NEW YORK — Before recording Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,
The Artist said, he took off most of 1998 to contemplate his next move
and meet some of his peers.
"I wanted to reflect on everything I've done," the workaholic musician
who used to be Prince said as he sat in a luxury hotel room Wednesday
evening. "I wanted to meet people and see if I could jam with them."
Dressed in royal purple pants, yellow high-heeled boots and a paisley-splashed
purple velvet shirt open to reveal a clutch of gold chains, the diminutive
singer talked enthusiastically about jamming for hours on end with such
artists as No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Lenny
Kravitz and former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, whom
he calls his mentor.
"It's not about all of us going in one direction," The Artist said, leaning
forward. "It's about collaboration and … I need to talk to more artists,
I need to learn what they know."
All of them show up on the ebullient Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic
(Nov. 2), on which The Artist, who played the album for 500 journalists
and Arista Records employees here Thursday afternoon, appears to have
broken his silence in a major way.
The Artist also collaborated, mysteriously, with his former self, Prince,
a name he stopped using in 1993. Prince is credited as the album's
"My production ideology is that it's inspiration if it's done properly,"
The Artist said. "A producer can open channels in you. Prince does things
to me others can't."
The album's joyous vibe has permeated The Artist's label, Arista. While
the leading edge of Hurricane Floyd battered Manhattan with swirling
rain Thursday afternoon, The Artist and his invited guests were two floors
underground listening to the 16-track album, with the company's legendary
founder, Clive Davis, who has worked with Patti Smith, Janis Joplin and
the Grateful Dead, playing master of ceremonies as he enthusiastically
previewed the album.
"I've been in this business a long time, and this is a very special day,"
Davis said. "I've done this a few times in my career and there are very
few albums that could withstand this kind of scrutiny."
With that, Davis began playing tracks at a speaker-shaking volume,
introducing most of them with explanatory stories. The title of "Undisputed,"
a skittering rap/funk collaboration with Public Enemy's Chuck D, reflects
what the two think of each other, according to Davis. "Over the years,
he said, "both The Artist and Chuck D have thought of each other as the
undisputed [best at what they do]."
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic mixes the classic rock and soul of
early Prince albums such as 1999 and Purple Rain with
futuristic beats that recall the work of Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
Clapping his hands and snapping his fingers, Davis played the album's
first single, "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," three times. The song,
a collage of Arabic-sounding guitar lines, turntable scratching, booming
bass, soulful lyrics and a flamenco-like guitar solo, seemed to have its
intended effect: Several attendees were humming the infectious chorus as
they left the building hours later.
"That is a hit record all over the world," Davis said after the first
Davis also previewed the title track — a space-age funk tune on
which Prince is credited with singing and playing all the instruments
— as well as the Gwen Stefani duet "So Far, So Pleased," in which
the two singers' voices intertwined seamlessly in a hard-driving, midtempo
rock jam reminiscent of Prince's hit "Little Red Corvette"
There are plenty of other guest turns on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
The robotic "Hot With U" is a nasty sex romp with a cameo from Ruff Ryders
rapper Eve. The Artist does a barroom blues duet with Crow on "Baby Knows,"
while "I Love U, But I Don't Trust U Anymore," a melancholy, falsetto
pop ballad, features singer Ani DiFranco.
The listening party ended with "Pretty Man," a propulsive, danceable
collaboration with former James Brown saxophone player Maceo Parker. The
song appeared to be an homage to Brown's "Superbad."
As "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" played a third time, The Artist
— in electric-red pants, a clerical-style red blouse that dipped
nearly to his ankles, yellow boots and a red scarf on his head —
joined Davis onstage for a photo op. Moments later, he kicked a 12-piece
band into a raucous version of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
The Artist whipped back and forth across the small stage, shredding Jimi
Hendrix–like solos and indulging in a 10-minute Chicago blues take on
the standard "Motherless Child."
Graham shared the microphone for a nearly 20-minute jam that included
Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" and vocal cameos by R&B
singer Deborah Cox and a gospel scat section by R&B diva Angie Stone and
a bit of James Brown's "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing."
"This is what we do every day," The Artist said with a grin as he picked
up a purple guitar in the shape of the glyph that stands for his
unpronounceable name and tore into another lengthy funk tune, with help
from Roots drummer ?uestlove.