In reference to Prince’s new HITNRUN Phase One, co-producer and engineer Joshua Welton told Entertainment Weekly: “I know [Prince] has different types of fan bases and this is kind of for the [hardcore] Purple Collective, the ones who say ‘I don’t care what he puts out! I love Prince.’”
The implication is that in order to be a hardcore Prince fan, one must forego discernment and simply applaud everything Prince does. But as Prince understands better than most, neither person in the artist/fan relationship has to kowtow to the other’s expectations in order to prove gratitude. That’s why being a Prince fan has so little to do with how many of Prince’s albums you claim to love, and so much more to do with how you value Prince’s raw talent and relentless commitment to experimentation. That being said, experimentation sometimes leads to disastrous results—and in the case of HITNRUN Phase One, it’s done just that.
On HITNRUN Phase One, Prince abandoned the helm of his own creation and left Joshua Welton in charge. Though he used to play every note on his albums, Prince’s contributions on HITNRUN are limited to vocals and lead, rhythm, and bass guitar. The remaining parts of the tracks are programmed by Welton, who sounds as if he is in over his head on the first half of the album. The background beats on “Shut This Down” are unfocused and disturbingly inauthentic. The attempts at bass drops on “Ain’t About To Stop” lack depth, and instead sound hollow and sharp. The persistent droning throughout the first four tracks of the album grates like the restless buzzing of a mosquito’s wings in your ear. All of these missteps are caused by a lack of restraint. Welton tinkers too much with too many EDM toys, and often the result is a cacophonous collision of EDM’s lamest trends.
When this album does succeed—which it does on its back half—it’s because Prince and Welton have achieved a balance between dance and funk in which each genre brings out the best in the other. Every musical element on “Fallinlove2nite” sounds endlessly distorted, but the song is grounded in a traditional four-on-the-floor beat. That familiar foundation gives the experimentation on top of it more meaning, so that elements like a digitally rendered, piping piano line are easier to identify and enjoy. “1,000 X’s And O’s” and “X’s Face” work for similar reasons. On the latter, the production is de-emphasized to accommodate Prince’s unfaltering falsetto. The percussion retreats and advances around Prince’s lyrics so that knockout lines like “She’s too busy with the jugular and how it tastes” don’t get lost in the sonic shrapnel beneath. There are other great moments on this album—including an indulgent guitar solo on the otherwise horrific remix of Art Official Age’s “This Could B Us” and a beautiful vocal sung by Judith Hill on “Million $ Show”—but they are merely respites within an altogether over-produced album.
No artist is above a bad release: not Lou Reed, not Jay-Z, and unfortunately, as HITNRUN Phase One proves, not Prince either. But the most promising and redeeming element of Prince is his ability to start new with each album; not a single Prince release sounds like the one before it. The willingness to always accept, but not necessarily enjoy, Prince on his own, perpetually shifting terms is what makes someone a “hardcore” Prince fan.