‘HITNRUN Phase One’: Prince Finds a 25-Year-Old Collaborator, Shreds, But Mostly Falls Flat

When a legendary artist releases new art, the burden of their past successes looms large — sometimes, for the artist, but more often for the audience: will the Stones ever top Let it Bleed? Will Springsteen make a record that won’t draw comparisons to Born to Run? Do we want more of the same? Or do we want to be blown away with something we didn’t even know we wanted to hear?

Prince has never seemed to be affected by any of that — for better or worse, he’s always been more interested in creating something new than looking to replicate past successes. HITNRUN Phase One, The Artist’s latest studio album (his 38th, though some counts put it at 34), doesn’t sound much like either of the records he released last year, the smooth and soulful Art Official Age or his 3RDEYEGIRL collaboration Plectrumelectrum. Neither record did much to bolster Prince’s legacy, but each possessed a coherent vision, a vignette from a particular vein.

The same cannot be said about HITNRUN, which is conceptually loose, scattered, and at times, confusing. But how can someone who’s said and tried so much find anything new to say or try? Part of the reason Prince’s contemporary work is followed so closely is that each successive record rarely sounds like the last. This time around, he’s recruited 25-year-old T.I. doppelgänger Joshua Welton, a producer and engineer who happens to be married to 3RDEYEGIRL’s drummer, Hannah Ford. Welton shares songwriting and production credits on the album with Prince, who famously plays every instrument on his studio albums. This time around, he only cut the lead, rhythm, and bass guitar tracks; Welton handled the rest. So what did they come up with?

The overarching tone of HITNRUN is a forced edginess, manifested in an aesthetic seemingly pulled piecemeal from the EDM du jour. There are sketches of brilliance peppered throughout, like early single “Hardrocklover,” which comes with some truly filthy electric guitar riffs and a sultry intro (which betrays an admittedly trite guitar/sex metaphor theme.) Welton’s production shows signs of promise, particularly the grooving bass and syncopated percussion of “X’s Face,” or the inventive arrangement he put together for the singing/rapping duo Curly Fryz on “Like a Mack.” The latter is probably the most coherent four minutes on the record; even when it switches gears from Prince’s plucky guitars to a funky beat and onto a horn segue, it works. Even the mostly unnecessary “This Could B Us,” a reprise of the Art Official Age track, is still an improvement on the original, adding more life with new drum programming, and a pair of disgusting guitar and bass solos.

And then there are the missteps, which sadly, start right at the top. Opener “Million $ Show,” a collaboration with Judith Hill, a former The Voice contestant and backup vocalist for Michael Jackson, trades on some of Prince’s legacy with samples from “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” But it quickly devolves into a bouncy ball of cheese, well-suited for a B-level off-Broadway showtune. Hill certainly has the vocal chops—her voice soars, but it can’t save the song from Prince’s closing rap. The saccharin “Fallinlove2nite” also falls flat, making disco sound as hollow and empty as it ever has. Rita Ora’s contribution to “Ain’t About to Stop” is mostly forgettable, and much like “Shut It Down,” that track is comprised of interesting melodies that are drowned out by an offensive wave of wubby dubstep synths and bludgeoning percussion. And then there’s “Mr. Nelson.” It’s perplexing that this track ever made it through the edit process; every note sounds like it was lifted from a five-year-old third-place finisher in the Eurovision song contest.

Prince released HITNRUN exclusively on the streaming service Tidal; the service is the exclusive home of his massive back catalog, and more is in store from the partnership. He’s promised to share a “Purple Pick of the Week” with subscribers, featuring “new tracks, rarities and other exclusives from his vast musical vaults” each week. The first pick was relatively underwhelming, if only because it was already (and still is) on Spotify. But “Stare” is a funky, bass-driven track that cheekily references the riff from 1986 hit “Kiss.”

In a press release to promote the exclusive release of this album on Tidal, Prince admits that “From its conception and that one & only meeting, HitNRun took about 90 days 2 prepare its release.” It’s refreshing that such a discerning artist can deliver an album with such efficiency, but repeat listens to the 38-minute LP inspire thoughts of what it could have been, had Prince spent a little more time with it. The collaboration with Welton is new territory for Prince, and seems promising. Such experimentation is what makes each new Prince record worth anticipating. It’s not hard to imagine what fruit could be born of experimentation with other artists, especially those who owe their own legacies to him — we’re already salivating at the prospect of a collabo with the most obvious, D’Angelo — but of course, such speculation is pointless. Even if the gods aligned the stars to initiate, say, a Roots/Prince collaboration, there’s as much of a chance it gets released as there is that it gets buried in Prince’s “vast musical vaults.” His idiosyncrasies are why Prince is Prince, and why we’ll always pay attention.