Friday, May 5, 2017

Airline Service Catastrophes



“You’re not authorized to do the right thing, are you?” I asked.

“That’s correct,” the JetBlue supervisor replied, meekly.

This was an escalation, and the supervisor literally was not allowed do what was necessary to assuage my inconvenience, no matter how small the cost. I learned at the airport that my family’s flight was cancelled. All she was empowered to do was cite rules and the various reasons that the situation was my fault. A simple solution would have been to put me on another Boston flight (one was boarding in a half hour), or provide a shuttle to the other airport for our new flight, departing at two in the morning.
In recent weeks, we see these obscene videos, with grounded passengers fielding startling abuse at the hands of policy-wielding airline employees. Just a few weeks ago, there was the doctor who was bloodied and dragged off the overbooked United plane. Then there was the guy who earned an extra day away from his family by peeing too close to takeoff. This week, we had the family that was booted off the Delta plane for violating baby seat protocol. In all of the videotaped situations, as with mine, the supervisor was unimpressed by any appeal to reason or decency.
Commenters on videos and articles about these incidents are correct to admonish the carriers with their “policies,” “rules,” and “protocols.” The airlines cite “rigorous training” in defense of their obviously beleaguered employees (sympathetic figures in these videos). However, the airlines expect the rigor of the training around policies to compensate for the utter lack of empowerment. In any of those situations, had employees been permitted to apply any modicum of common sense to do right by customers, without endangering the safety of others, I’m confident they would have done so, at little expense to their bottom line and quite to the benefit of their reputation. Instead you get a situation where a supervisor is not able to authorize a $90 shuttle ride from SJC to SFO, which would have pacified me, a loyal, points-collecting, tweeting customer who just spent $2,000 on tickets and writes a blog on human performance issues.

Time has passed since the days of Pan Am, when flying was an enjoyable and I daresay glamourous experience.  In the decades since then, the churn of the world, including oil embargoes, terrorist attacks, and task automation, has contributed to the increasingly dehumanizing experience that is air travel today. As much as airlines tout the customer experience, employees in these service catastrophes are put in a terrible position amid a system that doesn’t share their values. The cynical apologies, often blaming their own customers, portray a maddening tone-deafness. Hope for positive change driven by the industry is slim. Public activism via the cell phone video may help turn the tide.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Agile Can Be Discouraging. Don't Be Discouraged



I spend most of my time these days helping teams get started with agile. It usually begins with a straightforward request: “We are interested in agile, and we want to get some training so we can get started….”

These types of messages are most welcome. My role at CA Technologies is to help in whatever way I can to help teams get started and on their way to reaping the wonderful benefits of agile. After an initial discussion with the requester, usually we agree to establish a baseline of knowledge about agile and then pick a good place to start. And so it goes.

Too often I see teams, at least those who have a choice in the matter, give up on agile before or shortly after they get started. For me it’s a point of reflection on how I can do a better job of helping managers establish the conditions for success with agile. Nonetheless, I want to share a list of the common reasons I see for teams giving up, and a thought or two that may help these teams get back on track.

Why We Are Giving Up #1: “There are too many rules, too much process, too much change in the role definitions, and other stuff. It’s all just TOO MUCH!”

Why you shouldn’t give up: Yes, it’s overwhelming! That’s why I recommend that people start with a simple concept – how can your team improve how they work? Starting with the biggest problem or challenge facing your team, how can everyone mobilize around solving that biggest problem? And after you’ve started, when will you regroup to monitor progress? That’s about as simple as it gets, and it’s agile.

Why We Are Giving Up #2: “We’ve made an earnest effort to start practicing Scrum over the past few months, and yet, we haven’t seen things get better. If anything, our team performance has declined.”

Why you shouldn’t give up: Yes, your team performance likely will decline at first. It’s because you are, if you’re doing it right, fundamentally changing the way your team approaches work.

Why We Are Giving Up #3: “The Scrum events like daily stand-ups and retrospectives take up so much time. Like, we were all already overwhelmed before we started with this agile stuff, and now the addition of these different required activities is just piling on more work for all of us.”

Why you shouldn’t give up: If you go by the book, the Scrum events should take up about 10% of everyone’s time. Subtract from that the other meetings that those events displace, such as debriefing after something goes wrong or periodic planning, the total meeting time may not increase at all. The reality is that the Scrum events each have a specific purpose. The spirit of agile allows that the team could make a decision to NOT do some of the events. Our team for example, decided that it’s ok to have only three stand-ups per week instead of every day (and we haven’t been struck by lightning yet.) But, as you scale back these team activities, what are you giving up? If you scrap the Sprint Review, are you saying that you don’t want to get feedback from your customers on your finished work? If you don’t do a Retrospective, are you saying that your team is not committed to reflecting on how to get better? If you don’t do Sprint Planning, are you abandoning the idea that everyone needs transparency into what is important to work on and how each person will contribute?

Why We Are Giving Up #4: “Agile doesn’t work for how we work. We’ve always worked in a swim lane model, where everyone has their own assigned area of responsibility. We just don’t see why we need to communicate so much when most of what’s said is not relevant to most of us.”

Why you shouldn’t give up: This problem raises questions about the assumptions that go into a swim lane model. One assumption is that steady “coverage” ensures better service to the beneficiaries of each swim lane. Well, that seems to say that all areas of responsibility are of constant importance. To that I say: Ridiculous! People need to learn to work across swim lanes in response to what’s important at the time. During some periods, any given swim lane will demand urgency and a lot of capacity. At another times, it will be quiet. By being more flexible, you can move people to swarm around what’s most important. Over time, the team will develop improved adaptability as everyone learns about everyone else’s work.

Why We Are Giving Up #5: “We started with the 2-week iterations, and the people around us don’t work that way. They don’t understand when we respond to urgent requests by telling them to wait until the next sprint. They don’t understand why we want to deliver small bits of work biweekly when they would rather wait 6 months and see all of the work done.

Why you shouldn’t give up: I get it. If everyone was working in 2-week sprints, things would be simpler. The fact of the matter is, the commitment you made to work in short iterations was made for good reasons. Now, you are in a position where you need to advise your customers why you do so, and how they too will benefit. Over time it can work, but it quickly shifts you from being in a position of adhering to rules of the method and actually being an evangelist for them.

Why We Are Giving Up #6: "The more I read up on agile and study the ruminations of the “experts,” the more I think these agile people are living in La-La Land. Collaboration and teamwork are cool, but business is not a place for rainbows and unicorns."

Why you shouldn’t give up: This reaction taps into one of the key reasons that people give up. Sure, many of the top agile “experts” spend a lot of time talking about the fluffy stuff, and some of them even sound like hippies. However, it’s a reminder of where agile came from. The principles and values of the Agile Manifesto mostly talk about how people work together. Generally speaking, people are very proficient at the technical skills of their job. After all, someone hired them on that basis. But teams and projects fail because of human factors and systemic issues in the environment. Agile asks you to examine those conditions and work together to fix the things that are holding the team back. Sure, that might involve talk of rainbows and unicorns, but you’ll see with experience that trust, collaboration, and humanity are the keys to the kingdom.

***

Most of these dilemmas point to a very simple idea. Is your team willing to truly commit to getting better? If so, expect some bumpy roads, some exposure of feelings, and some upended assumptions. Nobody said it would be easy.

The idea that a thought or two from me could get teams back on track is interesting. I can’t give a thought or two if I’m not there. That’s why, as part of getting started, I recommend that teams establish and tap into a structured support system as they ramp up their agile practice. It could be a regular diet of discussion with an agile consultant such as myself, a close relationship with an agile coach who is helping to monitor progress, or even a mentor who has walked the path on which you now embark.

Are you struggling to maintain your momentum? Consider the ideas I’ve presented here, and let me know how you’ve overcome these challenges.


Friday, February 10, 2017

The Final Prince Listening Party: A Celebration

UPDATE (April, 2017) - On Grammys weekend, shortly after I posted this blog, Spotify and other streaming services announced that they had reached an agreement to deliver Prince's music to its subscribers. This development renders a few of my comments about the availability of his music invalid. However, please note that Spotify and the others still only offer (most of) the Warner Bros catalog, which represents about half of his music, albeit most of the most popular cuts.

Prince is my all-time favorite pop artist. If you knew me when I was in my 20s, you knew I was a big fan of his music. I first fell in love with Dirty MInd, the 3rd album, in the summer of 1984, weeks before the release of his 6th, Purple Rain, For the ensuing 15 years, I explored the albums (and singles and bootlegs) deeply. I listened to each of first 18 albums hundreds of times, easily. Over time, I became less enthralled. It wasn’t so much (at first) that I had lost interest. The machinations of his lengthy battle with the record industry resulted in a stream of albums that were less accessible, less publicized, and in some cases, promised less quality than I had come to expect.
Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016 was certainly a shock to me, and it reignited my feelings for the music. I’m sure like many others, I had been frustrated because of the general unavailability of his music on music streaming services (Tidal being the notable exception). Sure, I have dozens of his vinyl albums and dozens of his CDs, but I don’t have a turntable or CD player set up in the house. Fast forward to November 2016, when I made a commitment to do a proper tribute, by listening to all of the albums, in sequence, recording my observations.

About the Listening Party



In order to understand some of the choices I made, here are a few points to know.
  1. I made a conscious decision to focus only on the proper live and studio albums attributed to Prince (or the Love Symbol or whatever). There are different ways to tally this, but by my count, it totals 45 albums.
  2. Know that there is so much more to explore beyond what I cover. Here is a short overview of the music that Prince is responsible for that I did NOT listen to as part of this review.
    • Albums for other artists (The Family, Larry Graham, Apollonia 6, Mavis Staples)
    • Singles for other artists (“Manic Monday,” “A Love Bizarre,” “Nothing Compares 2U”)
    • Albums under pseudonyms or band names (Madhouse, The Time, New Power Generation)
    • His own singles and B-sides (“Erotic City,” “Irresistable Bitch,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me”)
    • Unreleased albums, TV performances, and concert bootlegs.
  3. The major guiding principle was to focus on my current reaction to the listening experience. It took a conscious effort to minimize the focus on nostalgia or research.
  4. My goal is for readers to gain a greater appreciation for Prince’s full body of work, from 1978 to 2015. As beloved and respected as he is, my observation is that most fans stopped listening to new albums about a third of the way through his career. A survey of this magnitude provides insight into the full scope and brilliance of his life’s work.
One of the interesting aspects of this exercise was to consider how my own motivations and life experiences shaped how I processed the music. Through it all, I learned as much about myself as I did about Prince.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Prince discography.

1978-1982: The Arc of the Triumph

These are the albums that came out while I was blissfully unaware of Prince’s work. This period is characterized by a steady rise from obscurity, with each successive album showing signs of his increasingly inevitable progression towards great fame.

Session 1

For You (Warner Bros., released: April 7, 1978)
Prince (Warner Bros., released: October 19, 1979)
These two albums that came out before I had heard of Prince at all, so I often think of them as a set. The eponymous sophomore effort is generally considered better because it yielded his first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” It's great, but I enjoyed the debut, For You a bit more - a more coherent statement with no lulls, and a lovely introduction to his full range of abilities as a falsetto vocalist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, songwriter, and producer. While these albums were created for a major label, th listening still brings to mind the image of a guy alone, crafting perfection in his basement. Not a bad thing. So many great little moments, like one from “Just As Long As We’re Together,” where he croons "Oh baby, your place or mine?/I'll get the music, baby, you bring the wine."

Playlist jam: “Just as Long as We’re Together”

Session 2

DIrty Mind (Warner Bros., released: October 8, 1980)
Controversy (Warner Bros., released: October 14, 1981)
1999 (Warner Bros., released: October 27, 1982)
Dirty Mind was my first love - it blew my mind as a collegian, and listening now changes nothing. It’s a half hour of perfection, with not an ounce of fat to be found. Check out “Sister” to hear what he could do in a minute and a half.
Controversy, on the other hand, falls down a bit in my book. While the playing and production are still excellent, the conceits about sex, politics, and personal identity now sound a bit overwrought and, dare I say, immature.
He cleans that all up on 1999, which is (still) a sprawling masterpiece. It's like Controversy was the sketch piece that made 1999 possible. “Annie Christian” is a first draft of “Lady Cab Driver.” The rewrite of “Do Me Baby” shows up as “International Lover.” The biggest surprise this time was “Automatic,” which is an utterly mesmerizing 9-minute funk workout.

Playlist jam: “Sister”

1984-1991: The Purple Age



This phase is Prince at the apex of his popularity. The ticket is from October of 1988, when I attended my first Prince concert at Madison Square Garden. It was one of only two times I saw him perform live (the other in Boston 2004), out of 600+ shows he did.

Session 3

Purple Rain (Warner Bros., released: June 25, 1984)
Around the World in a Day (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: April 22, 1985)
Parade (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: March, 31, 1986)
Sign o' The Times (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: March 30, 1987)
Purple Rain remains a tour de force, the full blossoming of his super stardom. The revelation this time around is “Computer Blue.”
I listened to Around the World in a Day, and I thought about it, and I hate to say it but...it's a bit of a dud. Several of the compositions perhaps belong in the Great American Songbook (including the surprising “Tambourine”), but the schtick - hippie meets Beatles meets eccentric Prince sound effects and the 80s snare drum clap - misses the mark too often.
Parade is uneven. The album picks up steam when he abandons the persona of Tracey the French jazz pianist, and just kicks ass like Prince on jams like “Girls & Boys” and, of course, “Kiss.”
I was expecting to declare Sign o' The Times the 2nd "sprawling masterpiece" (after 1999), but it's not as flawless as I remember it. There are quite a few slow (and cheesy) moments in the first disc, but the second disc (including “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” “Adore”) is spot on. The entire work reflects a new maturity in expression and arrangement.
So there you have it - 4 years of college.

Playlist jam: Computer Blue

Session 5

The Black Album (1987-available as a bootleg until officially released by Warner Bros. November 22, 1994)
The Black Album is still excellent, catchy and engaging - in the most Prince-as-funky-badass way possible - from beginning to end. “Bob George” is hilarious. The bass solo on “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is special, and calls for several listenings.

Playlist jam: “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton”

Session 6

Lovesexy (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: May 10, 1988)
Batman (Warner Bros., released: June 20, 1989)
Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: August 20, 1990)
Diamonds and Pearls (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: October 1, 1991)
This review is about my current experience with the music, but I can't hear Lovesexy without reminiscing about the listening party hosted by my great college friend and fellow Prince-o-phile John O on the day of its release. Nostalgia aside, this is another excellent record, one that that I would declare perfect if it weren't for “Glam Slam.” “Alphabet Street” is the keeper here. Cat, we need you to rap.
Batman, the soundtrack to the movie starring Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, and Jack Nicholson, continues to disappoint. There's nothing technically wrong with it, but it never catches me, and, frankly, it feels like a mercenary effort.
I approached Graffiti Bridge with a cynical attitude, and it ended up being the biggest surprise so far. Lousy movie, GREAT record. It's the first album where Prince truly shares the spotlight. Here we get a steady stream of talented guests, all in good form. Highlights include star turns from Morris Day and the Time on “Release It”, George Clinton with “We Can Funk,” and Mavis Staples as “Melody Cool.”  Then, when it’s Prince’s turn, he’s excellent in voice and instrument, as in his timeless performances on “The Question of U” and especially “Joy In Repetition.” Speaking of repetition, I liked this album so much I had to listen to it twice in a row.
Diamonds and Pearls introduces a refreshing sound. Gone are the 80s drums and cheesy keyboards, and here is a more balanced and refined jazz/funk ensemble. We get some classics, like “Money Don't Matter” and “Willing and Able,” but nothing compares to “Gett Off” - a stunning performance that has aged well.

Playlist jam: Gett Off

1992-1999: That Middle Period

Coming off of the excellent Diamonds and Pearls (1991), Prince fell into the most significant creative rut of his life. It would be more accurate to call it a rut in the quality of his published work. Embroiled in a larger-than-life saga with Warner Bros and really the entire music industry, it would be kind (and likely accurate) to say that Prince sabotaged the curation of some of his albums during this period. It is in this period that we suffer through the likes of Come and The Vault: Old Friends for Sale. There is one notable exception, The Truth/Crystal Ball, which I discuss below.

This is the period when Prince started going by , later pronounced as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or TAFKAP, or The Artist. Albums released under that name indicated with the symbol.

Session 7

Love Symbol Album (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., released: October 13, 1992)
Come (Warner Bros., released: August 16, 1994)
The Gold Experience (NPG Records, Warner Bros.: September 26, 1995)
Girl 6 (Warner Bros., released: March 19, 1996);
Chaos and Disorder (Warner Bros., released: July 9, 1996)
Love Symbol Album starts off with two monster jams, “My Name Is Prince” and “Sexy MF,” and then continues downhill for the next hour, before mercifully ending.
Come is devoid of any memorable tracks. The possible exception is “Orgasm,” which features some of Vanity's best vocal work.
On The Gold Experience, I enjoyed the “Most Beautiful Girl in the World” more than I remember. Otherwise, this album is depressingly uninspiring. For the only time in this listening party, I was counting the minutes until it was over.
Girl 6 is a movie soundtrack the compiles some old numbers, B-sides, and tunes from Prince-affiliated artists. It's a pretty good collection of songs, albeit with no cohesion. “Screams of Passion” is a very nice song from The Family, a Monkees-like Prince creation without a TV show, whose eponymous album appears to be now completely unavailable otherwise.
Chaos and Disorder, despite its lack of hits or memorable ditties, is a somewhat listenable funk/rock workout. It put me in mind of the middle section of an enjoyable 4-hour concert, where you decide to take a break to make conversation with friends.

Playlist jam: “Sexy MF”

Session 8

Emancipation (NPG Records, EMI, released: November 19, 1996)
Emancipation is a triple album, each disc exactly 60:00 in duration. Overall, it's uneven because it tries too hard to explore a variety of styles - it feels like it was recorded over a long period of time, which it was. It works best when he is going for an old-school R&B groove, and within that the best songs include the covers “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “La, La, La Means I Love U,” and “One of Us.” There is a lot of goodness in here, but overall it's a classic case of an uneven triple album that could've been a tight and flawless single disc.

Playlist jam: “One of Us”

1998: We Interrupt This Nadir To Bring You a Masterpiece

The Truth/Crystal Ball is Prince’s greatest achievement. Within time period comprising That MIddle Period, it deserves its own category. In fact, there is nothing 1998 about it, as the work is pulled completely from the archives, all tracks having been recorded in the mid 80s and early 90s. Rumor had it that Prince was saving up his best material for this set. The story makes perfect sense. If he had any sort of normal relationship with the music industry and the listening public, this album would be more widely recognized.
Prince, in his ever-innovative way, decided that the release of this set marked a good time to startup a mail-order business out of his studio. Horror stories ensued, as Paisley Park struggled to fulfill orders, with fans waiting up to a year after paying to receive the music. Leery of internet commerce, I launched an interstate brick & mortar quest for the 4-disc set. I managed a cassette copy from John O, but I needed the authorized discs for my collection. Many months later, I discovered my copy in a chain record store at Boston’s Faneuil Hall during a business trip. I eagerly plopped down my $50 cash. The payoff justified the quest in this case, but I never went to such lengths again to find his music.
While distributed as a 4- (and some times 5-) disc set, most discographies separate the single discs The Truth from the triple disc Crystal Ball. Stylistically they are distinct, as The Truth is an acoustic set, while Crystal Ball is what we expect in terms of “traditional” Prince music.

Session 9

The Truth/Crystal Ball (NPG Records, released: January 29, 1998)
The Truth disc is a stripped-down acoustic guitar set. It’s hard to overstate the power of the title track, with its funky acoustic guitar motifs and his here-is-the-meaning-of-life-and-I-think-I believe-him lyrics. And so it goes, from one great, catchy, memorable song to another, from “Man In A Uniform” to “Animal Kingdom” to “Cool as the Other Side of the Pillow.” Consider it perfection.
Crystal Ball is 3 discs of beautiful ditties and jams. Collectively, it showcases every aspect of Prince's abilities. No radio hits, just one great cut after another. It's virtuosic, it's fun, it's dirty, it's deep, it’s all Prince at his best, Crystal Ball…”Cloreen Baconskin”...”18 and Over”…the latter containing one of the funniest jump starts a verse will ever carry, “hi ho silver, I’m the bone ranger….”
Then, three hours later you sit in stunned silence, wondering what the hell just happened.

Playlist jam: “The Truth”

Bonus Playlist jam: “Cloreen Baconskin”



1999: That Middle Period, continued


Needless to say, the release of The Truth/Crystal Ball was a blip on the screen during this period. If I recall correctly, I didn’t spend much time with the two releases during 1999.


Session 10

The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (Warner Bros., August 24, 1999)
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (NPG Records, Arista, released: November 9, 1999)
The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale is an album. I can't recommend it. Let's not discuss it anymore.
I don’t have fond memories of Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic from when it came out. However, I really enjoyed this time around as a sonic experience - listen with headphones. It's strangely mesmerizing, with a few good songs and some interesting guest turns from Maceo Parker, Eve, and Sheryl Crow. Check the cover “Everyday is a Winding Road” (CD only, not on Tidal) and the lovely ballad, “I Love U But I Don’t Trust U.”

Playlist jam: Everyday is a Winding Road

2001-2015: The Stealth Renaissance

Prince briefly swung back into the mainstream around the turn of the century. He made some good albums,and even saw a little bit of airplay. Musicology in particular had good buzz and was excellent music.
Then he swung back into self-imposed semi-obscurity for the last decade of his life. During this period Prince released, depending on how you count it, approximately 17 albums (22 discs) of music in 15 years. It represented a full atonement for any artistically uneven work from the previous decade. After listening, there is no question that this phase of his work cemented his legacy as virtuoso guitarist, and it was also his finest period for collaborating as peers with young talent. People can say what they want about his state of mind or health, but nothing can legitimately be said that will diminish his abilities and focus as a musician during the last years of his life.
NOTE: From this point forward, those works that I hadn’t listened to previously, I indicate with *.

Session 10

The Rainbow Children (NPG Records, Redline Entertainment, released: November 20, 2001)
One Night Alone...Solo Piano and Voice by Prince (NPG Records, released: May 14, 2002)*
One Night Alone...Live! / The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over (NPG Records, retail release: December 17, 2002)
Xpectation (NPG Records, released: January 1, 2003)*
I enjoyed the The Rainbow Children more than I remember. It's lean, it's mean, it's spirited, and this listening reminded me of the song “Family Name,” which is an amazing track.
I learned this time around that One Night Alone, the studio album, is not the same as One Night Alone-LIVE! the live album, the love of which I discuss next. It’s not in my collection, and it’s not on Tidal, but I was able to find a stream (props to musicmp3.ru, whoever you are). This is a lovely piano/vocal acoustic set, kinda like The Truth for piano. No hits or covers here, but with so much stellar guitar work in the catalog, One Night Alone is noteworthy as the most extensive showcase of his accompanist skills on the piano. If anyone had actually heard this album, “Avalanche” may have been a pot-stirrer, with it’s memorable line, “Abraham Lincoln was a racist….”
One Night Alone...Live! is a wonderful gift. After years of bootleg concert tapes, etc., here is a proper concert triple album. Disc one is hard-driving funk, featuring a great band: Candy Dulfer, John Blackburn, Rhonda Smith, Renato Neto, and an explosion of Prince guitar. Disc two starts with an astonishing version of “Family Name” and features a lovely solo piano sing-along of some of his greatest hits - "I was working part time...it's been seven hours...until the end of time...." Disc three (subtitled, The Aftershow: It Ain't Over) has the feel of an after-hour jam session, with exciting guest appearances from Maceo Parker, George Clinton, Larry Graham and others. It’s just wonderful, notwithstanding an unfortunate performance by the otherwise talented Musiq Soulchild.
Xpectation is an instrumental jazz set that puts one in mind of a Herbie or Miles album from one of their electric phases. It's nice, but nothing too catchy. I'll listen to it again.

Playlist jam: “Family Name”

Session 11

C-NOTE (NPG Records: Released January 3, 2003)*
N.E.W.S. (NPG Records, MP Media, released: July 29, 2003)
Musicology (NPG Records, Columbia, released: March 29, 2004)
The Chocolate Invasion: Trax from the NPG Music Club Volume One (NPG Records, released: March 29, 2004)*
The Slaughterhouse: Trax from the NPG Music Club Volume Two (NPG Records, released: March 29, 2004)*
Having never heard (or heard of) it before, C-NOTE was a bit puzzling. It’s a string of 5-minute instrumental jams in front of a small audience. Actually, with one exception, these jams could more accurately be called vamps, because there are no chord changes. Oh, and they’re all named after cities. Turns out. It’s a collection of sound checks from a world tour. Go figure. It was cool.
N.E.W.S. has four 14-minute instrumental jams on it: “North,” “East,” “West,” and “South.” Get it? For lack of a better genre to suggest, it’s smooth jazz. So smooth, I was expecting Boney James to show up, but Eric Leeds did a fine job. I like Prince. I like smooth jazz. I liked this set. It was cool.
Being the study of music, Musicology put me in mind of a set of etudes that cover all black music styles. You get funk, gospel, R&B and several varieties of jazz. Like, you get one of each style, and there are 12 of them. I liked this one about as much as N.E.W.S. It was cool.
The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse were released simultaneously via the internet exclusively to members of the NPG Music Club. I had never heard them before. I really liked both albums, and it seemed to play well as a double CD. Covering a lot of stylistic ground, from R&B to gospel to funk, the expression that came to mind throughout was “dance like nobody’s watching.” I felt like Prince is producing, arranging, composing, and performing just the way he wants to, with no regard for popularity or others’ expectations, perhaps for the first time in his career. There are some great moments, like “U Make My Sunshine,” and some not so great moments (too insignificant to mention), but it all works together in the spirit of, well, total artistic freedom.

Playlist jam: “U Make My Sunshine”

Session 12

3121 (NPG Records, Universal, released: March 21, 2006)
Planet Earth (NPG Records, Columbia, released: July 24, 2007)
Indigo Nights (NPG Records, September 30, 2008)
Lotusflow3r / MPLSound / Elixer by Bria Valente, 3 disc set (NPG Records, released: March 29, 2009)
20Ten (NPG Records, released: July 10, 2010)*
The most noteworthy aspect of 3121 is that it sounds, at times, contemporary. Like, it was released in 2006, and the grooves sound much like what we hear on pop radio in 2017. That said, this disc (yes, disc - it's not available on Tidal) reminds me of too much ice cream. It's good and all - worth a listen or two - but it's not distinct from or better in any way than the last few albums.
Seriously, I have no idea what to make of Planet Earth. It raises more questions than answers, even after a couple of listens. If title track (and the album artwork) must present such an over-the-top tree-hugger message, why does no other song on the album even remotely address environmental issues, or employ the curious art-rock style? On the second song, “Guitar,” was Prince sadistically mocking The Edge in how he plucks out the grating, nails-on-a chalkboard 8th notes throughout? (As he cries the implausible refrain, “I love U baby, but not like I love my guitar.”) Was the whole concept simply to lay down some fun ditties in preparation for a fireside singalong on a tent-camping trip? Either this is the second worst outing of his career (The Vault will always be the worst), or it’s a semi-successful experiment in black comedy.
Indigo Nights is a live album, a companion to the coffee table book that chronicles Prince’s 21 nights in London in 2007 concert series at the O2 Arena (dammit, I should have gone to that). As with all of the live albums, it’s excellent. One Night Alone - Live! from a few years previous is the most logical comparison to Indigo Nights. The latter is more spontaneous yet theatrical, while the former was about serious, tight jamming, driven by the relentless Blackwell/Smith rhythm section. Of course, both ensembles are awesome. I wish I could see a video of Indigo NIghts, while One Night Alone -LIVE! is fully satisfying as audio only.
Lotusflow3r is another excellent offering. It brings together all of the things we like about Prince during this period: effusive energy and creativity, along with ridiculous, spine-tingling rock guitar work. Outstanding tracks include “Dreamer” and the cover “Crimson and Clover.”
Coming in the same package as Lotusflow3r, I was surprised at how different MPLSoUND was. I guess the set lives up to it’s name - it’s a bunch of jams that have that ‘Minneapolis sound’. Here we get catchy, mostly lightweight ditties propelled once again by the 80s clapping snare drum. No idea if this material was archival or recorded later in a throwback style. It doesn’t really matter. Despite some nice moments, this album didn’t add much to the catalog.
The third disc in the 3-disc package, which was sold exclusively at Target for $12.99, is Elixer. It is the only album by starlet Bria Valente, By my calculations this was the 6th and final occasion when Prince produced an album for a WAG. The results are predictably banal, unless you can appreciate the mixture of 70s-style easy listening and 80s-style dance pop.
If you were able to pick up the correct European newspaper in the summer of 2010, you were able to get ahold of a hard copy of 20Ten. I wasn’t so lucky. The disc was included as an insert in the London Daily Mirror and other publications. I found this album to be quite disjointed, sounded like a clear-out-the-archives type of thing. There are moments: If you like stuff from the 80s, “Everybody Likes Me” is catchy. In the aughts, “Sticky Like Glue” coulda been a hit if anyone in the U.S, had actually heard the record.

Playlist jam: “Dreamer”

Session 13

Art Official Age (NPG Records, Warner Bros., released: September 26, 2014)*
PLECTRUMELECTRUM with 3rdEyeGirl (NPG Records, Warner Bros., released: September 26, 2014)*
HITnRUN Phase One (NPG Records, released: September 7, 2015)*
HITnRUN Phase Two (NPG Records, released: December 12, 2015)*
Spoiler alert: “Everything is you” is the punchline. The woman with the British accent, who is either a shrink or a muse for Prince, told us so. Art Official Age (say it out loud) is a concept album of sorts, but it is more recognizable as just a quasi-spiritual, prototypical Prince album. It is self-referential, with riffs and styles reminiscent of his work from the late 80s (specifically, Around The World) into early 90s (The Gold Experience). Well done it is, and worth a couple of listens, but it didn’t do much for me overall.
I was brimming with cynicism, prepared to hate PLECTRUMELECTRUM. Perhaps it was the debut of his new band, a trio of unknown young women, 3rdEyeGirl. Would this be another Bria Valente situation? Could great music lurk behind such strange and affected cover art? Never so happy to be wrong, I LOVED this album, which I hadn’t heard before. Here we have some head-bobbing, lip-pursing, fist thrusting hard rock. Hear the drummer Hannah Welton-Ford kick ass, and the bassist Ida Nielsen twirl some funk. They’re part of a tight standard rock quartet, along with guitar work by Prince and Donna Grantis. See Prince generously share the spotlight in this highly collaborative effort. There are many excellent tracks on here, none exceeded by the exquisite instrumental title track, which echoes and builds on a Zeppelin-esque opening groove.
HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two were released separately, months before Prince’s death. I reviewed them as one, since they have the same cover art and cover much of the same ground musically. I think he knew this was his last album. His life flashes before his eyes with samples and riffs lifted from his early albums, as he coyly tours just about every style of pop music that came about in his lifetime. The comes the end. The penultimate song is called “REVELATION” (“...higher 'til we understand, the colour of the Pharoah's hand...”). At the end of last song “BIG CITY,” Prince quips “that’s it,” before a horn flourish introduces 49 seconds of silence.

Playlist jam: “PLECTRUMELECTRUM”

***
That's it. 45 albums in 2 months. I learned a lot. I was reminded why I liked Prince so much years ago, and l finally made a point to hear all of the later albums, which were so difficult to access at the time. All of it was great.

Top 10 Albums

I resisted the temptation to differentiate quality using a 1-5 star system. The forced distribution would give the impression that some of this music is comparable to 1 or 2 star albums in the rest of the world - not the case. If you dropped The Gold Experience or Chaos and Disorder onto an unsuspecting Earth that had no Prince, the rare talent would still jump off the disc at the listener. Happily there were many even better moments. So here are the ten albums that I most enjoyed this time (some for the first time), listed in chronological order.
Dirty Mind (1981)
1999 (1982)
Purple Rain (1984)
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
The Truth/Crystal Ball (1998)
One Night Alone...Live! / The Aftershow: It Ain’t Over (2002)
The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
The Slaughterhouse (2004)
Lotusflow3r (2009)
PLECTRUMELECTRUM with 3rdEyeGirl (2014)

The Playlist

The playlist is lifted directly from the above suggestions, approximately one song per listening session. It is in no way meant to be the best songs or the most popular songs. Instead these are the songs to which I responded most warmly in this listening party. They resonated with me, in 2016-7.
“Just as Long as We’re Together,” from For You (1978)
“Sister,” from Dirty Mind (1980)
“Computer Blue,” from Purple Rain (1984)
“2 Nigs United 4 West Compton,” from The Black Album (1988)
“The Truth,” from The Truth (1988)
“Cloreen Baconskin,” from Crystal Ball (1988)
“Gett Off,” from Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
“Sexy MF,” from the Love Symbol Album (1992)
“One of Us,” from Emancipation (1996)
“Everyday is a Winding Road,” from Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999)
“Family Name,” from The Rainbow Children (2001)
“U Make My Sunshine,” from The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
“Dreamer,” from Lotusflow3r (2006)
“PLECTRUMELECTRUM,” from PLECTRUMELECTRUM (2014)

Hereafter

When news of Prince’s death came out, my wife and I were at home waiting for an airport shuttle on our way join friends at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. We saw from the reaction to his death, that even two decades of laying low had no diminishing effect on his many fans. New Orleans celebrated his life that weekend as only the Big Easy could, with numerous tributes at the Fest and other places. Here’s Janelle Monae. Here’s a Second Line celebration. And here is a snippet of Kermit Ruffins at his bar, during the set when he gave his own exquisite treatment to “Purple Rain” (“I never meant to cause you any problems/I never meant to smoke all of your reefer….”)
Most of this collective memory is driven by his accomplishments as a pop hit-maker in the 80s. Starting with That Middle Period (1991-1999), most fans stopped keeping up with his work, mostly because it was such a chore to access. I’m now a reluctant Tidal subscriber, and in years past, I never stepped up to become a monthly member of the NPG Music Club, or participated in any of the other convoluted, out-of-the-mainstream distribution methods. (Well, that’s not entirely true - I did order an expensive coffee table picture book so that I could listen to the single disc Indigo Nights.) It is in those mostly-obscure 21st century albums where we find some of Prince’s greatest work as a composer, collaborator, and, perhaps most notably, guitarist. Prince had his own reasons for handling his business the way he did. It worked out fine for him. Clearly the music didn’t suffer, and he died a ridiculously wealthy man anyway, In retrospect I was the one with a bad attitude, and I was the one who suffered.
Readers can invest their own 50 hours listening to this music and decide what to make of it. I’d like to hear your response. The perspective I got from this listening party leads me to this hyperbolic conclusion:  In consideration of his entire body of work, his prolific output, his prodigious talent as a performer and composer, and his enduring popularity, he has to be in the discussion for the most accomplished pop musician ever to walk the face of the earth. We’ll see what everyone thinks in a hundred years.
For now, I encourage everyone to go out and listen to the rest of Prince’s music.