Album celebrates a new freedom

Edna Gundersen

CHANHASSEN, Minn. - As the slamming R&B of Somebody’s Somebody cranks out of his office CD player, the former Prince cocks his head and smiles.

"This is what freedom sounds like,” he says, sinking into a pillow on the floor. The track is one of 36 songs recorded in the past year for the three-disc Emancipation, due Nov. 19. The set heralds a divorce from Warner Bros., his label since 1978. Seeking total control of his career, he negotiated out of a contract that had granted him advances of $10 million per album.

"When I saw light at the end of the tunnel, I made a beeline for it,” says The Artist, as he’s known to the camp at Paisley Park Enterprises, his studio west of hometown Minneapolis. “This is the most exciting time of my life. There was nothing in the way when I recorded (Emancipation). Nobody looked over my shoulder. Nothing was remixed, censored, chopped down or edited.”

He’s so proud of Emancipation, issued by his own NPG label, that the famously reclusive star, 38, is promoting his creative rebirth with a high-profile promo blitz, including a Nov. 21 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Tuesday night, he’ll perform four songs live during a half-hour global radio, TV and Internet broadcast (midnight ET/9 p.m. PT on VH1, MTV, BET and at; check local radio schedules). It kicks off with the debut of his self-directed video for Betcha By Golly Wow!, featuring 50 dancers and the gymnastic feats of Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes.

He’ll crop up on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, on an episode of Muppets Tonight and in several radio ads. “I’m doing my own commercials, like a used car salesman,” he jokes.

The Artist, sporting short hair, a goatee and a bright tangerine suit, hopes his efforts eclipse what he calls the “chaotic and disorderly” promotion of Chaos and Disorder, his last Warner effort. It sank off the charts after five weeks.

Though personal animosities subsided, the funk wizard clearly loathes music industry practices. His relationship with Warner deteriorated after the label balked at releasing a glut of Prince product. He responded by scrawling “slave” on his cheek.

"I was a slave to the process,” he says. “I don’t think it’s their place to talk me into or out of things. Nobody should run our creative flowers out of the business or break their spirit or tell them how to create.

"Artists don’t like business. We like being successful and sharing an experience with an audience. In Mozart’s time, word of mouth built an audience. People found him and heard him play. Then someone came along and said, ’We can sell this experience.’ Right there, you got trouble. Music comes from the spirit, but where does the guy selling music come from?”

He’s reminded of a scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II complains that a Mozart composition contains “too many notes.” The Artist was similarly insulted when a record exec heard the lush, 7-minute The Holy River and asked, “Got a radio version?”

"I thank God every day that I never have to talk to that guy again,” he says. “They don’t even realize what they’re saying. It’s all habit now. In the end, I was disappointed to see the things that mattered to Warner. When we got down to the wire, people started saying what they meant. They think of artists as children, not men and women capable of running their own affairs.”

"The label wanted him to adhere to his contract,” says Warner exec Bob Merlis. “Our dispute was not the content but the quantity. He had artistic control. We didn’t want to stifle his creative spirit. “

The Artist insisted on releasing more records than his contract stipulated, each entailing a hefty advance. “He made a habit of it, and we accommodated him to the best of our ability,” Merlis says. “It was better for everyone that it ended. . . . He’s happier, and we don’t have to fuss and fume with him anymore.”

After leaving Warner, The Artist struck an alliance with EMI to globally distribute and market his work. He has unrestricted output, keeps his master tapes and is free to market and price his albums. Emancipation will sell for about $25, the cost of a double album. “A lot of bang for your buck,” he says, grinning.

"I could have stayed longer and negotiated to get my masters back,” he says. “I don’t own any Prince masters, but Warner gave me gold records. Ha! What’s that worth? Ask a pawn shop. Do the math.”

Moments after he describes Warner’s function as “putting plastic around a cassette, not brain surgery,” the bitterness evaporates and ex-Prince says, “I sat across the table and realized, that’s just another dude. All he can do is sue me!”

He laughs loudly. It’s water under the Graffiti Bridge. Emancipation marks a new dawn. “This is my debut. My name represents this body of work, not what came before.”

His new name, the curlicued male-female glyph, evolved over years of doodling. Unfazed by constant ribbing or the problem it poses to anyone addressing him, he insists it’s permanent and proper.

"My name is the eye of me. It doesn’t have a sound. It looks beautiful and makes me feel beautiful. Prince had too much baggage.”

Such as? “A massive ego,” he says. “All that goes away when you commit to someone.”

Mayte Garcia, the 23-year-old dancer he married Feb. 14, represents his heart’s emancipation. She recently gave birth to their first child. That’s all the father will divulge on the topic. No name, gender or birth date. Tabloids claim the couple’s baby boy was born prematurely Oct. 16 with severe birth defects.

"Mayte and I decided it’s cool to talk about ourselves but not about our children,” he says wearily. “There is a rumor out that my baby died. My skin is so thick now. I care much more about my child than about what anyone says or writes.”

He gazes at a huge photo of Mayte on his wall. She inhabits his music and conversation and inspired Paisley Park’s conversion from corporate austerity to a kaleidoscopic fun house with cloud-mottled blue walls. No wonder he’s ditched Prince, the rake whose salty tunes celebrated promiscuity. The Artist is plum bewitched and happily monogamous.

"There’s always been a dichotomy in my music: I’m searching for a higher plane, but I want the most out of being on earth,” he says. “When I met Mayte, I looked at my situation and wondered what I was running from. Am I lonely? Is that why I surround myself with so many friends?

"I don’t think I knew the answer until I got married and made the commitment: ’I will take care of you forever.’ When she walked down the aisle, and I looked into the eyes of this woman-child, I could see our future and the eyes of our child. At moments like that, you are floating. There is no ego.”

He was not instantly smitten when Mayte joined his troupe as a teen. “She was my friend and my sister for years, the one person who never showed any malice toward anyone.”

Gradually, he recognized their destiny. He rattles off a list of coincidences that rival the JFK-Lincoln parallels: He was christened Prince. Her childhood nickname was Princess. Their fathers are both named John. His mother is Mattie, oddly similar to Mayte. Her mom is Nelle, akin to his surname, Nelson.

Though The Artist rails against the record industry in songs like White Mansion and Slave, most tunes wax romantic. Mayte inspired Let’s Have a Baby, Sex in the Summer and Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife. On Saviour, he coos, “We’re like two petals from the same flower.”

"There’s an overall tone of joy and exhilaration,” he says. “In the angry songs, I found a sense of closure. I don’t mind going into that dark corner (for) answers, but you got to get out before spider webs grow on you.”

Emancipation may be the last we hear from The Artist for a while ("I emptied the gun on it"), but he’s plotting a long future. “Not to sound cosmic, but I’ve made plans for the next 3,000 years,” he says. “Before, it was only three days at a time.”