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NPR Music Critic Talks New Posthumous Prince Album 'Welcome 2 America'

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

And finally today, it's been five years since the music icon Prince suddenly and tragically passed away. In his Paisley Park studios, Prince left a literal vault filled with hundreds, if not thousands of unreleased songs and pieces of music. Now some of it is being released for the public to hear. "Welcome 2 America" is a collection of songs Prince had worked on in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME 2 AMERICA")

PRINCE: Welcome to America, where you can fail at your job, get fired, rehired and get a $700 billion tip.

SNELL: Here to talk more about the album is NPR Music's critic and correspondent, Ann Powers. Welcome.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SNELL: Well, to start with, posthumous albums can be kind of risky. You know, on the one hand, some albums - I'm thinking of, last year's, you know, Mac Miller album - have been big hits. But then there are other ones I kind of feel like an artist's estate is scraping together castoffs and unfinished work to just make some extra money. Where does this fall?

POWERS: Well, this is really a special posthumous release because the archivist of the Prince estate, Michael Howe, found a whole complete album. He was going through the vaults, which are voluminous, and he happened upon two CDRs. Do you remember CDRs?

SNELL: Oh, yes.

POWERS: Remember, you can record them yourself and write in Sharpie on them, what it was.

SNELL: I spent whole afternoons doing that.

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: Exactly. Well, so did Prince. And Michael Howe found this set, "Welcome 2 America." It was - It's a set of recordings that Prince made with a trio at the core, the bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and the drummer Chris Coleman. And it really holds together as a full work, representing what he was up to at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME 2 AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Land of the free, home of the brave. Oops. I mean never the free, home of the slaves.

PRINCE: Get down on your knees. Hit me.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Welcome to America.

SNELL: So this isn't the kind of situation where it was castoff. These were literal albums that they were working on.

POWERS: Yeah. And it was a really interesting moment in Prince's life and career. So for quite a while, he had been experimenting with releasing music in many different ways. He'd done a deal with Target. He'd done a free release with a U.K. newspaper, actually, the same year that he recorded these tracks. Prince had also re-established himself as the absolute king and God of live performance. I mean, he was the undisputed best live performer in America at that time. And I think these sessions show the energy that was just passing through him creatively at the time. I mean, to me, it holds up - maybe not in the top five, but it is a worthy, worthy release.

SNELL: OK, so speaking of that energy and that pulsing, let's talk about the songs. What is one that stood out to you?

POWERS: Well, we're going to have to go with the hit, the single (laughter) and a song that feels prescient because it's called "Hot Summer," not only like Megan Thee Stallion's Hot Girl Summer, but also, we're having a hot summer, for better or worse. So I love the song. It's a total finger snapper. Reminds me of a classic Prince song like "Cream." And it's just a fun romp, you know,

(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. As long as I've got your ear, I think it's going to be hot summer. Just wait and see.

SNELL: Prince died five years ago, and these songs, they were recorded 10 years ago, but a lot has changed since then. Still, some of the themes that we're hearing in songs like that really do feel current and fresh. You know, what does that tell us about Prince as an artist?

POWERS: I think there's been a reassessment of Prince's legacy and his mission since he died. This is something that sometimes happens with great artists posthumously. And one thing that we can all see now, which was really always apparent, was his commitment to a political and social vision, truly a utopian vision, you know. But he - this record is full of political commentary, whether it is the title track "Welcome 2 America," which reminds us of his classic "Sign O The Times," kind of him taking on the prophetic role to tracks like "1000 Light Years From Here," which is a, you know, vision of a better world. That feeling pulses through this music and makes it feel so relevant now after the Black Lives Matter protests that really changed the perspective of so many people around the world. I think if Prince were alive - this is, OK, total conjecture - but I could see him reviving this music if he were alive today and saying, OK, now is the time. We had to wait, but now is the time.

SNELL: So what's another song that stood out to you?

POWERS: Prince was known in the mid-2000s for pulling out some amazing cover songs. I remember seeing him do "Creep" at Coachella, but, you know, Radiohead's Creep, for example. And there's a cover on this record that's quite unexpected. The '90s rock band, I guess you might call them a grunge band, Soul Asylum, have a ballad called "Stand Up And B Strong." And Prince and his group, they completely redo it. They make it utterly Prince-ified. And it will get you on your feet and lighting your lighters in wishing you were in a field in California watching him perform it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND UP AND B STRONG")

PRINCE: (Singing) When the world is too alone, and your nights are all wrong. When they lie to your face, put them in their place. Stand up and be strong. When the times are oppressed and you're all depressed, if your life's a mess, remember you are blessed. Stand up and be strong. Come on.

SNELL: Now, Prince has a really dedicated fan base. And, you know, you were talking about our understanding of him. He is the kind of artist where people have an understanding, have a relationship with his music. Are his fans going to feel satisfied, like, this is an album from the Prince that they love?

POWERS: I think so. I definitely think Prince fans are going to love this. I mean, he had by 2010 truly come to understand what he did best. You know, he had not just one sound, but, you know, a whole rainbow palette of sounds. And this album samples from all of them. You have "Hot Summer," which is one of those hit-style, top-40-style Prince songs. And then you have epic jams on this record, too. So I can't see a Prince fan not being satisfied. I know sometimes people say, well, would he have wanted to have it released? But I feel like this is a gift and we just need to embrace it.

SNELL: So what song should we go out on? What is the song that we should keep in our minds as people are getting ready to listen to this whole album?

POWERS: Well, some of his bandmates on the record said that the song "1000 Light Years From Here" was his favorite song, and he was particularly proud of it. It's just a floating anthem, you know, that truly takes us to another world. When I listen to it, it reminds me of all the things that made Prince my favorite artist. You know, that he not only was such a master technically, artistically, but he believed in the possibilities of people, in the possibilities of a better world. Sometimes he thought we might have to leave the world and go somewhere else. But, you know, I'll follow him. I will always follow Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "10000 LIGHT YEARS FROM HERE")

PRINCE: (Singing) We can live underwater. It ain't hard when you've never been a part of the country, on dry land.

SNELL: That was NPR Music's Ann Powers talking to us about the newly released Prince album, "Welcome 2 America." Thanks, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.