The Artist goes public

New record deal indicates change in former Prince’s reclusive behavior

David Bauder

NEW YORK - For someone who has always liked to steer his own ship - not to mention swab the decks. hoist the anchor. and unfurl the sails - the Artist Formerly Known as Prince has let a lot of people into his life lately.

Within reason, of course. He does have his limits.

The Artist returned to the world of major record labels this month with “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” an unabashedly commercial disc released by Arista .

Even though he’s recorded entire albums in which he was responsible for every last note of the music, this time the Artist opens himself up to collaborations with Sheryl Crow, Chuck D, Ani DiFranco, No Doubt, and Maceo Parker.

Famously reclusive at his peak of popularity, he’s now willing – even eager – to talk about his work. Print reporters are still forbidden from taping their conversations with him, though.

Years after banishing his given name in favor of an unpronounceable symbol and awkward designation as “The Artist” because of a battle with his old record company, “Prince” mysteriously returns in the producer’s credit for this album.

"I learned a lot about the music industry in the past three years, mainly by speaking with a lot of other artists,” he said during an interview in a Manhattan hotel.

He particularly admires DiFranco for the way she’s maintained contractual independence and built a successful recording career on her own. The Artist invited DiFranco to his Minnesota studio, and she plays guitar on his ballad, “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore.”

"I love her guitar playing,” he said. It’s the most expressive acoustic playing that I’ve ever heard,” he said. She’s a risk-taker, and that appeals to me as well... These are the spirits you want to know in your life.”

After releasing an album available chiefly by mail order, the Artist wanted the attention and marketing clout of a major label this time. But he demanded ownership of what he recorded. Just like DiFranco. He made that arrangement with Arista chief executive Clive Davis, a legendary figure in the music business whose latest coup is the implausible comeback of Carlos Santana.

Davis said he wouldn’t make that deal with just any musician. But whenever he’s been asked over the last decade which musician he’d like to work with that he hadn’t, “I always said the Artist.”

[The deal with the Artist was one of the last Davis made before learn­ing that Arista parent BMG Enter­tainment was forcing him from his job. The New York Daily News reported that L. Londell McMillan, an attorney for the Artist, called Davis’s situation “a corporate media assassination at best and at worst, age discrimination.”]

In the Davis deal, the Artist gives up the cash advance on potential earnings that most musicians get when they record for a major label; he’s taking a greater financial risk. Arista also gets an option to release some of his future work.

While he respects Davis, the Art­ist distances himself from musi­cians who have benefited from his help. He doesn’t want publications lumping him with Santana as a comeback act – he even has his publicist call back writers to make sure that’s not their angle. He does not feel that he’s coming back from anything.

Five weeks after his initial meet­ing with the Artist to see if they could work together. Davis was presented with a completed album.

"I was blown away by it,” he said.

The first single. “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” is the Artist’s answer to songs like TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Although he loves that re­cord, he doesn’t like the message.
“I just hear a lot of negativity in the songs of today. especially in the R&B field,” he said. “I was trying to reverse that single-handedly.”

Besides DiFranco, the Artist in­vites another music business rene­gade, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, to guest on a hip-hop denunciation of the industry. Chuck D has embraced new technology, releasing Public Enemy’s latest album over the In­ternet before it became available in stores.

The Artist sings duets with Crow on “Baby Knows” and pays further tribute by covering her 1996 hit, “Everyday is a Winding Road.”

Despite the collaborations, it’s al­ways clear whose vision is in con­trol. No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani sounds indistinguishable from Van­ity in the song, “So Far, So Pleased,” which is almost retro in the way it fits into the ex-Prince’s canon.

The album’s feel, and rock and roll leanings, are most reminiscent of an album many consider Prince’s creative high point, “Sign of the Times.” The Artist recalls that al­bum, too, by way of explaining Prince’s sudden reappearance as producer of “Rave Un2 the Joy Fan­tastic.”

"I brought back the Ideology and the instruments, and the risk-taking musically. Prince is a good editor, loo,” he said, in perhaps a sly refer­ence to criticism he frequently re­ceives for spe1ving out so much music. His last two releases were sprawling, multidisc sets.

If the time is right for the pro­ducer Prince to make a return, might the same thing happen for the musician Prince?

"I don’t know,” he said.