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5 August 2021

Welcome 2 America is Prince’s best political work

Prince was always a political songwriter, even when he was detailing the 23 positions of a one-night stand. But this new-old record is his most satisfying attempt at polemical writing.

By Yo Zushi

If there’s any truth to the term “Minnesota nice” – the stereotype of Minnesotans’ extreme politeness, their level-headedness, their aversion to ostentation and upsetting emotional displays – it’s probably related to the state’s long, icy winters, with their inhospitable temperatures that have fallen in living memory all the way down to -30°C. Studies have linked chilly weather to good decision-making yet also personalities that are reserved, even introverted. But “Minnesota nice” is the nice of Fargo and, as in that movie, it doesn’t necessarily preclude the violence and everyday injustices you’ll find in any other place. It did nothing, for example, to save George Floyd as he lay face down on a Minneapolis street, the police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nine and a half minutes until his heart stopped.

Less than a year before Prince’s unexpected death in April 2016, Minnesota’s most celebrated musician this side of Bob Dylan released a single called “Baltimore” – a protest song written in response to the death of the 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray, who had suffered spinal injury after being arrested and transported in a police van. Prince had made his name in the 1970s and 1980s as a sexy motherfucker with a high voice, but had long been politically conscious in his work: in 1981’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”, he urges Ronald Reagan to negotiate with the Soviets “before they blow up the world”, while in 1987’s “Sign o’ the Times”, he briskly touches upon AIDS, poverty and nuclear war. He was, however, a clumsy polemicist, and his explicitly engaged lyrics rarely have the liberating power of his porno ecstasies. “We’re tired of cryin’ and people dyin’,” he sings in “Baltimore”. As an expression of solidarity, the song works – but the heavy lifting here is done not by the sloganeering platitudes but by the crisp, Santana-ish guitar and gospel harmony-inspired vocals.

[See also: How the Strokes’ Is This It captured the short-lived optimism of the millennium]

Prince was long gone before George Floyd’s murder on 25 May 2020, so we’ll never know how he would have responded to an injustice so close to home (Paisley Park, his Graceland-like residence and recording studio, lies 20-odd miles from where Floyd was killed). Somewhat perversely, the nearest thing to a major statement on race, politics and life in the 2020s from the singer comes in the form of his newly released “lost” album, Welcome 2 America, which was completed in 2010 – three years before the first social media post hashtagged #BlackLivesMatter and seven before Donald Trump’s inauguration.

It’s a remarkably prescient collection, and its relevance has only grown in the years since Prince, for reasons unknown, abandoned the finished project in his vault. Its title track serves as a slinky update of “Sign o’ the Times” for the digital age, with an ominous, John Carpenter-style bass line giving shape to visions of a dystopia where “truth is a new minority”. The vaguely Latin pop-funk of “1,000 Light Years from Here” alternates between verses giving us glimpses of the “good life”, freely accessible to “every child, no matter what colour”, and a chorus situating this in an unattainable, far-off future. Optimism, however, prevails: the album ends with the promise that “One Day, We Will All B Free”.

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What makes Welcome 2 America Prince’s most satisfying attempt at polemical writing is its rich musicality, drawing from the templates of past masters such as Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Sly and the Family Stone. Even “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)”, in which he compares the unfair payment practices of the music industry to literal slavery (as he did so embarrassingly in the early 1990s), succeeds as a piece of stirring and funked-up pop because its sonic allusions to mid-1970s soul help to locate its themes in wider narratives of black oppression. Yet, as ever, the most radical version of Prince here is not Prince the self-conscious campaigner, but Prince the unashamed horndog. As a statement on the human capacity for self-realisation, nothing on this record matches “When She Comes”, a sensitively observed celebration of the female orgasm (“When she comes/She never, ever/Holds her sighs”).

[See also: Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever details the darker side of fame]

Prince’s disruptive superstardom in the 1980s was based on his willingness to push way beyond any conventional limits of good taste. (We owe the existence of those “parental advisory” stickers stamped on music releases in large part to his exultantly obscene 1984 song “Darling Nikki”, which terrified the US second lady Tipper Gore into campaigning for warning labels.) And his outrageous early persona of priapic, dandified gigolo was, in a sense, a reaction against Minnesota nice, a deliberate mirror image of Midwestern conservatism. “Minneapolis audiences are mighty reserved, and learning to command an audience in a place where people are notorious for being quiet will either make you a wallflower, quiet artist, or it will make you really boisterous, aggressive or flamboyant, which is what it did for both of us,” the punk rocker Paul Westerberg once told the music writer Bob Mehr. ”I really think a lot of [Prince’s] flamboyance came from the suppression of the place that we live.” (Tellingly, Welcome 2 America’s only cover song is “Stand Up and B Strong” – in a former life, a grungey rock anthem by the Westerberg-inspired Minneapolis rockers Soul Asylum.)

Minnesota nice, of course, isn’t always seen as a form of suppression, although writers such as MinnPost’s Adnan Ahmed have linked it to racist microaggressions; playing nice can have the effect of allowing injustice a free pass. Regardless of his subject matter, the sheer pop bombast of Prince was a refutation of the status quo. Like all the superstars of the 20th century, he was astronomically larger than life, and his vastness inspired us to reach for more: more sex, more rights, more life. So Prince, in effect, was always a political songwriter, even when he was detailing the 23 positions of a one-night stand. His new-old album is a welcome reminder of his America, where sex is revolution and love a liberating anarchy.

Yo Zushi is the frontman of Watertown Carps. Their new single “Wait and See” is out on 13 August (Rose Parade Recording Co)

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