Is Prince back to his old self, not merely his old name? Kind of, but hold the sexuality, if not the sensuality. The Rainbow Children, the latest CD from The Artist Who Used to Be a Symbol, is packed with the sharp guitar, blasting horns, and livewire rhythms that made Prince Rogers Nelson a key artist of the '80s and '90s. It's a straight-ahead God album, however, a Manichaean epic that flirts with race-baiting and delivers a weird mélange of history and spirituality that comes down hard on the darker side of divinity.
Released on Prince's own NPG Records, Rainbow Children rocks as hard as anything Prince released in the '90s, including the underrated Diamonds and Pearls and Emancipation, a three-disc set that gave new meaning to the term "epic." Like soul singers Al Green and Solomon Burke and pop figures Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, Prince has often focused on the struggle between sex and sanctity, crafting tunes that aspire to purity even as they pop your pelvis. Rainbow Children is weird; despite tracks like the James Brown-styled "The Work, Pt. 1," the mellow "She Loves Me 4 Me," and the history-bending funk workout "Family Name," it feels didactic, and the deep, processed narrative that links it can be irritating. Still, Rainbow Children may be Prince's most unified album in years. Having a focus does Prince good, even when it isn't that much fun.