During his '80s heyday, Prince set a high creative bar for himself, and in retrospect, it's astonishing how he vaulted over it album after album. But after 15 years of self-indulgent and justly forgotten records, that bar has fallen so low that it's tempting to hear the fat-free, melodic Musicology as a beacon of hope. Its skeletal funk never grows too knotty for its own good, and there are no overtly Christian themes, no meandering fusion instrumentals, and, thankfully, no rapping.
On his current tour of the same name, Prince unabashedly vies for his fans' old love by playing a hits-heavy set. ''Musicology'' is a suitable companion to the tour: Most of the songs, while new, sound old. ''A Million Days'' and ''Call My Name'' are exquisite slow-jam cream puffs, but they're basically variations on ballads he's written before. Similarly, calls to the dance floor like the title track and ''Life 'O' the Party'' are spry but rote, and his shout-outs to Dr. Dre and Missy Elliott only point out how dated Prince's funk has become.
Proving he can still delight and surprise, Prince ponders the fate of an ethnic woman in the U.S. during wartime in the poppin' fresh ''Cinnamon Girl,'' demonstrates he can keep up with modern R&B in ''What Do U Want Me 2 Do?'' and works himself up into righteous anticorporate indignation in ''Dear Mr. Man.'' But following a decade in which he strove to avoid becoming a nostalgia item, the retro-leaning ''Musicology'' (and its accompanying tour) sounds as if Prince is less interested in fighting Mr. Man than in giving in to him.