are answered. ''Love can save us all,'' sings Prince, which, if not exactly a new thought, still registers as the answer to a heartfelt prayer when the album reaches its climax in ''Still Would Stand All Time.'' This is a deep, profoundly original song of shivery musical explorations sung in a simple, direct gospel style.
From there the album winds down with partly joyous, partly thoughtful celebration, and closes with the gradually vanishing sound of running water. But there's much else including a collaboration with funk king George Clinton, and (of course) Prince's characteristic down-in-the-ooze sexuality, which has never seemed shyer, more breathless, or more spiritual.
One strange note: A few songs are performed not by Prince, but by his recently reconstituted former protégés the Time, the hit Minnesota R&B group that appears in ''Graffiti Bridge'' and '''Purple Rain.'' Still, this is Prince's album through and through. In the '60s, rock musicians began to write and produce their own music; in 1990, Prince shows that it's the concept that counts. He can create a world so overpowering that a song sung by someone else can still be his. A+