Old and New from The Artist Formerly Known as Prince 

Now Hear This

Prince, "The Vault ... Old Friends 4 Sale" (Warner Bros.) — A compilation of old songs by Prince (as he was, apparently, still known when he recorded them), this CD could have been titled "Normal Prince Songs." Recent efforts by The Artist have been more esoteric and egocentric, as he aired grievances over a convoluted contract dispute with Warner.

But, it seems it took the Warner folks to put together one of the man's best albums in years. For example, the funky "It's All About that Walk," with its start-stop beat and falsetto, recalls Earth Wind & Fire. Textbook Prince, it deals with his fascination with women, as do the disc's other standouts, "5 Women" and "She Spoke 2 Me."

However, the things that work on some of those songs end up doing in two others that should have stayed in the vault. Weak lyrics muddle the avant-garde jazz of "My Little Pill." Equally obtuse is the title track, a melodramatic song of betrayal that uses Siantralike horns.

Overall, this CD proves what The Artist could do if he concentrated on producing great music instead of focusing on his ego.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,"Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic" (Arista) — Weren't the '90s supposed to be a glorious decade for "The Artist," filled with hit after hit culminating in that year he all told us was going to be THE party? Name change notwithstanding, though, the '90s have been a tedious wash for the diminutive one who could occasionally stun with the odd single but little else. Still, it's 1999, and with his combative relationship with longtime label Warner Bros. over, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince does get his triumph — delivering his most consistent LP in 15 years. The new "Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic" hedges its bets with a snazzy, eye-grabbing cover of the auteur and tons of hip guest-star appearances (from Ani DiFranco to Chuck D. to Sheryl Crow. The latter sees her "Everyday is a Winding Road" covered and smothered), but what makes this a real comeback is the Artist's wildest, most inventive, guitar work in ages ... and a palpable feeling in the studio air that he means it this time. His former highness even mischievously buries the best cut by far — "Pretty Man," a hilarious "Black Album"-like diatribe augmented by JB's saxman Maceo Parker — on a hidden track. That's confidence for

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