By Peter Skiera
I recently purchased Welcome 2 America, a full-length album of previously unreleased music issued by Prince’s estate. That, along with a 60 Minutes segment on Prince, and this month marking the 5th Anniversary of Paisley Park opening to the public, inspired me to fly out to Minneapolis to check out some Prince landmarks and tour Prince’s Paisley Park home and recording studios. Before I get to that, here is my personal take on Prince’s new album.
Prince could be a strange guy, and that sometimes revealed itself in his music. Yet the material on Welcome 2 America is more approachable than much of his previous work and it seemed like Prince knew it. According to a July 27 interview broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition, in 2010 Prince played this music on a CD-R for his friend and keyboardist, Morris Hayes, while they were sitting together in Prince’s car at Paisley Park. Prince was very proud of the music and asked Hayes to co-Produce the new album. An album photo shoot was eventually done. He even embarked on a tour he called “Welcome 2 America”. So, it is puzzling why he later relegated these recordings to his vault. Like I said, Prince could be a strange guy.
Though the music on Welcome 2 America might be more accessible, it is a heavy album. Judging from the picture on the album cover, Prince meant business. The 12 tracks deal with racism, politics, religion, sex, and capitalism. Heavy stuff. Even though the songs were written eleven years ago, his words are just as relevant today. Take the lyrics from the title track for example: “Distracted by the iPhone/ Got an application, to fix your situation”….and…”Welcome To America / Where everything and nothing that Google says is hip.”
Prince apparently still harbored a great deal of resentment toward the record industry as evidenced in Running Game: “How much do you want for that real dope beat? / Another A&R man lyin’ through their teeth”…”There goes the publicity / You’re back on the street.”
“Judging from the picture on the album cover, Prince meant business.”
Racism gets equal time as well. Bear in mind, Prince composed these songs when Barack Obama was in The White House, but the messages still resonate. On One Day We’ll All Be Free he sings:“Kneeling down beside your bed / Praying for a sign / And everything your mother said / Was just a waste of time.”
Even religion does not escape comment. In 1000 Light Years From Now, Prince, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, sings,“Why would God make Heaven so far way? / With a whole world of His children / Cryin’ to Him every day.”
Aged 52 at the time he recorded Welcome 2 America, Prince also exposes his kinky side to us in When She Comes: “When she comes / She never, ever / Holds her sighs…Some people might think it’s rude / But she’s more comfortable in the nude.”
Yet all of this heavy commentary is beautifully wrapped in funk, R&B, and pop music that is so fresh and enjoyable, it goes down like a spoon full of purple-colored natural sweetener.
It’s All About Balance
Not to leave you with the wrong impression, Welcome 2 America is not all heavy. The heaviness gets balanced out with some easy-breezy tunes like Hot Summer which sounds like it could have the makings of a hit single. Stand Up & Be Strong is Dr. Prince lifting you up on a bad day…”In the times of unrest / And you’re all depressed / If your life’s a mess / Remember you’re blessed.”The song features great keyboard and guitar work by Prince. YES is another fun track that would have been a perfect song to perform during a Super Bowl halftime show or a live concert: “We got the keys we gonna give ‘em to you / Only if you’re ready for your dreams to come true / Oh yes!”
On the majority of the tracks, Tal Wilkenfeld played bass guitar, Chris Coleman played drums, and Morris Hayes played keyboards, but Prince was clearly the leader. The guitar might have been his first love, but Prince was musically promiscuous. As well as lead vocal and guitar, he played drums, synth bass, keyboard, piano, percussion, and the drum machine. He also composed, arranged, and produced or co-produced most of the songs.
Sorry, You Didn’t Get Your Bonus
I was really hoping to hear a little chatter at the start or end of some of the songs to get a glimpse of what Prince was like in the studio, but no such luck. He was a very private person so perhaps he did not want private Paisley Park studio talk to leave the studio…What happened in Paisley Park stayed in Paisley Park.
Likewise, a bonus track or two, like the B Side live version of Welcome 2 America from the 7” single, would have been nice. Or better yet, a cut from the CD-R Hayes heard in Prince’s car. Again, no such luck here. I suppose we have been spoiled by CD bonus tracks. We have come to expect them as standard, so not getting even one is a bit of a disappointment, especially with the price of CDs and vinyl (Welcome 2 America is available in both formats for your listening enjoyment).
Toward the end of my Paisley Park tour, which I shall write about in Visiting A Prince: Part 2 next month, I told my guide I had purchased the Welcome 2 America CD. He asked me what I thought of it. I said it was not what I expected. He replied, “That’s Prince.”
“The guitar might have been his first love, but Prince was musically promiscuous.”
Welcome 2 America peaked at #4 on Billboard’s 200 chart and #1 on Billboard’s R&B Album chart. According to Billboard.com, Prince joins about a dozen other acts to have 20 albums in the top 10. Moreover, he is just the sixth artist to have top 10 albums in each of the last five decades.
Was Welcome 2 America worth waiting 10 years for? To quote from one of the songs on the album, YES. Whether you are a purple dyed in the wool Prince fan or not, you should hear this record. Listening to it, I cannot help but wonder what other unreleased gems are gathering purple dust deep inside Prince’s private vault, and what else he might have given us if he were still here. Thanks to Welcome 2 America, he still is.
Trivia: Eric Clapton reportedly cited Prince as one the world’s greatest guitar players. Clapton covered Prince’s hit Purple Rain live in 2019.
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