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The Artist Formerly Known As Popular

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince
(NPG/EMI Records)

Now that Madonna's a stylish new mom and Michael Jackson is trying to pass himself off as a father-to-be, it's fitting that The Artist Formerly Known As Prince has settled into domestic bliss as well. All three are '80s icons in need of reinvention; with their freak personas worn bare, they're desperate to prove how normal they are. Ms. Peron seems most comfortable in her new role, and Wacko Jacko seems the least likely to succeed; however, the transformation-in-progress by The Artist (as he now prefers to be known) is nearly as radical. As a sex addict and studio fiend, Prince was so convincing for so long, it's hard to accept him as a devoted husband and fiercely protective father. But I'll buy both before believing the tallest tale of all--that the press-shy kook who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol is simply a misunderstood mensch. Before beginning a recent slow-pitch interview, Oprah Winfrey asked him what he wanted to be called, to which he replied, "Friend, I hope." Prince as amiable neighbor--now, there's a stretch.

To hear The Artist tell it, his three-CD set Emancipation is the work of a newly free man, the implication being that his music has been so unsatisfying in recent years because he felt like a slave on the Warner Bros. plantation. There's probably some truth to this, since misery has produced as much bad music as good. Unfortunately, the same can be said for happiness. Now that he's married, The Artist has gone gooey on us, like a tireless womanizer who finds the Right One and decides that "I Love You Always Forever" is a work of genius.

The Artist has better taste than that--he covers the Stylistics and the Delfonics--but listening to him sing "Betcha by Golly Wow!" is like watching a guy in a trench coat sing nursery rhymes. The Artist who helped break the race barrier at MTV, who produced a string of hits that sounded like no one else, is now aiming at the soft middle known as VH1.

That's a shame, because it was the nasty Prince who produced the most enduring music, from "Dirty Mind" and "Head" to "Sexy MF" and "Cream." By comparison, the sentimental Prince has mostly been a dud, unless you consider "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" the equal of "Little Red Corvette." He's all over Emancipation, and even at his best, he proves he's no match for Nat "King" Cole or his Philly soul heroes. No matter how lushly produced, there's a generic quality to "One Kiss at a Time," "The Love We Make," "Let's Have a Baby," "Dreaming About You," "Somebody's Somebody" and "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother, Wife." Give him points for his clever nod to monogamy on "Sleep Around," but the bruised emotion that Bonnie Raitt brought to "I Can't Make You Love Me" simply isn't there when The Artist covers it.

Sonically, Emancipation feels effortless, and that's both a compliment and a knock on how facile The Artist has become. He's so adept at recycling musical styles--'70s soul, P-funk, swing jazz, '80s dance-pop, techno--that he no longer sticks with any song long enough to turn it inside out. There are 32 originals here, and while there are songs I'd be happy to hear on the radio, there's no jaw-dropper like "When Doves Cry" or "Kiss." That's a testament to the high standard The Artist set for himself during the '80s, but when The Artist looks toward the future, he comes up empty-handed. The brooding funk of "Face Down" is persuasive until you catch The Artist's bad imitation of a gangsta rapper. Likewise, the jittery techno beat of "New World" sounds dated to anyone who's been to a rave. His nods to new technology ("Emale" and "My Computer") sound almost as silly as Bob Dole ending one of the presidential debates by asking the young'uns to check out his Web page.

When The Artist revisits his past, he comes up with palatable imitations. "Right Back Here in My Arms" sounds like Michael Jackson backed by those other lost children of the '80s, the Time. "Style" would have sounded fresh in 1986; now it feels like a well-crafted retread. With "White Mansion," a bit of pre-Purple Rain nostalgia, the artist recalls what it was like to be hungry with no hit records. On "In This Bed I Scream," his reunion with Wendy and Lisa, he seems to regret splitting up the Revolution a decade ago: "How did we ever lose communication?/How did we ever lose each other's sound?/Maybe if you want to fix the situation/Maybe we can stop the rain from falling down." It can't be done, so The Artist settles for one last fling while pretending it's the start of a bold new romance.

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Keith Moerer