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Posthumously Released Prince Album Speaks To Today's America

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Prince died in 2016, but the Prince estate has opened its vault to release a completely new album recorded in 2010 called "Welcome 2 America." It surprised early listeners with its numerous songs containing political messages, which was unusual for Prince. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the music speaks very much to the America of today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT SUMMER")

PRINCE: (Singing) Anybody close enough to hear knows what we've been listening to all year. These are the days my people told me to fear. But as long as I got your ear, I think it's going to be - hot summer. Hot summer, yeah. Just wait and see. Hot summer. Shoo-be-do-we (ph). Hot summer - oh, as long as you're my - as long as you're my company.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: How wonderful it is to hear new Prince music, especially something as warm and catchy and goofy as "Hot Summer," complete with shoo-be-do-bees (ph) in the refrain. It's one of the tossed-off pleasures of "Welcome 2 America." Who knows why Prince opted to hide it away more than a decade ago? But this album's arrival now makes it sound very much of the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1000 LIGHT YEARS FROM HERE")

PRINCE: (Singing) We can live underwater. It ain't hard when you never been a part of the country on dry land. We used to be smarter. We taught them what they know. And now we got to show them what it means to be American. Good life, liberty, innovation - innovation. Every child, no matter what color, getting an education - an education. Now, life in the 'hood is nothing but fear 1,000 light years away from here. A thousand light years from here, a thousand light years from here. I'm talking about a peaceful resolution 1,000 light years from here. A thousand light years...

TUCKER: That's "1000 Light Years From Here." When he sings about being underwater, it's more than possible he was referring to the financial crisis of the years immediately preceding his 2010 recording date. But that song's lyrics about what it means to be an American ring out now with even more irony than Prince intended. The title song has his backup singers harmonize on the phrase - land of the free, home of the slave. And the third verse of "One Day We Will All B Free" offers what could be heard now as Prince's take on critical race theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE DAY WE WILL ALL B FREE")

PRINCE: (Singing) You go to school just to learn about what never existed. If your history only burns, it's better to resist it. Keeping it Franklin, Benjamin Banneker was never born a slave. And if George Washington never told no lie, maybe we'd all be saved. One day, one day, we'll all be free.

TUCKER: The political content in some of these songs is unusual in Prince's body of work, and it's important, therefore, to consider the context in which this music was made. Prince was recording these songs skeptical of the possibility of social justice during the first term of Barack Obama, which was a period filled with hope for the very citizens Prince frequently says here are being denied hope.

This dubiousness on Prince's part reminds me of one of the few prominent Black skeptics of Obama during this time - the public intellectual Dr. Cornel West, who in a funny way figures specifically in this album. People involved in the recording process have said Prince was in the habit of watching videos of Cornel West, who at one point in a speech said, I love my brother Prince, but he's no Curtis Mayfield. Prince took this as a challenge, writing and recording "Born 2 Die" with Prince offering Curtis Mayfield-style social commentary in a very Curtis Mayfield falsetto.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN 2 DIE")

PRINCE: (Singing) She sells everything A to Z, anything just to keep her free from the - from the hustle of the streets. She left the church a long time ago, said they couldn't teach what they did not know - nothing. That's when she lost her virginity. Now she's pimping every bottle - bottle - from New York to LA - LA. Ask her why she do bad things. She says it's always been that way - always been that way. Jump back, Jack. You might be next if they try to cut Mama's cake. What the deal, daddy? And ask her what the deal is. This is what she say - born to die, born to die. If you ain't living right, you know you're born to die.

TUCKER: In a way, "Welcome 2 America" is a perfect companion piece to "Summer Of Soul," Questlove's new documentary about a 1969 concert that encapsulated the whole of '60s rhythm and blues, reintroducing it to young folks in 2021. In a similar way, the inspirations for the songs on "Welcome 2 America" look back to older music that influenced Prince, while the lyrics look ahead to the future we inhabit now.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new posthumously released Prince album, "Welcome 2 America." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Alexander Vindman, the Army officer who testified in Trump's first impeachment hearing. He'll talk about the impact on his career and family and why he says he would do it again. He has a new memoir called "Here, Right Matters." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "WHEN SHE COMES")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Tina Callique (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN SHE COMES")

PRINCE: (Singing) When she comes, she never closes her eyes. No, no, no. She can see stars shoot all over her sky over and over and over, over and over. When she comes, she never, ever holds her sighs. No, no. She can be so free. She can be so free. Occasionally she cries, oh, but please don't ask me why. Ooh, I want to turn you round. I want to hear those sounds. You know which sounds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.