Reclaiming His Crown

The Artist is back with his best CD in years. And who is his producer? Believe it or not, it’s Prince

Christopher John Farley

So I’m hanging out with O(+> in a suite in the New York Palace Hotel, and one of the first things he tells me is that his name isn’t really his name.

Now O(+> is a cool guy to chat with: funny, insightful and, except for the fact that he’s a musical genius, a regular guy. Truth is, he puts on his bell-bottom, glittery blue stretch pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. But his perspective on the world is like his music - constantly surprising. For example, a few minutes into the conversation, an insanely beautiful woman enters the suite and cuddles up in O(+>’s lap. It’s Mayte, O(+>’s wife. Only she’s kind of also not really his wife, because they had their marriage annulled so they could transcend the “legal bonds that people demand.”

Then there’s O(+>’s new CD, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. It’s a terrific album, full of some of O(+>’s freshest, most focused music in years. It’s being released by Arista—the first time O(+> has hooked up with a major label since 1996—but O(+> says he doesn’t really have a contract with Arista, merely an “agreement.” That agreement, O(+> says, is only two pages long. Two pages? Most pop acts need longer contracts just to cover the number of M&Ms that have to be in their dressing rooms after a gig.

And, of course, there’s O(+>’s name. Ever since he changed it from Prince to O(+> in 1993, folks in the media have called him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” O(+>, as it turns out, doesn’t care for that title. His name, he says, is simply that unpronounceable symbol that looks like a combination of an ankh, an ampersand and a lollipop. Says O(+>: “I’ve made choices, and people can respect them or they can not respect them.”

In recent years, O(+>, 41, has been releasing records on his own label and selling them via the Internet. Some of those records have been sprawling; his 1998 album Crystal Ball was a five-CD set. Rave is smarter and trimmer, a single CD, 15 songs, with an impressive roster of guest stars that includes, among others, folk rocker Ani DiFranco, the rapper Eve and saxophonist Maceo Parker. And O(+>’s old pronounceable name makes a return on the new album. Rave’s credits list Prince as the producer.
O(+> adopted his old persona to recapture some of the creative spirit of his Prince-era albums. “I was curious as to how Prince used to edit himself,” says O(+>. “I was interested in my approach to music then. I didn’t care what other people were doing. I came up with my own program.”

Speaking of programs, one of O(+>’s favorite films is The Matrix—the sci-fi thriller in which the human race is trapped inside an oppressive computer simulation. O(+> frequently uses the movie as a metaphor—especially when he talks about the music industry. Says O(+>: “People aren’t supposed to go into the studio to make music thinking about ’How will this look in the video?’
That’s a matrix. That’s dangerous to me. People shouldn’t have to ask permission to record with other artists. That’s a matrix. I had to get out of the industry to realize what it’s like to record from a free place.” He charges that record companies like Warner Bros. (Prince’s former label, which is owned by the same company that owns TIME) are making more and more money while the artists’ share of the profit remains the same. “Now are you gonna write that,” challenges O(+>, “or is the matrix gonna stop you?”

It’s nearly time to go. I’m still thinking about that ankh-ampersand-lollipop looking name. What does Mayte call him at home? “I never called him Prince when I met him,” says Mayte, from her snug position on his lap. “Now I realize that names don’t matter. For example, I don’t know your name.”

“You don’t know my name?,” I say.

“No,” says O(+>’s insanely beautiful sort-of wife.

“It’s Michael Jackson,” I say.

O(+> laughs, but his wife just keeps going. “When I need to talk to him around the house, I just stand in front of him and get his attention. But if you need to say what I call him, you can say I call him ’honey.’"

The interview’s over. O(+> gets up from the couch.

“Nice to meet you, Michael,” says O(+>.

I’m a little startled by this. I wonder if a) he’s just joking, or b) he forgot my name, or c) I really am Michael Jackson and only O(+> has the power to see through the illusions of the matrix!

“Nice to meet” I say. Should I call him Prince? Artist? Honey?

Whatever. I shake his hand without another word. As long as O(+> keeps making albums as good as Rave, he can call himself anything he wants.