There is a sense of completeness, when you listen to ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’. Here is a warm, earthy, funk fuelled, ballad laden album with a single rock track as a stand out. It was the pattern of Prince’s first two albums – before he went on stage in his underwear, in fact. There are also the same themes, love, loss, sex, salvation, with the oddment of ‘Baltimore’; a curious tune, a seemingly throwaway, seemingly authentic address to the subject of America and guns – the institutionalised racism appears to have dropped off the radar. (Of course, this fascination with weaponry is all the more alarming with the current situation – perhaps The Revolution could rehash a tune from Controversy and release ‘Donnie, Talk to Kim-Jong’? It may be a prudent move….goodness knows he’s spoken to Russia often enough for that version to be well obsolete!)
‘Baltimore’ is a light song and could easily be dismissed; musically, once past the verses, it is quite interesting but perhaps the song is more interesting for two succinct statements in the lyrics. “Peace is more than the absence of war.” Once again, Prince manages to convey a complex message in a simple way. George Orwell would be beaming if he could have heard such a lyric: don’t use complicated words to obscure meaning. Prince joins many social and political commentators of the past and present in recognising the duality of our times. Many historians will point to the fact that we now live lives rarely touched by non-natural causes of death, they would argue we live in better health, better wealth and with better education than at any point in history. And there is truth in what they say, of course there is. There is, however, still no peace, as the lyric recognises. From the big picture of the ongoing war on a verb to the small picture of America’s unwillingness to bring proper controls/limitations to their gun laws and the institutionalised racism mentioned above. There is no peace. It was Gore Vidal who wrote perpetual war for perpetual peace; Orwell had got there before, of course, with his “War is Peace” slogan from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, and this is all there in the weary delivery of Prince’s song. There is a melancholic acceptance in the tone of Prince’s voice, completely at odds with the other apocalyptic songs in Prince’s catalog. ‘1999’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, even ‘Dance On’ have an element of hope, an element of defiance in each of them; even ‘Sign O The Times’ ends with marriage and a baby. This song has more in common with ‘Cinnamon Girl’, another endgame song devoid of true hope. ‘Baltimore’ sees Prince take a differing view of the world. This is an ongoing situation, one without an end in sight; and this is emphasised by the second of the two lyrical statements. At the end of the song a newscaster’s voice comes on an announces a breaking news story of an ongoing situation in Los Angeles. I’ve read otherwhere that some people consider this may be a throwback to the Rodney King incident from 1991. It may well be, but it is also a throw-forward. Listen to the delivery again. There is a small pause between the words “in” and “Los Angeles”; the “in” is drawn out, there is a pause before naming the location and in that pause there is the realisation that the location about to be named could be any city in the United States and no one would flinch. That’s clever on Prince’s part, and alarming for us.
Prince wrote amazing story songs; ‘When You Were Mine’, ‘Darling Nikki’, ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’. ‘Rock and Rock Love Affair’, almost fits into this category – but there is cleverness in it nonetheless. Like a lot of ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’, it nearly does it but just doesn’t quite cross the line (the addition of the horns is a treat). There is the lovely, clever allusion to ‘Take Me With U’, a song about going along for the ride, and it fits beautifully with the thematic of ‘Rock and Rock Love Affair’. It’s certainly cleverer than the clumsy use of ‘Kiss’ and ‘Sexy Dancer’ in ‘Stare’. These references land leaden at the listeners’ feet. Thankfully, the clever nods to other Prince tracks – even cuts like ‘The Return of the Bump Squad’ hidden inside ‘Big City’ permeate this album in much more subtle ways. It’s this “almost there” aspect to ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ that further reminds me of the first couple of Prince’s albums. They were albums on which Prince started to try and find out who he was and how he wanted to present himself to the record buying public. There were sonic clashes and curious choices of instrumentation, the boastful listing of the number of instruments played on ‘For You’ – including clapping hands and clicking fingers…hmmm? – and then there was the growing assuredness, one year later, with the maturing Prince’s studio sound. This is replayed throughout this last album. Ideas and sounds that start off, go one way, go another and stop. ‘Look At Me, Look At You’ is a prime example. It flows, it stops. It has enough jazz-flute on it to make Ron Burgundy reconsider his position on Love Panda. But it feels like an idea in search of fulfilment. The same with songs like ‘Groovy Potential’; a genuflection toward the 94-East recordings, loads of mini-ideas that run together and go nowhere.
‘Screwdriver’ is yet another example. Playing the part of ‘I’m Yours’ and ‘Bambi’, it is a song that fails to take off – and yet we know that it can. We’ve seen the live evolutions of this song and, given that this was one the half a dozen songs released in the years before 2015 and the release of ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’, an evolved version of this track would have been welcome. And then along comes ‘Black Muse’ and truly revolutionary song is revealed. It’s here that you can see into the future. A Wonder-esque reach back into the compositions that graced ‘The Rainbow Children’ (arguably one of the most underrated of all Prince’s albums). This is what ‘Baltimore’ is trying to be; a politically nuanced song with a gloriously retro-forward-looking funk rhythm. A truly remarkable song. A complete idea. ‘Revelation’ – again with the references to The Pharaoh – appears to have its feet in ‘The Rainbow Children’ era and sounds like its from that time, too…inasmuch as it fades away like a half-idea in search of a segue into something else. Stevie is once again eulogised on ‘Big City’ too. There are so many ideas on this album, so much creation but still a jigsaw piece or two missing. This is the annoyance of the album. And, of course, the annoyance of what happened next.
‘Art Official Age’, ‘Plectrum Electrum’, ‘Hit’n’Run Phase One’ and ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ showed a musician evolving. A musician, possibly, having gone full circle and about to start another revolution. The Live Out Loud/Hit and Run and The Piano & A Microphone Tours further demonstrate the continuing development of Prince as a musician, a thinker and performer. The promise of ‘Black is the New Black’ may never be realised but the tracks that exist again show a man building into a new phase of his career. But, that was that. ‘Hit’n’Run Phase Two’ is a pleasing album. There is some glorious musicianship on the collection and Prince’s ever-evolving appreciation of horns as an augmentation to his Minneapolis sound was a delight to hear, it gives it life. A full circle may have been turned but now we have no more revolutions to go. In the words of the man himself, “That’s it.”
A final thought. Prince’s legacy will, I suppose, be threefold: the music, the altruism and, lastly, the number of musicians who continue to ply their trade in the industry having worked with him. On his last album over 31 musicians played on the 12 songs. Throughout his career Prince worked with some of the finest musicians in the world, and, in fact, introduced the world to some its finest musicians. One year on, his inspiration is timeless and significant.