Is Prince speaking to us from beyond? Was he some kind of soothsayer? Or have times just not changed that much?

Five years after his death, the Purple One weighs in with an 11-year-old, previously unissued album that seems remarkably timely and topical in this post-Trump world of media misinformation and racial reckoning.

Sony Legacy's release this week of "Welcome 2 America," a fully completed 2010 project discovered by the Prince estate's archivist nearly two years ago, surprises in many ways:

  • There are more songs offering social commentary than on any previous Prince album.
  • He recorded this collection primarily with two musicians he'd never worked with before.
  • He included his first cover ever of a tune by another Minneapolis act, Soul Asylum's "Stand Up and Be Strong."
  • A three-voice female choir sings lead on one selection and figures prominently on several others.
  • Prince asked longtime sideman Morris Hayes to add keyboard parts on his own, giving him an unprecedented co-producer credit.

As with many Prince albums, "Welcome 2 America" contains the good, the meh and the "What was he thinking?" Despite its unevenness, this seldom-bootlegged album is a welcome addition to his official catalog, a record that shows a strong sense of purpose, vibrant spirituality and fervent hope for a better world. The music resonates with profound relevance in the post-George Floyd, current-COVID climate of 2021.

"Welcome 2 America" appears to be rooted in Prince's discovery of bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, then 23, in a YouTube video. After jamming with her in Los Angeles, he invited her to come to Paisley Park with a drummer of her choice. She picked Chris Coleman, who had been playing on the New Kids on the Block reunion tour. He didn't even audition.

The three musicians jammed, then recorded tracks. Prince added vocals later.

A trio concept apparently had been in the Minnesota maestro's head for a while. Circa 1993, he recorded a power trio project with drummer Michael Bland, bassist Sonny Thompson and himself on guitar, but it ended up in the vault. This album has now been freed from that storied crypt.

Throughout his career, we heard Prince share his thoughts about the ills of our nation but not as consistently as on "Welcome 2 America." Eight of the 12 pieces could easily be considered social or political commentaries and a couple of others hint at it.

Mixing muted jazz and spoken word, the opening title track evokes vintage Gil Scott-Heron as Prince disses a laundry list of our problems: overdependence on technology (iPhone and Google are targets), media (misinformation and celebrity culture are scorned), racism ("land of the free, home of the slave") and the just-ended presidency of George W. Bush (no new taxes). Prince praises the Bible and jazz, and displays his humor, declaring "here we snatch bass players, not purses." Messages delivered.

On other selections, the paisley potentate tackles poverty (the Curtis Mayfield-inspired "Born 2 Die") and racism ("Running Game [Son of a Slave Master]," sung by Shelby J with Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo). He yearns for utopia ("1000 Light Years From Here," with its George Benson-like guitar), equality ("Same Page, Different Book" set to a spare funk groove) and a new world order (the emphatically good "Yes," done to a double-time march beat).

In the closer, "One Day We Will All B Free," Prince mixes spirituality with politics, asserting if "George Washington never told no lie, baby, we'd all be saved" and wondering "who controls the nations if we never have peace." Good points.

In a rare studio cover song, Prince urges us to "Stand Up and B Strong," the Soul Asylum tune recast as a low-key, religious-tinged rallying cry. The Minneapolis band's version was more of a glistening rocker with prominent drums (by Bland, who joined Soul Asylum in 2005). Prince's interpretation is moody and minimalist, carrying on almost two minutes longer, thanks to his rising guitar solo. (Footnote: He cut an earlier treatment of this song with Thompson and Bland; that rendition remains in the vault.)

Three numbers on "Welcome 2 America" feel like familiar Prince oeuvre. The current single, "Hot Summer," is a sprightly piece of synth-pop ear candy straight out of his early-'80s songbook with a Top 40 lyric that could nod to Sly & the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime."

The Minneapolis icon steps into His Royal Badness mode with "Check the Record," a heavy rocker in which he taunts a friend to investigate if the pal's girlfriend has been in Prince's bed. It's a rhetorical question, of course.

By 2010, the always spiritual Prince, a Jehovah's Witness disciple, may have stopped cussing, but his libido is alive on "When She Comes," a slow, seductive ballad with graceful guitar and a perverse purity that climaxes with a whimper, not a bang.

How would this album have played if it had been released when it was recorded — one year into Barack Obama's presidency, with hope coursing through the nation? We didn't find out because Prince decided to shelve "Welcome 2 America."

Speculation is that he wanted to tour behind the record with his new trio, but Wilkenfeld was committed to play with Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck. What did Prince say about snatching bass players?

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