We’re now exactly one week out from the release of Prince’s shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America–i.e., just enough time for Sony Legacy to push out one last promotional single to streaming services and, uh, TikTok. As a certified Old, I don’t have much to say about the last bit; but I can certainly share my thoughts about the song itself.
“Hot Summer” is one of a handful of tracks on Welcome 2 America that stretches the definition of “previously unreleased.” Prince premiered the song on Minnesota Public Radio station 89.3 The Current on his 52nd birthday, June 7, 2010, shortly after a heat wave pushed the temperature in Minneapolis to a record-breaking 95 °F on May 24. Initial reactions were, to put it kindly, mixed. Music blog Stereogum compared the song variously to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” (!) and Hanna-Barbera mascot-suit bubblegum act the Banana Splits (!!), before concluding, “At least the lyrics are positive.” A 35-page thread on prince.org began with tepid praise but swiftly descended into mayhem, with arguments over whether the woman singing the hook was Janelle Monae (it’s Liv Warfield) and much hand-wringing over Prince’s “decline in writing ability.” Perhaps the most trenchant burn came a little less than two years later, when ex-Family frontman Paul Peterson responded to a subliminal swipe from Prince by remixing the track into a parody ad for Midwestern home improvement chain Menards.
All of which is to say that no one was waiting with bated breath for “Hot Summer” to be reexhumed from the Vault; and, if my cursory glances around the Internet yesterday morning are any indication, the song is being greeted with the same mix of polite bemusement and outright disgust in 2021 as it was in 2010. So, I suppose it’s time for me to put my cards on the table: I, too, don’t care for “Hot Summer.” But neither do I think it stole my girlfriend, broke up my parents’ marriage, or hit my dog with a car. It’s just another frothy pop-rock trifle from Prince: one of a long line that admittedly got a whole lot longer around 2007 or so, with tracks like “Guitar” and “The One U Wanna C.” It’s pleasant enough while it’s on, a bit of an earworm while it’s off, and it sounds like it took about as long for Prince to record as it took for me to listen to it; nothing to write home about, certainly, but nothing to shake one’s fist at the sky about, either.
My only real complaint about “Hot Summer” is that it simply doesn’t play to Prince’s strengths. It seems likely that he wrote the song in a bid to become 2010’s “song of the summer”– a title previously held (at least according to this old Buzzfeed article) by “When Doves Cry” in 1984. But in a 21st century pop landscape dominated by human algorithms like Max Martin and Dr. Luke (co-producers of the official song of summer 2010, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”), he was punching above his weight: a 52-year-old John Henry pitted against a throng of Swedish-engineered steam drills. It doesn’t help that when Prince set out to write a “hit” in his latter years, it often smacked of condescension–as if a jubilant melody, some handclaps, and a faux-Farfisa keyboard line were all it would take to please the unwashed masses.
Yet, for all that, I can’t be mad at “Hot Summer.” I’m charmed by Prince’s bizarre reasoning for writing the song, as related by Welcome 2 America co-producer Morris Hayes in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “There’s too much music in minor keys. There should be a lot more songs in major keys.” And, I’ll admit, my heart was warmed by the story from this week’s official Prince podcast episode about Prince taking backing singers Warfield, Shelby J, and Elisa Fiorillo for a joyride past a nearby lake (dare we hope Minnetonka?) after they finished the track. As Shelby put it, “Hot Summer” “makes me think we’re all at the beach doing the twist, like Annette Funicello.” Who among us could truly hate a song that inspires such a mental picture?
It’s possible, of course, that I’ve gone soft on Prince; that, after five years of living in such close proximity to his music, I’m no longer able to muster more than an affectionate eyeroll when one of his lesser tunes falls short. I’ve seen the sentiment expressed in a few places online that critics have grown too timid with Prince’s posthumous work, presumably out of reluctance to speak ill of the dead. But I’m more inclined to see it this way: As The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis notes in his (positive!) review of Welcome 2 America, “Prince’s stock as a recording artist was low in 2010.” Fans didn’t have the reassurance of an ART OFFICIAL AGE to let them know that His Royal Badness still had it; instead, his albums were literally being given away with tabloids in Europe–and, in the case of 20Ten, not being released at all in the States. Back then, it was conceivable (if a bit dramatic) to hear a few duff tracks in a row and, like that aforementioned “orger,” assume that Prince’s talents were on a permanent downslide. But now we have perspective; “Hot Summer” simply isn’t his best work, no more and no less.
Then again, there’s also the argument to be made that, perspective or no perspective, neither Prince in 2010 nor Sony Legacy in 2021 had any business trying to sell a new album with a cut as weak as this. And for that, I have no riposte: There comes a time when every promotional cycle reaches a point of diminishing returns, and with “Hot Summer,” we have unquestionably hit that point. I don’t want to hear any more “sneak peeks” of Welcome 2 America; I want to hear the album, in full, so I can make up my own mind. Luckily, none of us have much longer to wait.
Welcome 2 America is 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 is also an exclusive clear vinyl variant available from Target.