A portrait of The Artist

A wiser man, he finds ‘Joy’ in independence

Edna Gundersen

NEW YORK—As prolific as The Artist has been this decade, he almost sat out the pivotal year he has sung about since 1982.

I had planned to do nothing in 1999 except reflect,” he says. “I needed time off from the industry. Everyone said, ’But this is your year!’ I stopped, I broke the pattern, I went away and didn’t talk to anybody.”

The artist formerly known as Prince—and informally known as corporate music’s royal pain—has returned from self-imposed exile to herald the turn of the century with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, a joyous, soulful collection that recalls his early ’80s pop-funk. Out today, the album is his first to enlist an outside producer: his discarded persona, Prince. (Topping that for weirdness is his desire to record a rock album produced by the late Jimi Hendrix.)

Three years after a rancorous divorce from Warner Bros., The Artist, 41, opted to join forces with Arista chief Clive Davis. Their licensing deal, which lets The Artist retain ownership of his master tapes, is a flirtation, not a marriage.

Clive and I have an agreement,” says The Artist, clad in a purple velvet suit, gold snakeskin boots and a big hoop earring. “We don’t tell each other what to do. Contracts that bind people are based in distrust. That’s why the ’con’ is in there.”

The Artist’s return to a major label for wider promotion and distribution is no admission of defeat, he says. “I had a lot of success on the Internet. And I dealt with retailers who treated me as a human being, not an upstart trying to beat them at their own game.”

Peddled on his Web site (www.1800newfunk.com), the $50, five-CD Crystal Ball sold 250,000 copies, far short of earlier releases. The equalizer: fat, instant profits.

We got paid!” he exults. “More than for the last five to six albums on Warner. It’s straight-up money, and the check’s on time, not quarterly.”

Though The Artist, who frequently shares Bible studies with friend and bassist Larry Graham, seems serene and cheerful these days, his bitterness toward the industry hasn’t abated. Before linking with Arista, he discussed business philosophy with the brass at other labels and was dismayed by their “staid” views, ignorance of music and lack of passion.

Look at the simple rise of hip-hop,” he says. “A lot of these executives don’t know what these rappers are saying. They just know it’s hot.”

Contracts, he says, enslave and rob artists.

Non-creators have convinced creators that they’re supposed to take a subservient role,” he says. “The system may be cool for Kid Rock or someone just coming up, but I would never roll like that. You’re giving away your legacy for something that is valueless. Money runs out. Music appreciates like real estate.”

The Artist, finishing a box set of samples and plotting a New Year’s Eve blowout, may consider a second project for Arista, no strings attached.

I have free will, and I’m ecstatic,” he says. “There’s no ceiling now.”