How Prince Jammed His Way Back to Brilliance on ‘3121’
Prince had long since taken to compiling his albums from leftovers and old tapes when he called drummer Michael Bland for an impromptu session in November 2004. They ended up cutting "11 or 12 tracks in three and a half hours that night," Michael Bland told Modern Drummer in 2006.
That formed a sturdy foundation for 3121, the album that confirmed a comeback begun with 2004's more conventionally pieced-together Musicology.
Bland was in the middle of a soundcheck for a concert with French saxophonist Michel Portal at the O'Shaughnessy Theater in St. Paul, Minn., when Prince rang. He wanted New Power Generation bassist Sonny Thompson to jam, too.
"So, we're in St. Paul getting ready to do this jazz festival, and he says, 'Can you guys come out to Paisley Park after you are done,'" Bland told Modern Drummer. "So, it's about 11:30 and we head out. The sounds are pretty much up — there's always a kit there miked up ready to go, and Prince's rig is always on — and Prince says, 'Okay, there won't be any mistakes; just pay attention and go for it.' And we really just mowed through it, and rolled it out."
Something about those sessions – familiar, loose and inside an aura of bounce-back confidence – clearly sparked Prince. Musicology had been a bit overpraised, perhaps understandably since it arrived after an often-confusing period both musically and personally. But in truth, 3121 was the better record, easily Prince's most accomplished since the mid '90s.
Listen to Prince Perform 'Get On the Boat'
“On Musicology and 3121, first of all, you feel him working on the songwriting again," SiriusXM's Alan Light told Rock Cellar in 2019. "You feel very explicit self-editing going on, but there's also this additional layer of effort going on in those records. And there's also this re-embrace of old-school R&B thing, and then the stripped-down sound."
You certainly hear that on "Get On the Boat," an album-closing slab of bracing old-school funk with a notable turn by saxophonist Maceo Parker.
"I was just, like, 'Dude.' I remember hearing that and going: 'Man, you have done it again' – like, 'look at this,'" longtime keyboardist Morris Hayes told the Current in 2018. "And it's one of the songs I just love to play. It just had a vibe — that old funk — that soul kind of thing. It was amazing. He even let Maceo play the intro on that. Maceo would come over and play the little keyboard intro, and then I'd take over. It was crazy. I used to love that."
By then, Prince had already indulged in the expected bedroom R&B of "Incense and Candles," and swerved into Southern soul on "Satisfied." At the same time, he didn't stand pat, gathering a gaggle of pitch-shifting Princes to harmonize on the title track, dabbling in the electro-funk of "Black Sweat" and "Lolita," while adding techno influences to "Love." "Get On the Boat" also boasts a lightly Latin-esque feel that shoots through much of 3121, most notably during "Te Amo Corazon," a nuanced mambo.
Listen to Prince Perform 'Lolita'
Not all of it worked: "Incense and Candles" takes the vocal manipulation a bit too far. "The Word" sounds too much like a sermon you'd expect to hear at the local Kingdom Hall.
Still, 3121 holds together as its own statement – no small thing, back then. Credit goes to the project's straight-forward, straight-to-tape genesis. It often sounds like a series of sentences in the same musical conversion, because it was.
Fans responded in kind. Released on March 21, 2006 via one-album deal with Universal Music, 3121 became the first Prince record to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts – and his first chart-topping recording since 1989's Batman.
"Remember, we were now post-Napster, and however many years into hip hop’s explosion, coming out of the Bad Boy and Death Row era and the pop takeover by Britney Spears and *NSYNC," Light, who rose to fame on MTV, told Rock Cellar. "And here he was saying, 'I want to celebrate musicianship and traditional, quality songwriting.' For any fan, at the time, it was amazing."