After Prince left his longtime label Warner Bros. in 1996, he spent roughly the next 15 years recording a string of overstuffed albums, often with confusing titles and garish covers, released via sometimes quirky distribution methods that assured they faded into oblivion almost as soon as they arrived. The latest Prince vault discovery, Welcome 2 America, comes from the end of that run, recorded in 2010, just before he shifted his attention away from putting out records and focused more on his lucrative live act. It’s easy to understand why a lost album from this era might be a tough sell, even to Prince fans: While he produced some brilliant art in the 2000s, his curatorial skills often let him down.
Yet heard in the context of 2021, and all but devoid of the musical baggage that immediately preceded it, it’s hard to deny how alive this “new” album feels. Is Welcome 2 America a top five Prince record? Definitely not—but it may be in the top 10.
A recent oral history in Rolling Stone offers a fairly thorough look at how Welcome 2 America came to be. In a nutshell: In 2010, Prince hired a new rhythm section (bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman), and while jamming with them at his Paisley Park studio, he recorded several semi-improvised instrumental tracks heavily influenced by jazz and 1970s funk. By the time Prince called in some members of his touring band to help turn these vamps into songs, he’d added lyrics that were alternately playful and political, depicting a nation of shackled citizens deluded into thinking consumer choice equals freedom.
Prince—or whoever was responsible for sequencing this archival release—establishes the tone of Welcome 2 America with its opening songs. The title track is one of the artist’s semi-regular “state of the world” keynotes (like “Sign O’ The Times” or “Planet Earth”), featuring rueful lines about iPhone addicts and pathetic wannabe celebrities, set to a loose, bass-forward groove that’s been accented by sound effects, piano stings and a tight chorus of background singers offering slinkily soulful responses to Prince’s calls. “Welcome 2 America” then gives way to “Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master),” another stripped-down and softly swinging number, revisiting one of Prince’s common themes: the exploitation of creative labor by greedy, short-sighted corporations.
From there, Welcome 2 America proceeds through ten more songs that frequently combine relaxed, almost breezy music with stinging lyrics (like this arresting opening line from the punchy, poppy “1000 Light Years From Here”: “We could live underwater / It ain’t hard when you’ve never been a part of the country / On dry land”). From the blaxploitation movie soundtrack riffs of “Born 2 Die,” to the sunny vibes of the endearingly tossed-off ditties “Hot Summer” and “Yes,” to the way Prince turns the thudding Soul Asylum power ballad “Stand Up And Be Strong” into a limber self-actualization anthem, there’s a thematic consistency to this album’s sound—a commitment to casual moments of grace and joy.
In a way, Welcome 2 America sounds like every act featured in the recent music documentary/reclamation project Summer Of Soul—including the sunshine-poppers, the gospel singers and the revolutionary poets—blended together and given a modern sheen. The inspirations are retro, yet even 11 years after this album was recorded, the songs sound fresh, both in subject matter and approach. The existence and the backstory of Welcome 2 America do raise some nagging questions. Why didn’t Prince release this incredibly entertaining and vital set of music in his lifetime? And if he had, would all those critics and fans who found his late-period output so frustrating have been able to grasp just how special these songs are?
Not even people in Prince’s inner circle seem to know the answer to the first question. After finishing Welcome 2 America (assuming it was finished… some of his collaborators on the record aren’t so sure), he embarked on the two-year “Welcome 2…” tour, represented by a full concert video included on the deluxe edition of the album. The tour was heavy on Prince’s biggest hits, interwoven with some fan-favorite deep cuts and a few offbeat cover songs—but rarely anything from the actual Welcome 2 America album, which even most Prince devotees didn’t know existed.
As for the second question, well, it’s impossible to know. Assuming that Prince hadn’t sabotaged himself by releasing Welcome 2 America in some unwieldy, hard-to-access way (like putting it all on a thumb drive, or bundling it with three other LPs’ worth of half-finished outtakes of songs by his protégées), it’s hard to imagine the record wouldn’t have had an impact. It certainly wouldn’t have escaped notice that an album so full of righteous skepticism about American values was recorded during President Obama’s first term—or that it featured so many songs Obama probably would’ve put on one of his playlists.
An under-recognized aspect of Prince is that his self-taught opinions on politics, religion, business and music rarely fit into any clear category. He incorporated a lot more of those studies and preoccupations into Welcome 2 America, making it one of his most personal albums. Then he set those ideas to some of his most likable music of the 21st century. If nothing else, this record is evidence that Prince’s one-of-a-kind genius never really dimmed, even if he sometimes lost sight of how to focus it, 0r—perhaps more importantly to the quick-take internet area that Prince detested so much—how to package it.