A driven and defensive Artist promotes his first major-label CD in years

Jim Farber

Enter,” the Artist says, ushering the Reporter into a sprawling hotel suite at the Palace (the grandly named Helmsley establishment where he’s staying).

The Artist has chosen to grant a rare audience because he wants to promote the Album (his first for a major label in four years, titled “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic").

But the Artist will only speak to the Reporter for half an hour. And only if the Reporter doesn’t bring a tape recorder. The Artist, you see, won’t allow anyone to own a recording of his voice that he doesn’t control, even if it’s just a tape of him shooting the breeze. A reporter for another publication tried to bring along a stenographer to capture every burning word. The Artist banished him. This reporter considered wiring himself but was afraid of a pat-down.

The Artist, clad in a flowing fuchsia jumpsuit, practically bounces off the couch while the Reporter scribbles notes in between firing questions, a difficult task because the Artist talks nearly nonstop, at breakneck speed.

The Artist announces he’s eager to “clear some things up.”

Such as?

“That I have disdain for record companies. I never said that,” he declares. “I have disdain for companies that take your money and don’t give you ownership of your own work.”

That famous complaint drove the Artist off Warner Bros. Records back in 1995 after 16 years with the label. His anger also made him paint the word “slave” on his face, thereby equating a multimillionaire’s less-than-optimal work agreement with the bloody history of human bondage.

The Artist says his new deal with Arista is similar to the one he had with EMI in ’96 for the “Emancipation” LP (in which the label distributed the album but didn’t control its content). But he won’t disclose details of the arrangement, except to say that he didn’t have to sign a long-term contract.

Some may find Arista an odd choice for the Artist, since label chief Clive Davis is known for being the most hands-on honcho in the biz, down to approving every sound on a record. The Artist insists he doesn’t have to answer to Davis in any way. “I answer only to God,” he declares.

His role model for keeping major label interference at bay is the singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, about whom he can’t say enough good things. Over the past few years, DeFranco has earned ink not only in entertainment magazines but in business publications for putting out her own records and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of each release. Her Righteous Babe label has made her the most successful exponent of the punk do-it-yourself aesthetic in this decade.

“I wanted to meet her, to see what effect it would have if you remain in the garden, where you’re like Adam, at your most creative,” says the Artist. “She seems like she could be 10 years old or 1,000. She danced all night and wore us all out. And that never happens.”

The Artist claims operating at his own peak of creative and financial freedom has had a secondary effect. “It stops aging. It makes you live longer. It’s why I have all my hair. It’s why I feel like I’m 18.”

In fact, the Artist does look remarkably doe-like for 41. He’s also in robust spirits about his new music. “I consider this my second album,” he says, the first being “Emancipation.”

The new album features a broad mix of music during its 70 minutes. Its first single, “The Greatest Romance That’s Ever Been Sold,” has an Arabic motif and a grinding funk rhythm. There are also guest performances, from DeFranco, Sheryl Crow, Chuck D, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani and saxist Maceo Parker, on the James Brown tribute track, “Pretty Man.”

The Artist’s last two albums were both independently released, and compile older material. Since most of their sales took place over the Internet and thus weren’t counted by SoundScan, the number of units sold can’t be independently confirmed. But the Artist is intent on establishing their success. When the Reporter asks him if he minds that he hasn’t had a hit in a number of years, he answers incredulously.

“Do you know what a hit is? I sold 250,000 copies of ’The Crystal Ball’ at $50 a pop. Now, I know you can do the math. Is that a hit or what? When TLC is all over the charts with hits, they call their moneyman and he says, `You’re broke.’ When I call my moneyman, he says, `You had a very good year.’

“I’ve got more money than I ever had, more gold, more land. Do I give a damn about the charts when I’m making this money?”

Clearly, he gives enough of a damn to sign with Arista, which will focus his sales on stores once again, giving him more of a chart presence.

The Artist also gets defensive when it’s suggested that music fans tend to consider successful artists who complain about their business dealings whiny. “Do I sound whiny?” he says, smiling broadly. “Do I look like I whine? I was never whiny.”

Yet all the public focus on his business has had an undeniable effect on both his image and choice of conversational topics with the media. During our time together, talk of music engenders vague, minimal responses. Talk of business brings elaborate, passionate answers. Even when pressed, all he says about the music on “Rave” is that “it’s full of hits,” and “it’s very daring.”

He chalks up part of this to the album’s producer, whom he credits as Prince—in other words, to his old persona. “He knows a hit,” says the Artist, wryly. “He’s a good editor,” something the Artist didn’t have on recent releases, which ballooned to three- and five-CD lengths.

If the bloat of that catalog, and the star’s personality split between the Artist and Prince, have confused and amused many, he seems unconcerned. When it’s mentioned that his name change alone gave TV comics material for years, he says, “I don’t want much TV.”

The Artist says that, instead, he listens to his “spirit.” It wasn’t always that way, he reveals, referring to the $100 million contract he signed with Warner Bros. in the mid-’90s. “My hand was shaking. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. I’ve learned. I don’t argue with my spirit anymore,” he stresses, beaming with zen-like delight.

With that, the Artist brings our talk to a close. He has spoken.