Not bad, but Prince totally botched it

Nov 30, 1999
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Dream Factory, Sexual Suicide, 2morrow, Last Heart

Cons:Cloreen Baconskin, unnecessary remixes

[Review originally written in March, 1998.]

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has never been much for convention, but his new Crystal Ball package is even less mainstream than usual. The four-CD set was released on Prince's NPG Records label last month with no ornate packaging, no real promotion, no tracklist, no singles and no music videos. In fact, most record buyers don't even know it exists. That's probably enough reason to recommend the Artist take a few correspondence courses in business, but it's only the beginning of the story behind Crystal Ball.

In mid-1997, the Artist announced on his website ( that he would release a three-disc set of previously bootlegged songs from 1982-1996 exclusively through the Internet, as an "Xperiment in truth." The distribution would be limited to 100,000 orders at $50 each, plus $10 shipping. There were no additional details and no release date, but die-hard fans began sending in their orders over the website and to the Artist's mail order company, 1-800-NEW-FUNK.

Months went by. Nothing happened.

The beginning of this year, word got out that the ex-Prince had made a deal with Best Buy to offer Crystal Ball in stores, starting in March. Fans who had already ordered the album and been ignored started questioning His Purple Majesty, but finally, in late January, shipping of Crystal Ball commenced.

The final mail-order package consisted of the 3-CD set of unreleased songs plus The Truth, a mostly acoustic album of new songs, the instrumental ballet CD Kamasutra and a free t-shirt. The discs came in a round, see-through case resembling a petri dish, with no booklet, cover or tracklist. Some fans made do with the set, while others wanted their 60 bucks back.

No one could deny the Artist's next move was a deadly combination of poor business sense and bad showmanship. Within two weeks of the first shipping date, Crystal Ball turned up in Musicland and Blockbuster chains across the country. The retail version came with a booklet, but without Kamasutra and the t-shirt, for prices ranging from $29.99 to $39.99.

It was a slap in the face to those who ordered months earlier at twice the price, with the promise that Crystal Ball was an Internet exclusive. Many fans still hadn't received their copy in the mail, thanks to a 12-week shipping window. A wave of people, me included, called New Funk to cancel and bail out to cheaper waters. With an automated voice-mail system set up to make it almost impossible to get in touch with a human being, only the most persistent could register their complaints.

The fiasco behind the album makes the music on it seem almost anti-climactic. Still, anyone who has enjoyed any of Prince's music, from the early days through his recent post-name change outings, will find some gems on Crystal Ball. The very nature of an outtakes album dictates that it be a sprawling collection unified only by its diversity, but as someone who owns nearly all of the man's 23 albums, I find it essential.

Crystal Ball relies heavily on the Artist's '90s output, but there are a few songs that could fit on classic albums like Purple Rain and Sign o' the Times. The title track and "Dream Factory" show the genre-bending genius and experimentation that made so many million people run out and buy his albums during the Reagan administration. "Sexual Suicide," and the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack song "Good Love" are two other fun, mid-'80s grooves with the distinctive Prince synthesizer sound. The only objectionable '80s outtake is the excruciating "Cloreen Baconskin," a 15-minute bass and drum jam Prince and Morris Day made up on the spot.

Of the newer tracks, many are in the hip-hop style he adopted in the early '90s. "18 & Over" and "Poom Poom" would work on any MTV Party to Go album, but lack any sense of the inventive. So do the slow jams "So Dark" and "Goodbye," which outclass most other modern R+B stars but still seem well beneath the '80s Prince. On "Acknowledge Me," it sounds like he's impersonating the far less-talented Montell Jordan.

The strength of Crystal Ball is in its more diverse new songs. "Hide the Bone" is dirty gospel, "What's My Name" is raw, organ- and bass-driven funk, "2morrow" combines smooth jazz with a dance edge, the operatic "Strays of the World" is straight from Broadway and the tempo-changing guitar work of "Da Bang" could play on the modern rock station of your choice.

The real creative surprise is The Truth, the acoustic freebie tossed in the back of the box with no packaging of its own. You wouldn't think it would contain a few of the best songs the Artist has done this decade, but it does. "Don't Play Me" is a biting condemnation of the Top 40 radio stations that have abandoned his music for the next big things ("I'm the wrong color and I play guitar / My only competition is me in the past") and "Fascination" is an amazing fast-tempo mix of guitars and percussion that could rock any New Age dinner party.

The blues songs and ballads on The Truth prove once again that the ex-Prince can succeed at any genre he tries. Then again, songs like the laughable vegetarian ode "Animal Kingdom" ("Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea.") are firsthand evidence of why no one takes him seriously.

There's a lot of incredible music on these four discs, and some that's just average. There's no more filler on Crystal Ball than on most multi-disc packages, although the outtakes would better fit on two discs than three. Still, if people knew more about the music and less about the Artist's distrust of media and record company convention, Crystal Ball could sell some serious copies.

I have a feeling if the Artist doesn't follow any of these suggestions, the world will soon see the following announcement on his website: "My new 78-disc set will be available exclusively behind the bakery counter at Home Depot in a limited edition, rhombus-shaped package." Crystal Ball isn't all gold, but four CDs for $30 isn't a bad deal.

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