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Prince's 'Graffiti Bridge' to the Past : *** 1/2 PRINCE "Graffiti Bridge" Paisley Park/Warner Bros. :

RECORD RACK

August 12, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN | Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic). and

When it comes 2 a Prince album, U have a pretty good idea what U're in store 4: Sex, God, brotherhood, more sex, soul, rock and bad spelling.

The fun is in finding out exactly what proportions the ingredients come in, and just how commercially and/or controversially the bad ex-boy wonder has blended them into his sometimes psychedelic, always funkadelic stew. His propensity for shocking the masses has been overshadowed by other acts in recent years, but among the music cognoscenti, his ability to dazzle with the tonal shifts of each new album remains almost unfettered.

"Graffiti Bridge" (due in stores Aug. 21), his fourth more-or-less sound-track album and 12th overall, will please Prince's camps of constituents to varying degrees.

Black radio, certainly, will be all over it like white on rice. This may be his most consistently R&B-sounding album since before "Purple Rain," and its grooves may be dominating dance floors well into 1991, if not quite 1999. (The fact that four of the album's 17 songs are performed by the reunited Time won't hurt.) It's better than last year's gutsy but ill-conceived "Batman" by a long shot, and texturally, it's amazingly well-recorded R&B with avant-twists everywhere.

So, will the camp of fans that prefers the risk-taking "Controversy" side of Prince complain that, however much fun, this album seems to be his least bold, least personal and perhaps his most reiterative to date? That at times it seems like he's going through the motions, distilling the ideas and themes that made him famous?

That call is up 2 U. In any case, it's hard not to notice that the opening "Can't Stop This Feeling I Got," a terrific, toe-tapping rocker that recalls "Let's Go Crazy," even begins with a solemnly invoked prelude to partying, a la the earlier tune.

And at the much more spiritualized climax, when Prince tells us that "Everybody wants 2 find Graffiti Bridge" (guess we'll have to wait for the movie to decipher that one), it seems not-so-eerily reminiscent of other big finishes when he symbolically generalized that "Everybody's looking for the ladder," or wished everyone heaven or a cleansing bath in purple rain.

Even the collaboration with spiritual progenitor George Clinton, which ought to have mouths watering, seems familiar: Their disappointing "We Got the Funk," the album's lamest song, gets just about all its mileage out of using the title phrase as a profane play on words.

Prince seems to have adopted the maxim he invokes at the album's midway point: "There's joy in repetition." The thing is, most of the time he's right. Within what for Prince is a limited range of styles--dance-oriented and not as poppy, psychedelic or even rock-ous as some of his efforts--he hits grooves that maim and kill. At almost any place in the album he can step back and justifiably boast \o7 U can't touch this\f7 .

An odd choice for a first single, "Thieves in the Temple" has one of the album's better lyrics and one of its lesser melodies. As jealousy leads him to try and drive out some tormenting demons, you notice that Prince has gotten a little more personal here than he does anywhere else on the album. The best track, the story-song "Joy in Repetition," offers Prince doing what he does best--mixing a kind of street realism with all-out redemptive, romantic fantasy.

Notwithstanding the many guest stars (who also include Mavisa Staples and Elisa Fiorillo), this collection, like "Sign 'O' the Times" and others before it, has Prince going it mostly alone in his private Minneapolis studio--responsible for almost all the instrumentation and backing vocals and sticking fairly close to a beat-heavy central musical motif. Even during his least candescent moments you have to marvel at his ability to be a knob-twirling one-man party--whether boldly striding forward or, as here, treading water.

\o7 See Page 80 for more Record Rack. \f7

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