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Prince returns to funky form

On the title song of his new album, "Musicology," Prince sings, "Wish I had a dollar 4 every time they say, don't u miss the feeling music gave ya back in tha day?"

Back in the day, it was often Prince's music that gave listeners that joyous, spine-tingling feeling. Then came the record label woes, a petulant "SLAVE" scrawled in ink on his cheek, and the wacky name change to an unpronounceable symbol. Through his online music club, he kept putting out one inscrutable album after another, and it soon seemed as if the man who had produced such classics as "Kiss," "Let's Go Crazy," and "1999" would permanently recede into a purple-hued self-exile.

This year, Prince has finally reclaimed the spotlight in a major way. He gave devastating performances at the Grammys and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, during which he was inducted as a member. He's made numerous TV appearances and is on his first full-scale US tour in years. The best news, however, is Prince's latest album, "Musicology," steps away from the pretentious, obscure noodlings of his last release, the all-instrumental "N.E.W.S," and offers accessible and creatively compelling music. Although Prince would likely shun the term "comeback," this album is a welcome return to form without resting too heavily on his considerable past glories. Musically, the album is playful and provocative, starting with the title song, which has that kind of supple, tangy funk that's one of his trademarks. Its lyrics, a salute to "the true funk soldiers"

like Earth Wind & Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown, make clear that Prince remains an old-school warrior -- not a man stuck in the past, necessarily, but someone who won't abandon his true love for trends or fads. That's also apparent because unlike so many contemporary artists -- and especially veteran acts looking for an injection of youth -- Prince has no guest stars or hotshot producers on this album. He produced, composed, and arranged all the tracks and performs a number of them -- all vocals and instruments -- by himself.

What's different is an absence of the raw sexuality that's always been a staple of his music. Here, on songs such as "Reflection" and "If Eye Was . . .The Man in UR Life," Prince is more concerned with settling down and monogamy. On the gospel-lush ballad "On the Couch," he begs a lover not to consign him to another lonely night on the couch. That's quite a maturation from "Let's Pretend We're Married" or "Head." The easy soul of "Dear Mr. Man" harkens back to earlier sociopolitical commentaries such as "Ronnie Talk to Russia" and "Sign `O' the Times," with Prince fretting about the worrisome state of the world.

Comparing "Musicology" with such past triumphs as "1999," "Sign `O' the Times," or "Purple Rain" is a rather pointless exercise. This album isn't a masterpiece, but it's so enjoyable, so sure of its musical approach, that it seems like a revelation, especially when measured against the assembly-line mediocrity of much contemporary music. To hear Prince tell it, even when he was out of the spotlight, his musical party never ended. With "Musicology," he finally seems ready and willing to invite us in on his good times again.

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