Prince’s latest album, HITNRUN, is out now. There’s no such thing as an “ordinary” Prince album, but this new album—his 38th studio release—is certainly anything but.
For one thing, it was released—at least at first—exclusively via Tidal, Jay Z’s streaming music service. For another, it’s described as “super experimental” (and this is coming from a guy who once released an all-instrumental album having four tracks of 14 minutes each). Also, it represents a deepening of Prince’s collaboration with 25-year-old wunderkind producer Joshua Welton.
The (metaphorical) purple curtain has actually been pushed back pretty far for this release—both Prince and Welton have given multiple interviews—so we know quite a bit about how HITNRUN came together.
Welton first came to Paisley Park “to support my wife Hannah,” he told reporter Smokey D. Fontaine—referring to Hannah Ford Welton, the drummer in Prince’s band 3RDEYEGIRL.
Joshua Welton, a Chicago native, told the BBC that immediately after he met Prince, they talked about Jesus for two hours, “and that was, for nine months, our relationship.”
Then, Prince first gave Welton some unfinished material that he was also sharing with two other producers, Welton told Fontaine. As Welton started to develop the material, Prince liked what he heard—while he was cooking. “Prince actually has his own personal kitchen at Paisley that’s kind of right behind where I was making the music,” Welton told Fontaine, “and a few days later he just came around and said, ‘Josh, I’ve been hearing the funk through the walls!’”
Eventually, Welton became part of the Paisley Park musical family, and ultimately became the first producer with whom Prince ever shared credit on an album: last year’s ART OFFICIAL AGE. Interestingly, Welton told the BBC, in some cases on the new album he ended up producing complete tracks for Prince’s vocals. “Some tracks on the album he didn’t touch any instruments on, so that was really crazy for me as a musician.”
The album also features contributions by STRINGenius—a group of local classical musicians who have worked with Prince on recent releases—as well as Michael Nelson’s Hornheads. The musicians of STRINGenius are seen here in an August recording session at the Brewhouse in Minneapolis, working on a track that will likely appear on the next 3RDEYEGIRL album.
Prince has moved well beyond a conventional album cycle, with a well-delineated period of recording. (Of course, it helps that he essentially lives in a recording studio: Paisley Park.) Prince is constantly making new music, says Welton. “He’s walking music, so we always have to be ready to record, and always be ready to lay something down. That’s just the heartbeat of any musician,” Welton tells the BBC, saying that “we’re always recording.”
Interviews promoting the new album have provided further glimpses into life behind the scenes at Paisley Park. Almost every reporter mentions ping-pong, and the New York Post even got a peek at “Prince’s paddle, which no one else is allowed to touch. It’s well-worn, the rubber frayed, ‘because it’s always on fire,’ quips Welton.”
In an Ebony interview, Welton also offers the closest thing yet to official confirmation that Prince did in fact play the White House at a private concert in June, with Stevie Wonder. The show was widely reported, but neither the White House nor Prince have officially confirmed that it happened. Welton, though, is more forthcoming.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences,” Welton told Ebony. “It was the first time I met Stevie Wonder. He was there and came and jammed outta nowhere with us. The Obama family is beautiful, they’re really amazing and we really enjoyed ourselves.”
The “Kiss” lick quoted on the single “Stare” (a Spotify exclusive that does not appear on HITNRUN) is the kind of flourish that Welton enjoys. The new album kicks off with a remix of the intro to Prince’s debut album “For You,” and the references to Prince’s catalog run right up to his most recent releases; HITNRUN includes a new version of the meme-inspired ART OFFICIAL AGE track “THIS COULD B US.”
Everyone who’s heard the album seems to agree that it sounds “aggressive”: loud, diverse, and club-friendly. “In between glimpses of vintage Prince,” writes a New York Post reporter, “there are blasts of hip-hop, electro-funk, house and even dubstep.”
Prince—who was the first major artist to release an album online, with 1997’s Crystal Ball—has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the Internet in recent years, and has expressed concern about the economic model of streaming services in particular, but he says he’s found a kindred spirit in Tidal’s principal owner. “Jay Z and I did a deal in 90 days,” Prince told Fontaine. “He gets it.”
Welton added that the service’s high fidelity was also a draw. “We take time to make it sound great and we would love for people to hear it the way that we hear it, uncompromised.”
Speaking to USA Today, Prince also notes that he appreciates the fact that Tidal is black-owned. “[Fans] care about black-owned, don’t they? Go over [to other services] if you want. Any sort of ownership we have is really important.”
Prince’s artistic control over the album’s presentation on Tidal was complete, he told Entertainment Weekly. “Jay allowed us pick the art work, the design of the page, the related-content features. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to do that when it’s your music, your creation?” Speaking to Ebony, Prince elaborated that instead of “related” music (“I love D’Angelo but he’s just getting started”), there will be links to music by performers who have influenced him.
Earlier this year, Tidal streamed Prince’s Baltimore benefit concert, and the service sponsored this weekend’s three-night dance party at Paisley Park. (Read Andrea Swensson’s report from Saturday night’s event.) Prince has indicatedthat the album will eventually be released in physical formats, but no details have yet been announced.
HITNRUN is clearly an album Prince and Welton enjoyed making, but will it enter the pantheon of Prince classics? That answer is for you to decide—if you subscribe to Tidal. As for Welton, his ambitions for the album are real but modest.
“Prince and I,” he told the BBC, “we’re excited to hear what people think about the album and we’re hoping people will dance around to it and have a good time!”
[ article by Jay Gabler ]