Prince always had a difficult relationship with the Internet. One minute he loved it enough to post whole albums on it, the next he’d despise it so much that he’d release a whole album only as a cover mount on European newspapers. When it was announced Prince’s entire catalogue would be available on the streaming service Tidal, bets were surely placed on how long it’d be before the Purple One denounced how the kids listen to music these days and took it all down. Turns out that he found a good balance between old and new music distribution with his recent HITnRUN output. Phase One started streaming on September 7 last year, then had physical copies hit shelves eight days later. Four months after Tidal was spinning it exclusively, Phase Two has a physical edition on shelves right now in honor of the Artist’s untimely passing. While there could certainly be suspicion that this was released to cash in on Prince’s death (especially considering the huge jump in sales his songs have had since he died in April), Phase Two is a surprisingly solid reminder of the funky music maestro we all knew Prince could be.
Funky bass lines, bright organs, honking horn sections and the occasional guitar shredding are sprinkled throughout all 12 tracks. Sure it’s longer than its predecessor (nearly 58 minutes compared to Phase One’s 38 minutes), but Phase Two feels like Prince doing what he loves and does best: make authentic music. Whereas Phase One featured ill-fitting detours into EDM and pro-tooled vocals, Phase Two uses modern studio technology to make Prince’s bouncy R&B sound as fresh as it’s ever been. “Rocknroll Loveaffair” has echoes of Earth, Wind & Fire with a toe-tapping beat and triumphant horns. “Screwdriver” is head-bopping rock and roll with Prince throwing his scratchy vocals to the wind to press on with the song’s bouncy funk. The slap bass on “Stare” alone could make Bootsy Collins jump back and dance. There’s even the jazzy groove of “Look At Me, Look At U” as the smooth organ and flute interplay creates a sensual atmosphere. The peak of the energy is “Xtralovable,” a reworked track with no awkward rap verses and a bright horn section. The energy and good vibes coming from the songs are so prominent you can almost picture Prince behind the microphone smiling and dancing along. Regardless of his health or the condition that led to his death, making music was clearly what kept him going.
It should be noted that half of the tracks on Phase Two have been previously released in different formats. The collection of them on this album feels like Prince giving himself a do-over. While it’s a saving grace for the music, the lyrics ae business as usual. There’s the odd come-ons (“I’m your driver and you’re my screw”), weird compliments (“But we like it when you feelin’ the funk / until it hurts yo hair”) and just odd uses of description of beauty (“But even Ray Charles can see/Stevie Wonder can too”). But Prince shows a moment of social awareness with album opener “Baltimore.” Like his “black lives matter statement” at the 2015 Grammys, Prince makes his statement clear: “For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray / peace is more than the absence of war.” It’s a strong song no doubt, but something better fit for the closing bit as opposed to the underwhelming “Big City.”
Of course, HITnRUN Phase Two was never meant to be Prince’s final album and it’s certainly not a fitting goodbye for such a prolific artist. Then again, it’s not enough to outright dismiss the album because it’s actually a solid introduction for newcomers. For those trekking through the Internet wondering why artists like Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Beck and Stevie Wonder have been pouring their hearts out for Prince will get a brief taste of his musical talent on Phase Two. It’s Prince settling into his place as an elder statesman of music instead of trying to prove himself relevant (that was Phase One). If anything, HITnRUN represents the kind of artist Prince was: play the music now and make it to the next gig. That was Prince, always looking forward no matter what the times told him.