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RECORD RACK

Prince's 'LotusFlow3r' and 'MPLSound,' and Bria Valente's 'Elixer'

Also: Keri Hilson's 'In a Perfect World . . . ,' Martina McBride's 'Shine'

March 24, 2009|Margaret Wappler; Mikael Wood; Randy Lewis

Prince

"LotusFlow3r" * * *

"MPLSound" * * 1/2

Bria Valente

"Elixer" * *

By now, most music fans are well aware that Prince will self-release three albums that will sell in one $11.98 bundle at Target and on the artist's website starting Sunday. Which one you fancy the most depends on what flavor of Prince "u" prefer -- the nasty antiquity of "MPLSound," the guitar-hero antics of "LotusFlow3r" or the VIP-lounge purrs of his protegee Bria Valente on "Elixer."

"MPLSound" is a valentine to Revolution-era traditionalists. The nine songs pay homage to Prince's beloved Minneapolis and trades in nostalgia, lifting the syncopated drum machine beats from "When Doves Cry" and name-checking Rick James. But it's not all naughty retro: "MPLSound" also incorporates Prince's faith as a Jehovah's Witness, like when he shouts "thank you, almighty" and "hallelujah" to a lover in "Dance 4 Me."

All three albums have a touch of the spirit, an abiding cleanliness that elevates sex to heavenly communion, but "MPLSound" might be the most pristine for what it lacks: the sense of real, lusty sin.

Ballads "Better With Time" and "U're Gonna C Me" leak syrup all over the soundboard, but "Chocolate Box," a strutting bit of braggadocio set in the club with a guest spot from Q-Tip, is electrifying. In "Valentina," Prince addresses Salma Hayek's daughter: "Tell your mama she should give me a call." Hayek might be one of the world's most voluptuous movie stars, but new mothers and their "nightly feedings" are not the typical pop subjects.

Possibly the album's most notable track -- for reasons fine and regrettable -- is the spirited romp "Ol' Skool Company." Here Prince, his voice doctored to sound like he's taking hits of helium, lets his curmudgeon rip for more than seven minutes, longing for an "old-school melody when God, his son and the love of family ruled in the community."

Valente, Prince's latest in a storied line of beautiful muses, has a lovely voice that matches his current tastes for the clean line. Her soundscapes, produced and arranged with Prince, are lighter than her mentor's, traipsing from velvet funk to tales of girly crushes to dance-floor siren calls.

The problem is that not enough of "Elixer" sounds strong or fresh. Her single "Another Boy" is sweetly reminiscent of '80s freestyle icons Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, but it doesn't have that group's rhythmically inventive backbone. In "2Nite," Valente whispers "disco," a genre that needs at least one modifier to not sound mummified in polyester -- and then reports that there's "no drugs or guns up in this place," just "old-school jazz put a smile on your face." It's one of the many times when Valente feels like the mouthpiece for Prince and his oldster agenda.

The biggest challenge of Prince's triptych is "LotusFlow3r," a guitar-steeped odyssey that bounces from Steely Dan jazz chords to James Brown-esque mandates for funk to the tattered-flag psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix. Prince's guitar is a warm explosion, sometimes self-indulgent but always rendered with fascination for the instrument, endearing from a masterful musician who plays so many.

Prince includes a reverb-soaked cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover," but it doesn't improve on Joan Jett's definitive rendition. His own compositions are much more twisty and tasty. "Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful" is a jaunty slice of party funk with Prince's most charismatic vocals this side of "Kiss" -- screechy, swaggering and caterwauling. "Love Like Jazz" swings the other way, a bewitching gem that wouldn't sound out of place as the intro to a '60s sitcom.

Prince geeks out on the whammy bar, drawing long, noodly jams on "Boom" and the songs that bookend the album. But it's more rewarding when he introduces control and structure. "MPLSound" might be comfortingly familiar, but "LotusFlow3r" is the work of a musician who's still curious after all these years.

-- Margaret Wappler

Getting lost amid the star power

Keri Hilson

"In a Perfect World . . . "

(Interscope)

* *

"In a Perfect World . . . " might be Keri Hilson's debut album, but it's hardly the work of a record-biz neophyte. As part of songwriting squad the Clutch, Hilson has penned hits for Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige, and in 2007 she dominated Top 40 radio as the female voice on Timbaland's smash "The Way I Are."

She's not shy about using her connections, either: "Perfect World" features production by Timbaland, Danja and Polow da Don, and sports guest appearances from bigwigs including Lil Wayne, Akon, Kanye West and Ne-Yo.

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