Album Review: Prince - 'Welcome 2 America'
The posthumous release of Prince’s “Welcome 2 America” breathes fresh air into the music icon’s discography since his tragic death in April 2016, giving listeners deep insight to Prince’s thoughts on American culture.
Prince’s estate has been gradually unveiling previously unreleased work from Prince’s lifetime, and “America,” recorded in 2010, is the first full-length original album to be taken out of the vault.
In the years following his death, Prince’s records have been comprised of live performances, remasters of past albums and 2019’s “Originals,” which featured acoustic demos of songs Prince gave to other artists like Kenny Rogers and The Bangles.
The production of “America” overlapped with “20Ten,” which received mixed reviews from critics, but Prince ultimately decided to put the former on the shelf for reasons not entirely clear.
“Welcome 2 America” exhibits an approach that is more poignant and thought-provoking than “20Ten” ever was. The entirety of the album features an enjoyable blend of soul, gospel, R&B, funk and rock that shifts in a way reflective of the flamboyant persona of the High Priest of Pop himself.
Most of the album is rooted in soul, and the first three tracks on the record are a moderately-paced jazz shuffle as Prince examines multiple aspects of American society.
The title track opens the album with a sparse arrangement of bass, drums, synth and affirming backup vocals as Prince, in a deadpan style, criticizes mass media, technology, education and celebrity status.
Featuring shared lead vocals by Shelby J., “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)” tackles the record and entertainment industry as a whole, comparing executives and producers to slave masters over artists, a comparison Prince used as early as the ‘90s.
“Born 2 Die” follows with Prince’s distinctive falsetto making its first appearance thus far on the record. A groove with a mixture of contemporary jazz and funk whisk listeners into his controlled and leering upper register as he makes a point about the dangers of excess and its ease in modern society.
Unfortunately, the lyrics and meaning behind the opening trio of tracks is much more memorable than the melodies or music itself. The songs don’t possess the fire or energy that record openers typically do and would make excellent anchors near the middle of the tracklist, especially considering the songs immediately following them.
“1000 Light Years From Here” is one of the darlings of the record, opening with an infectious guitar riff layered with fuzzy distortion and crisp clean picking. The track has a light feeling and composition similar to modern fusion jazz as Prince sings about starting a “peaceful revolution” and plays heavily off the backup vocalists in a nearly conversational way.
Another standout, “Hot Summer,” which he premiered via a radio station’s website in 2010 for what was intended as a promotional for “America” before it was sidelined, continues rolling with one of the most rock-sounding tracks on the record. The opening guitar chords are faintly reminiscent of The Cars, as vocalist Liv Warfield adlibs over a driving snare drum, claps and an electric organ.
This track is the first to diverge from the theme of the record, but it serves as a fun, upbeat detour from the slower soul tracks the album is saturated with until this point. In truth, “Light Years” and “Hot Summer” would have made excellent lead tracks on the record, and either one could have taken the opening spot.
“Stand Up and B Strong,” a cover of Soul Asylum’s 2006 single, plunges headfirst back into a darker soul experience as Elisa Dease shares the lead vocal spotlight with Prince. The track changes paces a few times, concluding with something akin to a gospel reprise with one of the most prolific guitar solos on a record where they are quite sparse.
“Check The Record” returns to gritty rock backed with claps and cowbell in one of the strongest tracks on the album, where Prince appears more at home than perhaps in others on the album. With falsetto adlibs and vocal swoops abounding, the song ends too soon with a runtime of only 3:28, the second shortest on the album.
“Same Page, Different Book” is a return to the central message of “America,” as Prince addresses religious dissention and calls for peace. The track shuffles along at a moderate pace with ascending lines in the verses leading to a characteristically soulful chorus.
“When She Comes,” which was previously released in 2015’s “HitnRun Phase Two,” is definitely the strongest track on the second half of the record and is the most perfected version of the style Prince is chasing the entire tracklist. With airy falsettos and a sultry groove, the song is again a departure from the central message of the album but encapsulates everything done well about Prince’s style and delivery in one complete package.
“1010 (Rin Tin Tin)” and “Yes” return again to the message of “America” with very different styles. “1010” is heavily influenced and infused with elements of R&B in the structure and rhythm of the song while “Yes” is a fairly generic stomp-clap rock-infused sing-a-long. “Yes” is forgettable, but “1010” explores some interesting ideas about the common interests of all humanity.
“One Day We Will All B Free” closes out the album as Prince challenges the unquestioning acceptance of education in schools and churches. The song itself is on par with the opening three in message and style, but it is more upbeat, ending the record in an acceptable but not necessarily memorable way.
The largest issue with “Welcome 2 America” is the sequencing of the album. It could have much stronger tracks leading off and ending the album to help space out those that are weaker. The three closing tracks are the weakest, hurting the record overall.
Truthfully, the dozen songs on the record could likely be reduced to 10 without losing much meaning and make this a much stronger, concise package. Tracks that pop are electric and make you yearn for more, and many others are solid additions too, but they are just not necessarily unique even in the context of the album and can quickly become lost in the shuffle with the others that sound similar to it. Some overstay their welcome a bit as many songs on the record stretch to nearly five minutes or more.
In short, it’s an album we should be grateful to have, and it has flaws, but it still can be extremely fun at times to listen to. It’s a release that shows a lot of promise and delivers on some of those promises, but it does fall short in some unfortunate ways.