The problem with being an artist like Prince–an artist who built his career on a body of work that was epochal, genre-shattering, indeed genre-defining–is that it’s impossible to simply grow old gracefully. For the last three decades (this year of course marking the thirtieth anniversary of his most beloved album, 1984’s Purple Rain), Prince has strained increasingly under the weight of expectation created by his own genius. Back in 1994, when disputes with parent label Warner Bros. over the release of The Gold Experience infamously prompted him to brand himself a “slave” and wage war on his own public image, the artist then “Formerly Known as” Prince tried to manage expectations by defying them. By 2004, with the release of “comeback” album Musicology and a massive stadium tour with a setlist slanted toward his past hits, his strategy had reversed entirely: he would meet those expectations head-on, exceeding them in the process.
The story of the last ten years has ultimately been the story of the impossibility of that task. Sure, Prince in the 21st century has risen on the strength of Gen-X nostalgia and a series of spectacular live engagements to the highest cultural profile he’s had since the beginning of the ’90s; but during the exact same period, his new music has sunk further and further into irrelevancy. The wave of excitement that greeted Musicology had, by 2009’s obnoxiously-titled LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND, diminished to a mildly enthusiastic and mostly obligatory trickle. His next and most recent album, 20Ten, didn’t even see an official release in the United States.
The latest chapter of this story, I am sorry to say, doesn’t do much to alter the narrative arc. Last week, Prince announced a global licensing partnership with old label Warner Bros. that will include both a series of reissues of his classic albums and a brand new, Warner-distributed Prince record. Then, within hours of the announcement, Prince–no doubt aware by this point in his career that the reissue project would be greeted with more enthusiasm than the prospect of new material–dropped the first single from the still-untitled album, “The Breakdown.” And it’s…definitely a 21st-century Prince song.
Look, maybe I’m in the minority here. “The Breakdown” has been receiving good notices in most of the reviews I’ve read. The social media buzz I’ve seen has been uniformly positive. But I just can’t bring myself to get excited about it. It’s a well-performed but generic Prince ballad in a long, long line of well-performed but generic Prince ballads; slot it into the track sequence of Musicology, 3121, or Planet Earth, and you wouldn’t even notice the difference (it is, to its credit, not smooth-jazzy enough to fit convincingly onto LOtUSFLOW3R). And even that would be okay, if the only issue were that it couldn’t stand up to a “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” or an “Empty Room.” Fact is, “The Breakdown” pales in comparison even to the more recent, weaker work it most resembles. It lacks the soulful spark of 2004’s “Call My Name,” hell, even the lightweight silliness of 2007’s “Mr. Goodnight.”
Most damningly, it lacks conviction. Prince has been singing like a guy with a broken heart for long enough to conjure up a reasonable facsimile of the emotion, but none of the lyrics here ring true. “This could be the saddest story ever been told,” he croons at the beginning of the song, the kind of empty hyperbole that writes its own punchline. Later, he paints a picture of drunken despondency that makes it painfully clear how little experience he has with at least the former state: “I used 2 throw a party every New Year’s Eve / First one intoxicated, last one 2 leave / Waking up in places that U would never believe.” The issue here is not whether or not Prince is writing from experience; we all knew he wasn’t actually drinking banana daiquiris until he was blind when he wrote “Another Lonely Christmas,” either. But the best pop music feels personal, even–especially!–when it isn’t. “The Breakdown” is so generic and impersonal as to feel positively clinical.
Let me be clear here: I’m not writing off Prince’s upcoming album just because I don’t care for the single. I wish the best for the lil’ guy, and quite frankly I don’t need or expect him to make another Purple Rain, Sign “O” the Times, Dirty Mind, 1999, or Lovesexy (at this point, I’d be thrilled if we got another Batman). I hope Prince can get out from under that weight of expectation to which, I realize, I myself am contributing even as I write this. I just worry sometimes that if he keeps coming out with material like this, we won’t have any expectations for him–and that’s an even worse problem to have.
Listen to “The Breakdown” yourself here, and feel free to tell me how wrong (or right!) I am in the comments: