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Love him or hate him, Prince (or squiggle as some music critics affectionately called him when he changed his name to a symbol in the mid-90s) is undeniably one of the most influential and provocative musicians of the 80s and 90s. Sadly, that influence has failed to transition into the 2000s.
if anything, the Purple Rain legend has failed to embrace the new decade of technology and Facebooking: having spent a large part of the past five years suing everyone from YouTube to eBay for distributing his music and videos online, the singer recently declared that the internet was so yesterday, and oddly decided to release his recent album 20Ten for free with Uk newspaper The Mirror. Reducing your album to newspaper freebie status is a kiss of death in the industry, even for someone as legendary as Prince, yet he reasoned that this was his way of avoiding the charts, stress and internet piracy. Obviously he hasn’t figured out how internet piracy began.
Why is this man legendary? Well, back in the day, he wrote genius hits like ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘1999’, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ and he excelled at exuding a sexuality in his songs that made Michael Jackson look like a tame schoolboy. His influence can still be felt in today’s top performers, including Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.
20ten can be politely described as Prince’s attempted return to his past glory, i.e. the 80s, complete with heavy synthesisers, boring background vocals and retro keyboard tunes.
On the opening track ‘Compassion,’ Prince does his turn for social consciousness with a funky beat, urging us to all be friends and be happy again to an electro-funk melody and a chorus that urges you to get (your compassion) on.
On ‘Beginning Endlessly,’ the sole highlight is the extensive guitar solo, which demonstrates Prince’s much unappreciated talent as a formidable guitarist, while ‘Lavaux’ brings back that funky synthesizer that we had hoped would be forgotten with the rest of bad 80s fads, like oversized shoulderpads and Flock of Seagulls hair.
‘Sticky Like Glue’ has a pleasant funk tune reminiscent of Earth, Wind and Fire, but it sounds like something that Janet Jackson would have sung in the 90s. The vocals and melody don’t develop through the song, so its predictability makes it a rather boring listen.
‘Walk in Sand’ is equally perplexing and equally too close to 90s schmoozey pop for comfort. It makes one question where Prince has been for the past decade of music evolving. Granted, it’s great to return to these retro sounds, but music needs a certain modern edge to make him relevant and competitive against today’s pop players.
While 20Ten isn’t Prince’s worst album, it definitely doesn’t do his repertoire justice. Had it been released post-Purple Rain, he’d have suffered a severe backlash, but sadly today, he’s been off the radar for so long that 20Ten has failed to generate the heat it deserves, whether positive or negative.
People deal with breakups differently. Some join a gym, others drink themselves sick, while Usher decided to write an album about girls calling him Daddy and letting him slap their backsides. Seriously?
Back in 2004, Usher was the number one R&B artist with a number one album, Confessions, a massive hit single ‘Yeah’ and dance moves so smooth and funky; he made Justin Timberlake look like a whiny white boy with no rhythm.
Unfortunately, time has not been good to Usher since then, as his career has taken a step back while his personal life (and messy divorce) has played out through tabloids and gossip sites. Written and produced over two years with some of the hottest names in the R&B business (Producers RedOne and Jermaine Dupri, rappers T.I., Ludacris and Nicki Minaj), Raymond Vs. Raymond seems to suffer from a split personality. One minute Usher is lamenting the sorrows of break-ups, the next minute he’s boasting about how all the ladies want a piece of him.
Not only is the album confusing, it’s also tired. This is exactly the same formula that he used on Confessions, with the same themes of breakups, getting caught cheating, and hitting up the clubs. How he has failed to evolve over the past six years is baffling, especially since he was allegedly at the top of his game. Now facing some fierce competition from a younger R&B generation including Ne-Yo, Trey Songz and Drake, Usher needs to do more than flash his toned abs every five seconds.
Raymond Vs. Raymond has no hit the size of ‘Yeah’, instead there’s ‘OMG’ featuring Will.I.Am, a massive hit this summer. It’s disappointing proof that Usher is playing it safe, with his voice barely leaving the same monotone range throughout the song. The fact that he has to stoop to Paris-Hilton-vocabulary-levels makes the former cool kid very un-cool.
Further proof of his lack of coolness is ‘Hey Daddy’, a song that urges all women out there to call him Daddy while poking out their backsides. It’s a tough one; we don’t know if Usher is more offensive than sad, or just both. If anything, the song is sleazy in that creepy-uncle-way, not a good image for this former stud. ‘There Goes My Baby’ starts off promisingly, before he starts whining about how he likes the way she pokes it out, once again entering sleazy territory.
Freak’ featuring Nicki Minaj makes Usher sound more like Chris Brown, which is,
if you read the news, not a compliment. The song samples Stevie Wonder’s
‘Living for the City’ so poorly that Wonder should sue for massacring such a
masterpiece. 'She Don’t Know' featuring
Ludacris uses a brass band, oohing and screaming in the background, and a ‘Yeah!’ for a chorus, while ‘Pro Lover’
jumps on the male misogynist bandwagon, claiming ‘I’m not a player, I’m a pro’
and warning women against falling in love with him because he won’t settle
down. Um, dude, you got married and had two kids.
'Foolin Around' and ‘Guilty’ featuring T.I. basically continue Usher’s whining streak that it’s not his fault he’s so irresistible: ‘I guess I’m guilty that women always show me love.’ ‘Papers’ may be the only mature moment on this quarter-life-crisis of an album, where he sings about the sobering realities of divorce.
Although the album reached number one on the US charts, we suspect it has more to do with Usher’s devilish grin and constantly exposed abs than the actual music, which is sad really. This album just makes Justin Timberlake look cool again, which is even sadder.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when it's time for reflection; time to escape the rat race and go back to basics. Usually, this time is spent at some desolate place, like a cabin in the woods or some far away beach on a desert island; somewhere one can fully recharge and shift their focus back to what’s really important.
English singer-songwriter, Ed Harcourt, seems to have done just that on his new record Back into the Woods. But instead of a cabin in the woods or a tropical beach resort, Harcourt went back to basics at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. The nine songs were written in a month and recorded in just six hours.
The end result is melancholic, but utterly beautiful, in all its naked simplicity. There’s a piano, an electric guitar and his wife on the violin, but that is all Harcourt has taken with him to create this record. The use of dubbed vocals on a handful of tracks, and an organ beefing up the bare framework of the song ‘Brothers and Sisters’, is as frivolous as this album gets.
It seems Harcourt returning to basics has paved the way for some lyrical introspection, as well. “You’ve got the good bits from your mother and the bad parts from me” and “pay no heed to good advice” he sings to his daughter on ‘Hey Little Bruiser’. He serenades his wife on ‘Wandering Eye’ as he muses, “I remember when I first saw you/I couldn’t move I was paralysed,” and on ‘The Pretty Girls’ he states “I always feel like the monster in this fairy tale."
In ‘The Cusp and the Wane’ the singer-songwriter tells us that Mozart died a pauper and that William Blake was ridiculed. “Let’s hear it for the underdog,” he sings – he might as well be singing about himself.
It’s always been a bit of a mystery how Jeff Buckley-esque singers and songwriters, such as Rufus Wainwright and Damien Rice, have managed to amass huge fan followings over the years, yet Harcourt still operates under the radar of the general music-loving audience.
It’s not like he hasn’t got the talent. Harcourt’s oeuvre is littered with brilliant compositions, most notably on the Mercury Prize nominated' Here Be Monsters (2001), The Beautiful Lie (2006) and Lustre (2010). They can certainly compete with the musical accomplishments of the likes of Rice, Wainwright and even Buckley, yet somehow, until now, Harcourt has failed to get as much attention. And that’s a real shame.
So here’s a free tip if you’re into singer-songwriters (especially the aforementioned ones): do yourself a favour and buy not only Back into the Woods, but Harcourt’s entire seven album discography. You won’t regret it.