Exploring Prince's Crystal Ball Album

The Artist provides a look inside his tape vault.

By the time the final pre-ordered copies of Crystal Ball reach eager

Prince fans as expected in late March, those who received the album when it

was first shipped in January will probably have just completed their final

assessment of this mammoth, 53 track collection.

Comprised of three CDs of previously bootlegged material, plus a mostly

acoustic album called The Truth and an instrumental disc called

Kamasutra, Crystal Ball offers a fascinating look into the

famously creative mind of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. While the

collection was initially available only through The Artist's "Love 4 One

Another" Web site and 1-800-NEW FUNK telephone line, the latest plan devised at TAFKAP's Paisley Park headquarters call for also selling it (without Kamasutra) at Best Buy,

Musicland and Blockbuster stores beginning in early March. Those who

ordered it by mail began receiving their copies within the past two weeks.

While Crystal Ball, as an album, does not does not compare to Prince's

best work (such as Sign O' The Times, Purple Rain or even

Diamonds and Pearls), it's not meant to. Rather, this set is a trip

through his tape vault, which has long been known to be full of unreleased

material.

What emerges is a portrait of The Artist as a grown man, alternately angry

at those around him and at peace with himself -- and at his best, down and

dirty funky.

The first disc of bootlegged material opens with "Crystal Ball," a

10-minute apocalyptic vision replete with bells and train whistles, as if it to suggest a journey into a new world. It's a fitting

metaphor, as the 10 songs here feel as if the door has been opened into The

Artist's ultra-active but relatively closed world at Paisley Park studios,

where fans are forever hearing of private parties and late night jam

sessions.

One can picture small crowds getting down to the groove of

"Dream Factory," the contemporary R&B of "Love Sign" or the reggae lilt of

"Ripopgodazippa." Similarly, it's easy to envision a sleepless Artist

working out tracks that ultimately found no home on his other records (the

bitter "So Dark," a throwaway like "Movie Star" or the explicit "Tell Me

How U Want 2 B Done").

Disc Two continues the trip with testimonies of love ("Crucial," "Honest

Man") along with guitar blasts in songs such as "Da Bang," which contrasts

noir verses with church shouting choruses, and "Calhoun Square." Among

the best cuts here is the dark "What's My Name." "Take my name, I don't

need it. . . Take my fame, I can't use it," The Artist sings in a likely

reference to his contractual battles with Warner Bros. Records. The song's

instrumental chorus then explodes in fury of bass popping, organ, wailing

sirens and nasty turntable scratching as if to prove that despite the terms

of legal agreements, it is The Artist who is in control where things matter

most -- that is, in the music.

Crystal Ball fully blossoms on its third disc, which The Artist

opens with the righteous assertion on "Days of Wild" that "I can tear shit

up, y'all, that's my style!" "18 & Over" (with it's refrain, "I wants to

bone ya") serves as an explicit how-to on both sexual positions and deep

down, late night funk-making. Among the other standouts here are the live

guitar showcase "The Ride" and a remix of "P Control," the latter of which

boasts phatter beats and mad scratching to topple the original version of

the song from The Gold Experience. Meanwhile, "Get Loose" clocks

major b.p.m.s to suggest that The Artist was on the techno tip a long time

ago, but just wasn't interested in exploring it. "Take that, you sorry

motherfuckers," is his confident retort to doubters who claim he's lost

touch with times.

While the three bootleg discs offer plenty for fans to pour over, many have

been most excited about the Truth, touted as The Artist's first

all-acoustic album (although that's somewhat of a misnomer, as several

songs feature electric bass and synthesizer). On the downside, The

Truth contains some cuts ("Circle of Amour," "Animal Kingdom,"

"Fascination") that could have come from a Windham Hill new age sampler.

Other tracks ("Dionne," "The Other Side of the Pillow") playfully sound

like movie themes from post-War romantic comedies. At its best, however,

The Truth returns to The Artist's oft-explored theme of salvation.

But whereas in the past, he mixed spirituality and sexuality, on songs such

as "The Truth," "Don't Play Me" and "Third Eye," The Artist now melds the

notion of salvation with truth in artistry and control over one's own

creativity.

As for Kamasutra, the word in Artist fan circles is that the album

was only added to the set as a bonus to mail-order purchasers after it was

decided to include The Truth with The Crystal Ball for retail

stores. Kamasutra's 11 delicate instrumental tracks are less the

work of an orchestra than a new age ensemble, and as such they are a must

only for hardcore Prince devotees. [Tues., Feb. 17, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]