Why `Welcome 2 America’ Is the Hidden Link to `Art Official Age’

Laura Tiebert
September 1, 2021

“Prince” giclee print by Dean Russo

Three heads bob in a swimming pool. One wears goggles, another is trying to avoid getting her hair wet and the third has floppy ears and a black nose. It’s 106 degrees at 7pm in Arizona. The water temperature hovers somewhere between “bath tub” and “hot tub.” Can someone please plop a giant ice cube in here? Our 15-year-old son and I make like the dog and paddle in circles. Pausing to look to the evening sky, he mentions that he’d stayed up until 1:30am, contemplating how this thing called life got started. And, because some of us Tieberts inherited that pesky deep-thinking gene, he’d also contemplated how it might end.

“There are two ways this can go,” he theorized. “One, we shift course and fix climate change, so we can keep living on Earth. Or option two: We find a different planet, somewhere else in the galaxy.”

Our son isn’t the only one dreaming of rocketing away from Planet Earth’s myriad manmade issues. On July 30, the Prince Estate released “Welcome 2 America” (W2A), an album recorded in large part during nine days in March 2010. The album has Prince calling out the looming disaster of climate change, the addictive properties of technology and our unwillingness to make any headway on righting the racial inequality that’s a literal cancer eating away at this country. Patience, once considered virtuous, hasn’t helped: Change takes forever.

The Prince Estate launched its promotional push for W2A by first releasing the title track, “Welcome 2 America,” in April, followed by “Born 2 Die” and “Hot Summer” in succession. It’s a heavy series of songs. Even “Hot Summer” — a song that sounds almost vapid on the surface – has ominous overtones. Sure, it’s a summertime tune, but it bears no relation to 1991’s “Gangster Glam” and its accompanying video with Prince and the New Power Generation frolicking in Minneapolis’ brief but beautiful summertime. Fast forward to 2010, and summer is a season so hot that it evokes fear. From where we sit eleven years after the recording of W2A, it’s hard to do anything except nod along to Prince’s assessment of the abysmal state of our union. 

When the album was released on July 30, fans were able to digest the singles in the context of a larger story line. Prince sells hope as well as any musician on the planet, and despite the bleak state of affairs, he can’t leave us alone in a world so cold (or hot). “…Stand Up and B Strong,” “Yes” and “One Day We Will All B Free” are as encouraging as anything Prince has ever recorded, and “When She Comes,” well, that’s one sensual song that has Prince Prince-ing at the highest levels of Princeness.

Of all the songs, it was track four, “1000 Light Years from Here” that had me crying like a baby. Prince sings of escaping America for anywhere but here — including underwater, which he asserts wouldn’t be hard “when  you’ve never been a part of the country on dry land.” Maybe I wept because I was imagining that 1000 light years from here is where Prince wound up six years after recording this song. Or maybe it’s the realization that the most cutting critique of America’s social ills is an ardent wish to get the hell out of Dodge, even if it means making like a fish and living under the sea. This country’s ills are enough to make you want to slip into a state of suspended animation for, say, 45 years.

Suspended animation is exactly where we find Prince when his next album, 2014’s `Art Official Age,’ opens.

Or maybe the Earthly number is not 45, but four years, because that’s how long Prince remained silent. Between 2010 and 2014, Prince released no albums. That might be within the range of normal for some artists, but not for Prince. Four years between albums is notable in a career where one of his key frustrations was record companies constraining him from releasing the music that flowed from Prince like water from an open spigot.

“Maybe we’re better off in space,” Prince muses on AOA’s second track, “Clouds.” Spoken word segments of the album describe Prince groggily awakening 45 years in the future (lots of language here that sounds not unlike something you’d hear in a medical setting). Once awakened, Prince virtually crawls out of his cave like a bear coming out of hibernation, blinks and looks around. He’s told he’s in a place where people communicate telepathically (“Affirmation III”), “which makes things move much faster here.” What a turnaround from W2A, where we live in a country in which “Hope and change/Everything takes forever.” Prince is informed that while in his former life, he was under the illusion that he was separate from others, now “there are no such words as me, or mine.” We’re one: That’s Prince the mystic speaking.

Clutching the deluxe version of W2A in my hot little hands, the realization struck: None of Prince’s albums is separate from the others, either. 

By the time he recorded AOA, the concept of Utopia, which Prince had imagined in landmark songs including “Uptown,” “Paisley Park” and “Lavaux,” is no longer a physical place on Planet Earth, but “a place in heaven somewhere in the future” (“Art Official Cage”). In the rapped portion of that song, the line “Never going back underwater, no,” cements the connection between W2A and AOA. 

Critics didn’t quite know what to make of AOA at the time it was released. They called it “a concept album diverted by second thoughts,” (Jon Pareles, New York Times), by turns “erotic” and “weird” (Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune). I can imagine that in 2014, with no W2A to provide context, the album might have appeared to have fallen out of the clear blue sky. But those of us who dabble in Princeology know that Prince is not random.

Bobbing in the swimming pool on that hot summer evening, my son and I enjoyed our own version of suspended animation. My son and many of his fellow Gen Zers might fantasize about leaving Planet Earth and its troubles behind. But the planet and the nation where we live are an extension of us. We need to attend carefully to the needs of both. I have high hopes for our ability and willingness to do just that. It is, in fact, our only option. 

 

10 Comments

  1. M. E. Rutherford

    Eloquent

    Reply
  2. RS

    Laura, you’re a genius!
    I hadn’t made that connection yet and my oh my, I’m sure you’re right!

    Reply
    • Laura Tiebert

      Thanks for the kind words and compliments! I’m happy to hear that an expert Princeologist like yourself agrees.

      Reply
  3. Manners

    Nice Work!!

    Reply
  4. Duane Tudahl

    Very clever Laura! Nicely done. You’ve unlocked the code!

    Reply
    • Laura Tiebert

      Prince makes it fun to write about him, doesn’t he? It’s like an Agatha Christie mystery to be solved 😉

      Reply
  5. Cha

    Yes there are some correlations b/t W2A & AOA. I listened to AOA solely for 2 years straight. It is musically and lyrically above and most complete. So is LotusFlw3r. I’m currently digesting W2A, and when you brought up 10k light years from here, I thought back to this morning where I was singing it without the music. As for critics not getting AOA, you have to be at least a little awake to get the next level meanings of the whole album. It’s definitely a closer connection to Prince himself. Just listen with your mind and heart open, plus know more metaphysical knowledge.

    Reply
    • Laura Tiebert

      You’re inspiring me to take a closer listen to LotusFlw3r. Thanks for the very thoughtful assessment and I agree – AOA is energetically waaaaay up there. You’ve got to raise your vibration to “get it.” Greg Kot actually did a decent job of getting it but other critics, not so much. That’s okay. We get it 💜

      Reply

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