It's not that previous Prince albums were ever purely dreadful, but accessibility has been the main sticking point for many — if you aren't down with the often oblique sentiment or vision conveyed, it is unlikely that projects like Planet Earth or 20Ten were ever going to grab you. But Art Official Age grabs you, by your collar. Prince has recontextualized his sound so often, sometimes coming off as Prince covering Prince, but here, he's landed feet first in a sweet spot of nostalgic innovation. He says as much in the opening title track: "Welcome home class/ We've come a long way."
And even as that track is one of the weaker efforts, as a whole, the album, his 34th, is mastery on display. Stopping short of saying he's back to basics, there is a clear attempt for clarity here. "Way Back Home" not too subtly attempts to define his musical raison d'etre and creative restlessness while "Funknroll" comes off exactly as you'd expect a Prince track titled "Funknroll" might. But those musical jabs only set you up for the haymakers found in the album's middle: the retro sensual groove of "Time" hits you on some "why doesn't all new Prince sound like this?" type stuff; the bass-slap thump of "Clouds" maintains that fresh-yet-familiar vibe with the similarly dreamy Lianne La Havas lending a hand on vocals. The stunningly cool ballad "Breakdown" finds him wistfully reflecting on sexual peccadilloes past and the lessons learned since. "The Gold Standard" screams late-'80s Paisley Park, "Breakfast Can Wait" jams and was probably breezily written in under an hour, while "This Could Be Us" takes that played out Internet meme and constructs a new Quiet Storm favourite.
As an original whole, Art Official Age is Prince's most complete, most consistent and most contemporary album in a minute. Career-defining, this is not, but catch this one while you can — before he gets bored again. (Warner)