was a critical moment for Prince
, one that he designed as an artistic rebirth and, optimistically, as a commercial comeback. In a typically perverse fashion, Prince decided to make the album a triple-disc set running exactly three hours, easily making it the longest album of all-new original material ever released by a popular artist. As the first album he released since leaving Warner Brothers, Emancipation
was supposed to dazzle, proving that he had not lost any of his creative skills or power. And it does dazzle, but it's hard to digest a full three discs of music, even if it is almost all of high quality. Fortunately, Prince made each disc into a distinct entity in its own right, with the first being the most pop, the second being a song cycle devoted to his new marriage, and the third being a dance/funk extravaganza. Throughout all three discs, Prince tries on a variety of styles, from jazz to R&B, but he doesn't break any new ground; instead, the album is simply reaffirmation of his strengths as a composer and a musician. Emancipation
doesn't have the bristling, colorful eclecticism of Sign 'o' the Times
nor does it have the wildness of early one-man projects like 1999
or Dirty Mind
, but with its gentle ballads and complex jams, it signals that Prince has evolved into middle-age gracefully. It's a mature effort, to be certain, but in this case that doesn't mean that it's an album bankrupt of ideas -- it means that Prince's craft continues to grow.