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The Final Word | Sunday, 30 April 2017
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PRINCE - 21 Nights   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Sunday, 30 November 2008

Being richer than God does have it's problems.

After all, once you've got your own boat, your own country, and surrounded yourself with several hundred employees – all of whom won't tell you you're anything less than the perfect and immaculate reincarnation of Jesus H Christ herself because you pay them to be your friends – what else do you do? Nobody tells you you'll ever have a bad idea, and everything you do will be crafted, pure gold.

This is the world Prince lives in : a world insulated from anything but a rarified reality, replete with a world of obscene luxury, limos, impossibly perfect tailoring and styling, and a world of indulgence. I suppose the most obvious thing about “21 Nights” - this enormous, indulgent release – is not just what it has, but what it hasn't. Being the first official Prince printed release, there's nothing of an internal monologue. Across 200 glossy pages, Prince is 'captured', if you call that, always striking a pose. Having spent so long in the viewfinder of fame (of varying degrees), the person that Prince was has been replaced by an instictual imposter who is aware at almost every second of the perception and image and never lets the guard down : in effect, having worn a mask of image so long it has grown into himself and eaten whomever Prince really was originally. Operating exclusively on your own terms is a rare state of affairs and one where it is very easy to forget where you came from and the world you used to be in.

As a supposed chronicle of what many see as the pinnacle of Prince concert performance career – a record breaking 21 nights and at least 420,000 tickets in London – there is little here that can recommend it as anything other than affluence pornography : an airbrushed portrayl of what life is like when you are incredibly rich, a view of a world where nothing matters, food is always on the table, stability is assured, and one obsesses over irrelevant minutae instead of the big picture of life. Every page of this indulgence screams an almost offensive affluence. Prince reclines on balconies, sits on expensive chairs made solely from the skin of virgin rhinos, no hair out of place, every pose practiced in a mirror, and there's no sense of any revelation or anything honest in this, but a versimilitude, an illusion of access. The world Prince inhabits in 21 Nights is rarified and elite : only a handful of pages reflect the main thrust of these 21 Nights, the performances themselves, and most show an assortment of opulent hotel rooms, limosuines, and pampered backstage areas as Prince strikes a pose amongst his employees. Fundamentally, there's no heart in these images. No sense of context, or the universe where Prince is the prinicpal employee and driving engine of a massive machine that generates enormous amounts of money.

The text that sits against it, occasional verse, follows Princes usual and strange grammar where its up 2 u what u do with me and eye exist in ur mind like a butterfly. The text is divorced from the world outside the window of indulgence, and to be honest, doesn't seem to communicate anything, be about anything but general principles, or demonstrate any insight into anything people who aren't stupendously rich can relate to. Certainly, it's a reflection of the rare environment Prince exists within, a self-made universe that is the envy of many creative forces. But also, it's alienating. There's no insight into any understanding that Prince's life has any internal dialogue, anything other than comfort and a self imposed musical exile.

“There was a time when I used to be like you – nobody wanted a picture of me and now I can't walk down the street without everyone wanting a picture of me. There was a time when I used to be like you and could go to the supermarket” he philosophises on 'Delirious'. “I can't even go outside anymore, you think I don't miss it? I miss it. Some crazy fool comes up to me with a camera, and says can I just get a picture of you and Michael Jackson? I could retire Prince, I could retire. But inside I'm still the same”. If that's the case, the person inside Prince was weird right from the start, as his default setting. You don't see other superstars of his similar size and stature – such as Michael Stipe or Chris Martin – playing a reclusive role of self-imposed exile and refusing to interact with the rest of the universe. You are a prisoner of your own definition of reality.

This is reflected in the accompanying CD. In effect, “21 Nights” is a lavishly packaged live CD with 75 minutes of material on it. The CD meanwhile, is an interesting listen, but again, fails to reflect the 21 Nights themselves : taken from the Aftershow Parties at the Venues satellite hall (Indigo) where some nights Prince would play for two hours, and other nights not at all, Indigo Nights is a brilliant record on it's own terms. Here Prince is recast from a slick hit-making crowd pleasing machine, and the music itself is excellent, insomuch as it reflects an organic, often improvised, set of musical points featuring Prince as ringleader of a tight, well-oiled telepathic musical entity that lives, breathes, and improvises in the style of jazz greats : “3121” features “D.M.S.R.”, and melds near invisibly into the next six songs in a half-hour, jazz/prog rock style odyessy. To the Prince enthusiast it is probably further evidence of his unyielding talent and abilities. The rest of the music is of equally high quality : albeit it floats over the rest of the package as both an afterthought and the prime draw. You can easily lose yourself in this work as a trance, an epic of form and exploration. Great and exciting it is, but not exactly the definitive concert recording of Prince at his peak.

What is fairly surprising is, given that each of the 21 Nights at this groundbreaking and historic residency were recorded and filmed, is that the music is taken from the organic and improvisational post-show jamming and not the main shows themselves : the main shows at the much larger o2 Arena were brilliant, daring, and thrilling works, evolving and revolving overviews of Prince's career as a whole, performed by a unit of rare cohesion and strength, visually exciting and musically vital. These shows are overlooked in favour of what the uncharitable might call boring noodling. The aftershow jams are interesting to listen to, enjoyable to be in the presence of, but possibly not worth immortalising as the definitive musical record of these epochal shows. (Incidentally, I don't think I can see any pictures in the book from the aftershow appearances). A live CD and / or DVD set of the 'main' shows would more accurately reflect the experience shared by half a million people over these 21 Nights. And at £30, the pricetag should contain a little more than a glossy book of photos and a CD of sometimes formless jamming (with a couple of songs overlapping from 2002's “It Ain't Over Til It's Over!” set of similar aftershow jamming).

21 Nights is an interesting but flawed experiment, an unsatisfactory whole that neglects to encompass the whole experience of the o2 residency, packages it up with staged and often-airbrushed, insincere photographs, and fails to capture the career-defining live highpoint of Princes recent career these 21 shows were. I can only hope the main body of these nights is issued in another form as the definitive Prince concert release shortly. But Prince has rarely been an artist who has looked back, and spent most of his career boldly going forward with new ideas and new music, which is admirable. A not wholly successful experiment that stands testament to the perverse individuality and validity of Prince's vision.

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