Prince says he’s ‘Emancipated’ at last

Joyful at being shed of old label, he releases new CD

Jon Bream

The “SLAVE” was off Prince ’s cheek, and there was a smile on his face Tuesday afternoon.

A loose, friendly and welcoming Prince - with none of the old affectations or shyness - previewed a new three-disc set, “Emancipation,” celebrating the liberation from his old record company, Warner Bros., and the beginning of a new distribution deal with EMI.

“This is my most important record,” he said at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen after playing about a dozen songs, some in full, others merely samples. “I’m free, and my music is free.”

The preview suggested that “Emancipation,” with its 36 songs, may be his most adult, mature and musically richest record yet. It includes his versions of Joan Osborne’s smash “One of Us,” Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You,” as well as many originals in a variety of styles recorded by the one-man band. “Courtin’ Time” is swing, “Let’s Make a Baby” is a seductive ballad but not as racy as past Prince pillow talk, and “The Holy River” is an extended suite with the potential power of the song “Purple Rain,” and it received a rousing ovation from the audience of about 35 people.

A few EMI executives arrived via corporate jet, joined by local EMI staff members and key personnel from Best Buy, Musicland and Target, three important Twin Cities-based retailers. At one point when Prince had played only a taste of a song, the audience shouted “More! More!” at Prince, who was behind the glass in the studio control room. He put the CD back on, and then took a series of comical bows.

“Emancipation” is due in stores Nov. 19, with an anticipated price of between $25 and $30. EMI Music Group chairman Charles Koppelman said the promotional campaign will begin Nov. 12 with a live broadcast of a concert from Paisley Park. He said the concert will be heard worldwide on the Internet and any radio or TV station that wants to pick it up.

Koppelman, who has produced albums by Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton, predicted that “Emancipation” will cure the retail woes that have plagued the record industry this year. He said EMI will run a two-year campaign for the CD. He referred to Prince as “The Artist.”

Prince, dressed in a Dreamsicle-orange suit, was gracious and humorous in addressing the gathering. Conspicuously absent was the word “SLAVE” that had been penciled on his cheek for the past couple of years. He had been publicly complaining about this relationship with Warner Bros., the label for which he has sold nearly 100 million records since 1978. The prolific superstar felt that Warners would not release and promote his music as fast as he could create it. In a recent interview in Forbes, he talked about releasing new records through an alternative distribution system such as the Internet.

Instead, “Emancipation,” on his own NPG Records, will be distributed by EMI, which, like Warners, is one of the six major labels. He asked the gathering Tuesday to “help us in this experiment in truth.”

How long is his deal with EMI for?

“Forever, I hope,” he said.