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Prince

Lotusflow3r

Produced by Prince

NPG Records

Released March 24, 2009

So first you have to figure out how to get in.

Forget the blue ball gyrating in a purple haze in the middle of outer space for a moment. Watch the TV and look out for a year. Then listen to the radio for the name of a city. Keep both in mind. Then click on the purple ticket lying on the rocky ground, near the radio. Once it has flown to the front, type in the year and the city name and your account information.

Then sit back and enjoy the show, as the astral sphere shoots up and comes down crashing onto a crystal ball which holds none other than the Artist himself — or rather, a close-up of his vocal cords. The whole scene is set on a floating island in the Galaxy, set against a dramatic rendition of the Minneapolis skyline.

Welcome to lotusflow3r.com, Prince’s new intergalactic-themed web site, which was officially launched March 24 at 7:07 Pacific Daylight Time as part of the digital release of his new three-CD album Lotusflow3r, released on his own label, NPG Records.

Navigating the land of headless birds and crystal balls

Fans of the mystical musician (who left the Internet completely since he shut down his online NPG Music Club and website 3121.com in 2006 and 2008 respectively) had been staring for months at a blank space on lotusflow3r.com, interrupted only by a rocky, lunar terrain, enigmatically shaped clouds and a macabre, maddeningly repetitive dark ambient soundtrack.

Since early January, though, the site had been streaming some of the material from the new album premiered the month before on LA’s Indie 103 radio show, including a cover of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” and “Here I come” by Lotusflow3r collaborator Bria Valente, with five more songs released a little later — the sexily wicked and catchy “Chocolate Box,” the opinionated “Colonized Mind,” the extremely danceable “Disco Jellyfish,” and the seductive “All This Love” and “Another Boy” both sung by Valente too. It also promised cool high-tech interactivity: links to stream and buy Prince’s music, access to exclusive content like lyrics and rare photos and videos, a Lotusflow3r-themed t-shirt, tickets to live shows and tips on unannounced private parties.

Once you have unlocked the site, and paid the $77 annual membership fee, you are free to roam and explore its three “worlds,” one for each of the three CDs that form the Lotusflow3r album: Lotusflow3r, MPLSoUND, and Elixer, the last of which features his new muse and protégée, rising star Valente. Each one, with its accompanying lyrics and artwork, is available for download (the physical album, sold exclusively through Target, costs a recession-conscious $11.98).

Navigation of the site takes a little practice and an explorer’s spirit, but here is a taste of what awaits you. Upon clicking on the central crystal ball, a spinning picture and video globe appears, presenting a navigational treasure trove of 50 or so Prince gems, from the timeless “Kiss” and “Sign ‘O’ The Times” promo videos to the memorable Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show of 2007, as well as two full-length concerts. The website doesn’t offer anything that hardcore fans say they have not seen before (such as the unreleased material from the mysterious ‘Vault’), but there are unreleased or unaired live videos, such as the “Creep” cover at last year’s Coachella festival, and “Guitar” and “1999” from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The floating sphere also features photos from the stylish “21 Nights” photo album that chronicles Prince’s 21-night residency in London’s O2 Arena in 2007.

Next, on the MPLSoUND floating island on the right, click on the headless bird (or rather, with a cable for a head) and it will fly across the river and stick its head right into the plug on the other shore, upon which an airship containing the “Chocolate Box” video appears, the giant CD in the center plunges into the river, and in its place appears the interactive light blue guitar called Sonny (for Sonny T), which you can play to your heart’s content. Clicking on it will bring out the MPLSoUND player. The flying fish and medusas are there for decoration. Click on the power button in the third world, Valente’s Elixer, and it will bring up the player in a stream of purple haze, while the crescent moon will reveal the young woman’s smooth and dreamy vocals in the “Everytime” video.

All this is great fun if you have time on your hands. The site’s design and interfaces are indeed quite convoluted and far from what one would call “user-friendly,” leading one member of the online fan community prince.org to start a tutorial on “How to get into Lotusflow3r and navigate through it all,” giving details on how to register and providing answers to the technical questions and teething difficulties the site experienced in its first weeks.

In an interview with Variety.com, web designer Scott Addison Clay said, “Prince wanted [the] LotusFlow3r [website] to function like a videogame in its interactivity, but not in the way that you control Prince with jujitsu moves — that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

But the music is what truly matters. And here, Prince delivers royally. In a nutshell, he is having fun.

A funky good time

Each of the three albums has its own distinct personality, even as they seem to conspire with one another to offer a heady mix of gritty funk, high-quality pop, jazzy grooves, irresistible dance beats, melodic vocals, cheerful and uplifting lyrics, and — in his own words — “purple rock-and-roll,” interspersed in places by psychedelic riffs and unexpected instrumentals. The Spanish-tinged interlude of classical guitar in “77 Beverly Park” surprises me each time. The eclectic three-disc collection has a spontaneous, improvisational feel that says one thing: After 30 years in the business, Prince is still having a great time making music. The music is mature, the mood is wise yet playful, the sex of the Dirty Mind years has become more subtle and sensual, the lyrics are inspirational and concerned about Love with a capital “L” and about the world. The song “Better With Time” sums up the whole album’s message best.

With its rip-roaring, at times Hendrix-styled rock guitar riffs, Lotusflow3r is a great reminder of — and introduction for the new generation to — Prince’s guitar skills. The wild rock of “Dreamer” alone is earning the track a stream of serious fans already, while the funky “Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful” seems in the same exhortative spirit as 3121’s “Get On The Boat.” “Colonized Mind” finds Prince pondering power, responsibility and God: “The One in power makes law/Under which the colonized fall/Without God, it’s just the blind leading the blind.”

The more electronically-inclined MPLSoUND has its heart set in the ‘80s and its mind on Minneapolis and the good old memories and ways of those days, rendered best of all in “Ol’ Skool Company,” my favorite of the whole Lotusflow3r trilogy rhythm-wise. The nine-track album offers insecure tenderness in “Here”: “I just want you here/Cuz eye’m scared eye’ll cry,” he admits. Prince shows proud assertiveness in “(There’ll Never B) Another Like Me” — which reminds us of this Gemini’s famous quote, “I’ve got two sides and they’re both friends.” Other winners are “Dance 4 Me” and “Valentina,” which has Prince telling a little girl (Salma Hayek’s daughter): “Hey Valentina tell ur mama/She should give me a call.”

Elixer takes a break from the exuberantly varied vibes of Lotusflow3r and MPLSoUND to approach a more relaxed, mellower tempo. Written and mostly produced by Prince, the sensually soothing voice of Valente, smooth jazz-soul grooves and breezy, ethereal quality of the ten tracks are best appreciated if listened to in one seamless flow.

Although no song stands out as innovative, the album oozes style. You can imagine hearing it in one of London or Moscow’s chic VIP lounges, though Valente may need a little extra vocal training. For now, it is only when her sexy warm voice joins Prince’s in the duet of the title song that the room temperature really rises and our auditory brain cells feel titillated.

Lotusflow3r debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, selling about 168,000 copies by early April. It hit the top of the R&B and Indie Release charts.

Reviews have been mixed-to-positive, with some fans calling it “his best work since 1996’s Emancipation,” and the “the apex of his career.” Valente’s work has been described alternatively as “sentimental,” “pretty,” and “baby-making music.”

In any case, on all three discs of Lotusflow3r, Prince is at his peak technically and artistically. The sheer range of genres and moods is also likely to appeal to a larger, more diverse audience than the Purple One’s unique style had attracted in more recent projects, such as 3121 and Planet Earth.

Unique too are his distribution tactics and pioneering marketing practices, which include giving a free copy of the Musicology album to every ticket buyer at the 2004 tour and giving away 2007’s Planet Earth as an insert in the British national newspaper The Mail on Sunday. As early as 1997, Prince was testing the Internet’s potential to help connect with consumers, with the four-disc Crystal Ball compilation album being his first attempt to market himself through the Internet.

With Lotusflow3r too, Prince is going his own way, completely avoiding the machinery of major labels. His music is available solely through his website and Target.

He also uniquely complements those untraditional practices with private performances and jam sessions at after-parties, mega shows like the Musicology Tour and his 2007 London residency, and recently, on March 28, a trio of concerts at three different venues in Los Angeles: the Nokia Theater, the Conga Room, and Club Nokia, each with a different band. The triple set was preceded by three consecutive nights on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and again on May 28, and a live performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show the month before.

Spring, for Prince, has been busy. Next is the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 18, with another, yet unconfirmed, three concerts in one night, according to http://www.drfunkenberry.com.

But before that, there was something more urgent: his birthday on June 7. Since he is said not to celebrate birthdays, according to the principles of his Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, let’s just wish him similarly stellar inspiration to Lotusflow3r’s galactic music, and plenty of avid ears for many more years.

And until he talks to The Tech, we will have to do with a purple quote from an April interview with Tavis Smiley. Commenting on PBS’s 2005 show on the film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and how Johnson’s perseverance had inspired him, Prince said: “I’m in sort of celebration mode right now, I’m just thankful to be alive, I’m thankful to have the friends that I do, the teachers that I do, and I’ve spent the last year just playing when I feel like it, and I really look forward to this time in my life.”

What was I just saying? That’s Prince having fun! And it really shows through Lotusflow3r.