Prince's death on Friday has sent music fans scavenging for his albums. They are finding that a stunning number of them are out of print, and some important titles will cost at least a week's worth of rent money for a used copy (The Black Album, for instance, can be yours for a minimum of 160 bucks). But one Prince album that at the moment still has affordable copies available is 1996's Emancipation.
It was his first official release after being let go from Warner Bros., with whom he memorably clashed with in the early 1990s. It finished a respectable No. 16 in the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll of the nation's music critics, the last Prince album make that poll's Top Forty.
His longest album, the music on Emancipation is evenly divided into three one-hour discs of twelve songs each. Even if you're a Prince fan who already owns it, chances are you haven't taken it out in a while. If so, the time is right for reappraisal.
Start with the last disc, the most uptempo of the three. Opening with the defiant industrial funk of "Slave", it then moves into a pair of Prince's more effective forays into house, "New World" and "Human Body". The sly "Style" is a relaxed R & B groove, and with its buoyant strings and horns, "Sleep Around" evokes a long-lost disco 12-inch from the Studio 54 era.
Things slow down s a bit for the Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You". It is one of the four cover versions on the Emancipation, a first for a Prince album. Another one, the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow", received some airplay at the time, but equally worthy is his moving take of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (Joan Osborne's "One of Us" rounds out the quartet).
Explore the album twenty years later and you'll find gems you've never heard before or perhaps had forgotten. The wonderfully strange "Joint 2 Joint" brings in a Middle Eastern keyboard strain, hip-hop scratching, spoken-word poetry, tap dancing from Savion Glover, a rock guitar solo, and a brief interlude for Prince to reveal his favorite cereal (Cap'n Crunch), yet still somehow flows seamlessly.
While Emancipation isn't Prince's best album, very few artists could have put out a three-hour set that include as many winning tracks - or would have been audacious enough to attempt it. It's just another reason things won't be the same without him.