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Prince had been at a crossroads before, but never like he was at the beginning of 2004.

His career was at its lowest point. He’d been one of the world’s biggest superstars, a stadium-dominating musical genius with a string of timeless hits and so many songs and so much talent that no one could keep up with him. In fact, he had so many ideas that it seemed even he couldn’t keep them straight — the past decade had seen him release a baffling series of underwhelming albums, launch several ahead-of-their-time internet projects that didn’t work very well, and become outspokenly religious. (At least he no longer insisted that his name was an unpronounceable symbol.) Perhaps most significantly, he’d stopped having hits, and often refused to play his classics during his concerts, which usually didn’t start until 2 a.m or later. Prince didn’t make it easy to be a fan — often the opposite — and a lot of them were long since over it. After a decade of that, at the age of 45, his career was not in a great place.

So, as he had with “Diamonds and Pearls” when he was in a similar place in the early ‘90s, he decided to play the game and show everybody just who they were dealing with.

On February 8, he opened the 2004 Grammy Awards with a five-minute medley of “Purple Rain,” “Baby I’m a Star” and “Let’s Go Crazy” — with Beyonce — that may be the greatest opening to a music-awards show in television history. Two weeks later, he announced his first major tour in six years, noting that he’d be playing his hits again. “It’s older music, but it’s going to be played in a newer way,” he said, teasing that it might be the last time he played those songs in concert (it wasn’t). Then in March, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he played a different, much longer medley of his hits during the ceremony — but of course what everyone remembers is his show-stealing solo during the all-star George Harrison tribute, which he finished by throwing his guitar into the audience.

And the final stroke was the “Musicology” album — released 20 years ago this week — and tour. The two are inextricable for several reasons, but largely because Prince shrewdly included a CD of the album with each ticket sold for the hotly anticipated tour, which counted both as a ticket sale and an album sale, and thus qualified for the Billboard charts (although Billboard’s charts department, clearly annoyed, swiftly revised its rules to prevent anyone else from pulling a similar move).

Musically, “Musicology” was a return to accessibility. And although it didn’t reach the peaks of his classic ‘80s material — to be fair, not much music does — it was a vivid sampler of his musical styles that marked the return of the Prince that people knew and loved. It also was a genuine hit: The ticket-CD bundle helped loft the album to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, but it was top 5 in multiple countries all over the world without that boost, even though it didn’t have a big hit single. Recorded over several years, “Musicology”’s musical baseline is the brand of lean funk Prince was raised on — he even shouts out Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown and others in the album’s lead-off title track, which concludes with brief, scratchy recordings of some of his own hits in a mock scanning-the-radio-dial segment. There are a couple of “Do Me, Baby”-styled bedroom ballads, bombastic rock (“A Million Days”), even the new wave pop he hadn’t done since “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on “Cinnamon Girl,” complete with splashes of vintage synthesizers. It winds down with a sultry, slow-burning burst of Aretha on the soulfully bluesy “On the Couch” and concludes with the breezy “Reflection.”

Even though Prince’s musicianship was at a new peak — his blazing guitar work, multi-tracked harmonies, production and arranging show an artist at the top of his craft — he was making music that was easy to like again, which isn’t to say it was simple; but even at its most sophisticated and complex (like the jazzy interlude at the end of “If I Was the Man in Ur Life”), it went down more smoothly. Indeed, the only area where “Musicology” fell flat is in the lyrics, which, like much of Prince’s later material, could be shockingly insipid. In particular, the album’s catchiest track, “Life of the Party,” is marred by lyrics so tossed-off that it sounds like they were written off the top of his head. (“So you’re havin’ a party?/ Goody for you/ All the beautiful people gonna be there/ Yeah, that’s cool.”) Even when he tried gravitas — about politics, war, global warming and moral decay on “Dear Mr. Man” — it wasn’t much better.

Not that anyone was paying attention to those lyrics on the joyous tour, which launched at the end of March and wrapped six months later after 77 dates. Performed in the round, Prince was in constant motion, singing, dancing, leading his astonishingly talented band (notably veteran James Brown/Parliament-Funkadelic saxist Maceo Parker and drummer John Blackwell) through hairpin turns and a relentlessly shifting setlist based around hits and songs from “Musicology” — but interspersed with instrumental segments of everything from his own deep cuts to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” the “Flintstones” theme and more. He even played a solo acoustic set toward the end. It was an electrifying two-and-a-half hour ride that proved once and for all what a master musician and showman he was. And most of all, it brought his fans back home, reminding them — and himself — of why they loved him so much in the first place.

Prince was not an artist who’d ever lacked confidence, but by the end of 2004, the full swagger was back in his step. He’d significantly increased his wealth: The tour grossed nearly $90 million, the album was certified double platinum in the U.S. early in 2005, and it spurred sales of his entire catalog in an era when most people still bought CDs. But more importantly, it also marked the return of the Prince people knew, one who wasn’t completely refusing to be who he’d been, and not just musically: The weird outfits and otherworldly hairstyles had been replaced by sleek, classy suits and a short, trim cut.

The year’s creative efforts also gave him a model for how to pursue the rest of his career. Any time he wanted another million (or ten), he’d hit the road in some new and unusual way. Over the following years he played everything from a months-long Las Vegas residency to a premium-price one at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood; from a series of 21 dates at London’s Wembley Arena to a handful of shows in specific regions of the U.S. — even the Carolinas. He played brief “Hit and Run” tours that were announced just days before they launched; and of course he staged what is universally considered to be the greatest Super Bowl Halftime performance of all time in 2007. By contrast, his last tour, shortly before his death in 2016, was just him accompanying himself on piano. He kept finding new ways to keep himself interested.

And although he wouldn’t again reach the upper echelons of the charts in his lifetime and his albums continued to be frustratingly hit-or-miss, his sense of innovation returned with “3121,” the album that followed “Musicology” — on it, fans of “Sign O’ the Times,” which many regard as the peak of his creativity, could find much to grab onto, at least for the first half of the album. Unfortunately, most of the other albums he released in these years were maddeningly inconsistent (and sometimes appallingly bad) but although you won’t find any hidden “Purple Rain”s, there are overlooked gems to be found on many of them — like “Lavaux” and “Laydown” from “20Ten” (the latter of which features the priceless line, “from the heart of Minnesota/ Here come the purple Yoda”), and “Better With Time” and especially “Ol’ Skool Company” from “MPLSoUND.” Every once in a while on those albums and others, the Prince you love pops up with something so great it’s as if he’d never gone anywhere. And that’s really the gift of his scattershot, impossibly vast musical output — even though he’s no longer here, there’ll always be something new to find.

“Musicology” was the end of Prince’s wilderness years, and in every way, it set him up for the remaining 22 years of his much-too-brief life.



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