Prince’s “Musicology”

The first Prince song for years that seems designed for people who have never been that crazy about Prince. I’ve always appreciated the minimalism of his arrangements — his willingness to let silence and space take their place. Okay, no one would ever accuse him of sitting back and letting a groove lay itself out; his music has always sounded rigorously planned. But in the 1980s, this was about as close as you could come to spontaneity, amid all the bombastic snare sounds, processed synth stabs, and horribly over-attenuated bass tones. Prince knew how to put together a tight, taut arrangement that didn’t ditch every standard of musical taste in a desperate attempt to get to the end of the song without going under.

There was the song-writing. And the musicianship. But the minimalism was what, in retrospect, stands out most.

On the other hand, his choice of how exactly to fill the space could be, well, quirky. A synth chord would come out of nowhere and just sit there. Or a falsetto gasp would pop out of the mix for a second and then vanish without a trace. Or the main vocal would completely disappear, replaced with hushed backing vocals to take up significant lines (an old Motown trick taken to extremes).

“Musicology” has all of the above. It’s a gloriously taut funk jam in a brazenly open arrangement. There’s a guitar lick that’s propulsively funky and charmingly laid-back (like The Detroit Emerald’s “Baby Let Me Take You”); Prince’s vocal wraps itself around the lick with a lilt and tension perfectly matched by the whispery hi-hats and claphand snares. The fluid bass self-consciously pops and bubbles around at the front of the mix. Even the falsetto notes work. It’s fantastic. It sounds like a Meters track. And you can’t say better than that.

But there’s also a synth that pops up in the background and just sits there for a few bars. For no reason at all.