‘Welcome 2 America’: Previously Unreleased Prince Album Offers Timely Outrage, Empowerment
Being a Prince fan means you have an obligation to feel a little bit conflicted every time his estate releases new material. The notorious perfectionist controlled every aspect of his vast library of songs — including which ones were shared with the public — so even if it’s exciting to hear and celebrate him through more music, there’s always an accompanying sense that you shouldn’t be taking advantage of the latitude that he is unfortunately no longer around to extend. That said, his albums are always a cause for celebration. In the case of “Welcome 2 America,” Prince has trained his incisive eye on some of this country’s deeper social ills. Originally recorded in 2010, the enigmatic artist shelved it (like many others languishing in his storied vault) for reasons we may never know. Now, released a year after the death of George Floyd prompted a racial reckoning that is still raging on, “Welcome 2 America” gains new and urgent relevance while showcasing his peerless musicianship.
The opening notes of the first track, “Welcome 2 America,” juxtapose a “People Make The World Go Round” bassline and shimmering keyboards in a melody that echoes the score he composed with Michel Colombier for “Purple Rain” — slightly anachronistic, but timeless because of the way they come together. But you quickly realize that he isn’t riffing on The Stylistics as much as he is Parliament’s “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up),” synthesizing homage and inspiration through an encyclopedic knowledge of soul and rock & roll, as he and his backup singers unveil the record’s themes: cultural oversaturation, technophobia, artistic transience, capitalistic indoctrination and more. Some of these ideas, he was beating the drum about since early in his career, but even after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he clearly maintained a vigilant watch on social and cultural trends whether or not he was following them.
It’s no revelation to acknowledge that the song structures in much of Prince’s latter-day work were less formal, and perhaps as a consequence, less memorable to an audience accustomed to his dynamic earlier innovation. But the jam-band consistency of his work from the New Power Generation-era onward still offered complexity and precision, even if it sometimes felt shaggier than the material it followed. On “Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master),” a loping groove provides the backbone of a meditation on black-on-black crime and the destructive mechanics of recording contracts; Prince cedes the microphone for Shelby J. to take lead vocal, a latter-day example of his generosity with female colleagues (and an outward one that belies his complete control of everything behind the scenes, here including his supporting harmonies and production trickery).
He offers a cautionary tale on “Born 2 Die,” slipping into his nimble falsetto as he recounts the days and nights of a female hustler who succumbs to the streets where she lives, then shifts to the aspirational “1000 Light Years From Here,” where he acknowledges the obstacles that earthbound people face, then encourages resilience, and perseverance, with the help of a higher power (“We used to be smarter / We taught ’em what they know / And now we got to show ’em / What it means to be American”). Prince’s spirituality has been a cornerstone of his music since before he released “God” as a “Purple Rain” b-side, but even if he foregrounded it more prominently in his music as a consequence of doing so in his life, he manages to weave it into his lyrics with a deftness that never sounds, well, preachy. Similarly, he injects social consciousness into “Hot Summer,” offering deeper reassurance against the backdrop of a sunny-day bop with an organ riff that sounds a lot like ? and the Mysterians’ 1966 garage-rock standard “96 Tears.”
By the time he gets to the shifting tones and tempos of “Stand Up And B Strong,” you’re reminded why his music fell out of favor commercially: increasingly, he has eschewed the polish that most contemporary pop music now goes through, including what was applied on his own records, and what’s left is vibrant and catchy but it is almost too clear and direct — and earnest. “When the times are oppressed / And you’re all depressed / If you’re life’s a mess, remember you’re blessed,” he sings, and if those platitudes are welcome to younger, more radio-savvy (or likely, attuned) ears, they’re typically packaged in a tornado of filters, or at worst, complementing a trap beat or some Swedish songwriting formula. Harmonizing with guest vocalist Elisa Fiorillo, Prince by comparison sounds like a youth pastor and his spouse trying to communicate a message of faith via song to a bored group of teenagers. What that requires from the listener is not only an awareness of how Prince and his music have evolved, but perhaps a generally less cynical attitude when listening to him.
All of that places Prince at a disadvantage on “Welcome 2 America,” not the least of which because every single “new” release will inevitably, if not entirely fairly, be compared against each individual’s favorite of his recordings. For better or worse, Prince’s death in 2016 catapulted him back into the public consciousness — not just as an enduring luminary but as an artist who continued to record and release albums, whether or not the mainstream had any interest in consuming them. And so, a song like “Check The Record” connects to his “Diamonds And Pearls” and “Love Symbol” era excursions into organic funk and hip-hop, while “When She Comes” echoes the winking come-ons of “Do Me Baby” (from “Controversy”) or “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” (from “1999”), only filtered slightly through the more spiritual, less explicit perspective. By 2010, Prince had slightly backed off of the squeaky-clean, holier-than-thou pivot he made as a Witness, but this record provides an unexpectedly enlightening timeline of his growth, which in a way makes it more important than the time-capsule deluxe releases of individual albums, at least from an historical perspective.
If as people (much less music listeners) we’re in a timeline filled with outrage and disappointment, where this record does feel out of time is in its abiding sense of hope, culminating with “Yes,” a propulsive anthem that encourages empowerment, inclusion and solidarity, and the cathartic, unhurried “One Day We Will All B Free.” It’s on that final song that he most fully captures the push-pull of resistance and resilience, frustration and optimism (“You go to church just to be sold / Why you deserve to die / It’s just like having your fortune told / But never asking why”); but as an artist who spent significant chunks of his career fighting for various forms of liberation — from contracts, much less from expectations — he was, and remains, an embodiment of the idea that you can (and will) prevail by staying true to what you believe. Now, more than ever, that’s something that the world needs to hear. “Welcome 2 America” is a reminder musically, culturally and emotionally, that that’s a process that starts inside each of us, replacing the conflict of whether or not we should be receiving new messages from Prince with the exciting possibilities of what we can learn when we listen to them.
“Welcome 2 America” releases July 30 on Apple Music.