Even after the news was leaked by a French fansite earlier this year, I was still pleasantly surprised when the Prince Estate confirmed the shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America for official release in July. Up until now, I’ve found the Estate’s posthumous release strategy to be laudable but predictable: alternating between expanded reissues from Prince’s critical and commercial peak (Purple Rain, 1999, Sign “O” the Times) and sure-thing one-offs engineered for mainstream attention (i.e., the Originals compilation of Prince’s versions of the hits he wrote for others). Even the closest thing to an odd one out, 2018’s Piano & A Microphone 1983, had the distinct commercial advantage of coming from the sessions for his most popular album.
Welcome 2 America, however, is something different: a complete album of almost entirely unreleased material, from a period of Prince’s career that even some of his biggest fans neglect. Case in point, well, me; I’d followed along with Prince’s contemporary music for 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121, but fell off after 2007’s Planet Earth and 2009’s Lotusflow3r/MPLSound/Elixer threefer left me cold (for the record, I’ve since come around on Lotusflow3r and, thanks to friend of the blog Darling Nisi, even Elixer; Planet Earth and MPLSound, not so much). When the next album, 20Ten, wasn’t officially released in the U.S., I didn’t even care enough to try and pirate the MP3s. All of which is to say that Welcome 2 America is even newer to me than to many of the active fans who were following the news of its planned release at the time–and while that was my loss in 2011, a decade later it’s now my gain.
What strikes me most about Welcome 2 America’s title track, which debuted on streaming services last week, is how tonally distant it feels from the tour it was ostensibly meant to promote. The Welcome 2 America tour was effectively Musicology, Part 2: crowd-pleasing arena shows with setlists heavy on hits. Yet with its murky Parliament–Funkadelic groove and chanted lyrics falling just this side of inscrutability, the song of the same name reminds me of nothing so much as 1998’s “The War” and 2001’s The Rainbow Children–the kind of willfully weird deep cuts that made Prince’s Musicology-era comeback necessary in the first place. It’s hard to imagine “Welcome 2 America” meshing with the gold lamé-clad showmanship of its namesake tour–though of course, it actually kind of did: opening the first of four dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden on December 18, 2010, then reappearing on and off as part of a medley with the Lotusflow3r track “Dreamer.”
Yet if “Welcome 2 America” seemed like an awkward fit for Prince circa 2011–hence, perhaps, its eventual non-release–it feels remarkably apropos for 2021. The Prince Estate’s announcement of the track made much of its relevance to the current moment: citing its lyrical references to corporate “golden parachutes” (“Where U can fail at Ur job, get fired, rehired / And get a 7 hundred billion dollar tip”), “the superficial nature of social media” (“Distracted by the features of the iPhone… In other words, taken by a pretty face”), “reality TV-fueled celebrity culture” (“Go 2 school 2 become a celebrity… But don’t b late / Because everybody and their mama / Got a sex tape”), and “corporate monopolies in the music industry” (“1 of our greatest exports was a thing called jazz / U think 2day’s music will last?”). Elsewhere, an otherwise-cryptic line like “The truth is a new minority” takes on fresh meaning in a political landscape ransacked by QAnon.
Of course, part of why “Welcome 2 America” resonates now is because the difference between 2011’s America and 2021’s is essentially one of degrees: all kinds of things feel prescient when you’re trapped in a late-capitalist nightmare where nothing really changes. For me, the best summation of the project to date came from backing singer Shelby J (see video above), who described it to 60 Minutes reporter Jon Wertheim as not so much ahead of its time, but “right on time”: “I just think [in] 2010, it might not have been absorbed the way that it will be now, with everything we’ve been through in the last 10 years.” This is certainly true of the lines about Apple and Google, which in the full flush of early-2010s tech-utopianism would have gone over about as well as Prince’s contemporaneous pronouncement that “the Internet is over.” Now that Silicon Valley is being widely blamed for eroding worldwide democracy, let’s just say they hit different.
All that being said, “Welcome 2 America” is still a Prince protest song–which is to say, like most others of its ilk (cf. “Annie Christian,” “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “Dance On,” “Dear Mr. Man,” etc.), it’s a bit of a gloss. It’s hard to imagine a poetry-slam-worthy turn of phrase like, “Land of the free / Home of the brave. Oops, Eye mean / Land of the free / Home of the slave,” blowing the minds of anyone who’s listened to, say, the Coup. Meanwhile, the sheer range of targets in Prince’s sights makes his thesis tough to parse: what, for example, do Kris Jenner and Kim Kardashian (the presumed subjects of the aforementioned “everybody and their mama / Got a sex tape” lines) have to do with the midsong rant about sales taxes? The closest “Welcome 2 America” comes to a definitive statement is the Rainbow Children-esque “There is no arguing with the book”–almost certainly the Bible, but wouldn’t it be funny if he meant The Communist Manifesto?
While “Welcome 2 America” is unlikely to raise Prince’s profile as a topical songwriter to the level of a Chuck D or a Joe Strummer, however, it’s still an important reminder that he had a point of view: something that tends to be glossed over in his increasingly whitewashed mainstream legacy. Other tracks slated for the album, such as “Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)” and “Born 2 Die,” similarly promise to challenge misconceptions of Prince as transcendent of (or worse, disinterested in) politics and race. This summer, with the eyes of the world once again on his hometown of Minneapolis after last weekend’s senseless police killing of Daunte Wright–not to mention the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd last May–Welcome 2 America could do a lot worse than to introduce a wider audience to this more politically engaged side of Prince. He may not have had all the answers; but, like Shelby said, the questions are being posed “right on time.”
Welcome 2 America is now available for preorder on CD, double LP, and a deluxe edition including both formats, a book, a poster, reproductions of tour memorabilia, and a Blu-ray of Prince’s April 28, 2011 performance at the Los Angeles Forum. There are also exclusive gold and clear vinyl variants available from the official Prince store and Target, respectively. Let me know what you think of the song and/or album in the comments; I have a lot more thoughts, but I had to stop writing at some point!