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Prince, "3121"

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Prince is one of those rare artists who can change the music industry climate with a wave of his well-manicured hand.

He tamed the Internet tidal wave with his online music club years before anyone else figured out that he was right. He built the price of his "Musicology" CD into the cost of his concert ticket and then handed out the album for free, creating a storm of controversy that netted him an unexpected hit along with his successful tour. And, of course, Prince made "Purple Rain."

He manages such feats because he is a risk-taker as well as a brilliant musician. When you take such chances, though, they don't always pay off. And his albums in the 19 years since his landmark "Sign O' the Times" have been remarkably hit-and-miss.

Prince has never made a bad album. But he hasn't made a great one in quite some time, either.

Well, folks, that drought is over.

Prince's new album, "3121" (Universal), is his best since "Sign O' the Times," taking all the various styles he's been dabbling in for the past two decades and combining them into a unified, powerful package.

On "3121," Prince returns to his classic themes of love, religion, the future, and, you know, freaky sex. And he surrounds them with whatever funk, soul, rock, R&B, gospel and jazz sounds suit them best.

It opens with the title track, with its grinding soul groove and keyboards that recall "Controversy," setting the stage for the journey, as Prince says, "You can come if you want to, but you can never leave."

Prince unleashes his naughty side with "Lolita," a funky dance number that rhymes "Lolita" with "sweet-uh" and could have come from the "1999" album. It pairs nicely with "Black Sweat," his current single, which combines some spacey keyboards with a stuttering funky beat, some patented Prince falsettos with some James Brown angst.

On "Love," Prince is partying like it's 1985, with a big funk number that manages to sound like a throwback while still sounding fresh. It's one of his most immediate, unforgettable songs in years - a grand contender for the single of this summer, with its squiggling synth riffs (a la "Erotic City") and its cool percussion break.

He follows that with the amazing "Satisfied," an old soul number that Otis Redding could have sung, complete with horn flourishes. It feels like an immediate classic, like an updated "Since I Fell for You," where he croons, "Turn off your cell phone, can't you see I just want to get you satisfied?"

It's a great example of Prince's softer side - the balladeer side that dominated "Musicology" and continued on the recent single "Te Amo Corazon." "Beautiful, Loved & Blessed," which will be a single for his newest protege, Tamar, is another tender, sweet love song, showing off his love of gospel. ("The Word," on the other hand, has more of a pop sound for its gospel message.)

He still knows how to rock out, too, as he shows on "Fury," the song he unleashed on a recent "Saturday Night Live" appearance that featured the song's blistering guitar solos, which build to a "Let's Go Crazy" end. And the far-flung, Sly Stone-ish closer "Get on the Boat" shows Prince hasn't let go of the funk-jazz improvisational style he has cultivated over his past few records.

There are no gimmicks on "3121." (Though, in true Prince business style, he is offering a contest, both in the CD and online, where buyers who find the "purple ticket" win entry into a special show at his Minnesota mansion.) No failed experiments. No filler tracks.

It is lean and mean and chock-full of potential hits that should introduce him to a whole new generation of fans, while rallying his longtime fans with an album that will remind them of the good ol' days.

While "3121" is not a return to "Purple Rain" Prince - mainly because he has continued to grow as an artist since those heady days - it does mark the return of his interest to be a player in popular music.

It shows he once again is willing (at least for now) to save his best songs for a single, potent release rather than spreading them out over several albums.

For the past two decades, Prince has been the musical equivalent of a blogger, letting few thoughts go unexpressed and few ideas unexplored. That can be fulfilling and quite entertaining, if a little fleeting.

On "3121," however, he returns to the discipline of a great novelist - honing and polishing a single major work so that it will stand the test of time. He strives for that something extra and reaches it, making "3121" a truly special album and one of the year's best. (Grade: A)

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