It’s sad to think that when Prince Rogers Nelson was still very much alive, there was a time when we took him for granted. Sure, he got much love in his glorious ’80s reign thanks to certified classics such as 1999, Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times. And that royal treatment carried over to early ’90s albums (1991’s Diamonds and Pearls) and hit singles (1990’s “Thieves in the Temple,” 1992’s “7”). But by the end of that decade, new Prince music was receiving a commoner’s welcome.
When Prince (under the name of the unpronounceable love symbol) released his last LP of the ’90s, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, 20 years ago on Nov. 2, 1999, it was met with anything but raves. Receiving reviews that were mixed at best, the album — which peaked at a relatively low No. 18 on the Billboard 200 — was so quickly dismissed by the public that only one official single (“The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”) was released. Ironically, “1999” — Prince’s party jam from 17 years earlier — was getting way more play at the turn of the millennium than anything from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
Listening to the album two decades later, though, there’s no doubt that it was woefully underappreciated — largely because we somehow stopped appreciating Prince. At this stage, His Prolific Majesty had taken his productivity to ridiculous proportions: In a 14-month period, he had released both a triple album (1996’s Emancipation) and a four-disc set (1998’s Crystal Ball). So by the time he dropped Rave, even his most diehard fans were exhausted by his output.
But this was Prince hitting the reset button on his career. After bitterly parting ways with Warner Bros. three years earlier, Rave was intended as his major-label comeback with Arista Records. And with then Arista chief Clive Davis in the mix, there was some attempt at the same Supernatural magic he captured with Santana by enlisting A-list guests like Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow and Eve. More so, though, this was Prince unabashedly aiming for the top of the pop charts again — in a way that he hadn’t done since Diamonds and Pearls.
Although “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” hit No. 63 on the Hot 100, it deserved to go higher. A shimmering soul-pop glide, it possesses the kind of quirky beauty that is distinctly Prince. Both the Stefani and Crow collaborations, “So Far, So Pleased” and “Baby Knows,” respectively, should have been hit singles. The two tracks hark back to earlier Prince gems: “So Far, So Pleased” recalls the guitar-pop perfection of 1980’s “When You Were Mine,” while “Baby Knows” struts with the bluesy swag of 1991’s “Cream.”
There are more echoes of Prince’s past on Rave that, while not breaking any new ground, show the scope of his musical vision: The album-opening title track is a funk-rock descendant of “When Doves Cry”; “Strange But True” is an electro-infused workout that goes bumping back to Controversy and 1999; and “Prettyman” is a cocky slab of James Brown funk — including JB sideman Maceo Parker on sax — in the vein of the similarly titled “Partyman” from 1989’s Batman soundtrack.
Elsewhere, the breakup ballad “I Love U, But I Don’t Trust U Anymore” is stripped raw with pain and piano. And while the Eve joint, “Hot Wit U,” is the type of funky sexercise that Prince could do in his sleep, his breezy genius is still genius. In fact, it was this kind of Prince-owned sound that would be appropriated and turned into hit-making gold for the likes of Justin Timberlake.
The only real clunker on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic is another rap collab: “Undisputed,” featuring Chuck D, complete with a nod to Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.” On this clumsy attempt at keeping up with the hip-hop generation, Prince decries the very commercial appeal that he’s going for on this album. Perhaps he was feeling that the masses had already forgotten about him, that the pop world had passed by him. And given the quality of this underrated album, that’s a damn shame.