Prince Made ‘Welcome 2 America’ in 2010. It Speaks to 2021.
It’s almost as if Prince knew what lay ahead. In 2010, Prince recorded but then shelved a finished album, “Welcome 2 America,” which was full of …
It’s almost as if Prince knew what lay ahead.
In 2010, Prince recorded but then shelved a finished album, “Welcome 2 America,” which was full of bleak reflections on the state of the nation. It arrives Friday as the Prince estate continues to open up Prince’s vault of unreleased music since his death in 2016. Unlike much of what has emerged so far, it’s a complete, stand-alone album — a disillusioned statement that sounds all too fitting in 2021.
“Welcome 2 America” was made two years into the Obama administration, and Prince didn’t see much progress. In the title track, women sing, “Hope and change”; then Prince dryly observes, “Everything takes forever/The truth is a new minority.”
The songs take on racism, exploitation, disinformation, celebrity, faith and capitalism: “21st century, it’s still about greed and fame,” Prince sings in “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master).” Eleven years after the album was recorded — as the 2020s have brought bitter divisiveness, blatant racism, battles over history and a digital hellscape of hyped consumption and algorithmically boosted lies — Prince doesn’t sound pessimistic, just matter-of-fact.
“Welcome 2 America” wasn’t made casually. It’s one of Prince’s more collaborative albums, constructed in discrete stages with different cohorts of musicians. Prince started out recording instrumental tracks — without vocals or lyrics — live in the studio with Tal Wilkenfeld on bass and Chris Coleman on drums. Then he worked with the singers Shelby J. (for Johnson), Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo, sharing leads and harmonies with them. Morris Hayes, billed as Mr. Hayes, added keyboards and intricately jazzy simulated string and horn arrangements, earning credit as co-producer for six of the album’s 12 songs. Prince also did some final tweaking, including a rewrite of the title track.
But Prince had already released one album in 2010 — “20Ten” — and his attention turned to forming a new live band (including Mr. Hayes and the three backup singers) that would tour the world for the next two years. The American portion was called the “Welcome 2 America” tour, but the album stayed unreleased. (The deluxe version of “Welcome 2 America” includes a Blu-ray of a jubilant 2011 arena show in Inglewood, Calif.)
“Welcome 2 America” makes its way from the bitter derision of its title track toward a guarded optimism, with detours — it’s a Prince album after all — into physical pleasures. The title song telegraphs its mood with its first notes: a snake hiss of cymbals and a bass line that inches upward, skulks back down and then plunges further, against a backdrop of ambiguous chords and synthesizer swoops. The track edges toward funk, and the women sing, but Prince doesn’t; he simply talks, deadpan, about information overload, high-tech distractions, privilege, fame and culture, asking, “Think today’s music will last?” Singing in harmony, the women amend an American motto to “Land of the free, home of the slave.”
In the cryptic “1010 (Rin Tin Tin),” Prince asks, “What could be stranger than the times we’re in?” over skeletal, choppy piano chords, and he goes on to decry “too much information” and a “wilderness of lies.” With “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master),” Prince confronts a microcosm of rich vs. poor: the way the music business takes advantage of newcomers.
Yet as usual in Prince’s catalog, “Welcome 2 America” balances hard insights with visceral joys. He sings about pointless conflicts over religion in “Same Page, Different Book” — “So much more in common if you’d only look,” he insists — but his lyrics about rocks, missiles and car bombs arrive backed by crisp syncopations. In “1000 Light Years From Here,” he puts breezy Latin funk behind reminders of Black perseverance, touching on the subprime mortgage crisis and the 2008 financial-sector meltdown: “We can live underwater/It ain’t hard when you’ve never been a part/Of the country on dry land.” Prince put new lyrics to “1000 Light Years” as an upbeat coda to the even more pointed “Black Muse” — a song about slavery, injustice and America’s debt to Black culture — on the last album he released during his lifetime, “HitnRun Phase Two.”
Prince pauses the sociopolitical commentary for “Check the Record,” a rock-funk stomp about infidelity, and for “When She Comes,” a sensual falsetto ballad marveling in a woman’s ecstasy. (Prince also reworked “When She Comes” for “HitnRun Phase Two,” emphasizing male technique instead.)
As the album ends, Prince calls for positive thinking. “Yes” reaches back to the supercharged gospel-rock of Sly and the Family Stone. After that tambourine-shaking peak, “One Day We Will All B Free” eases into reassuring, midtempo soul. But the “Yes” that Prince calls for is an affirmation that “We can turn the page/As long as they ain’t movin’ us to a bigger cage,” and “One Day We Will All B Free” is also a warning about unquestioning belief in what churches and schools teach. Prince saw a long struggle ahead.
“Welcome 2 America”