In a sly way, Prince has always been a political artist. Like Marcel Duchamp upending the art world with his readymades, he stormed the pop scene courting controversy, but always with a wink. Like Bob Dylan throwing down signs in the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” he sent out messages – some of them explicit, as in his anti-nuclear plea “Ronnie Talk To Russia” and the more recent call to the streets, “MARZ” – but scrambled them in ways that made them both poetic and prophetic. Like Jimi Hendrix, he’s made bold statements within a veil of feedback and funk. Most of all, like his role model George Clinton, he’s created a utopian space where partying allows for transcendence that eliminates all –isms and makes us the best people we can be.
Now, with “Baltimore,” Prince is trying on a different protest singer’s hat — he’s playing funky Pete Seeger, leading chants and rousing hearts to inspire activism in a specific place and time. This song personalizes its call for armistice with names we’ve all come to know, names that press upon our hearts. “Does anybody hear us pray for Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?” Prince sings before offering a philosophical zinger: “Peace is more than the absence of a war.” The chant that anchors “Baltimore” is contemporary, too — not “We Shall Overcome,” but “No Justice, No Peace,” which arose in response to hate crimes in the 1980s and resonates in Ferguson, Staten Island and Sandtown today. And the song ends with what sounds like a newscaster’s fearful mention of a “developing situation in Los Angeles,” placing this call for love, reconciliation and respect within a timeline that starts with the L.A. Riots and which lasts another painful day every time a citizen is felled by police.
It’s confrontational stuff. But this is Prince, so “Baltimore” is truly a Sly protest – that is, in the style of Sly and the Family Stone, specifically the band’s early, joyful, genre-obliterating anthems like “Everyday People.” Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL very clearly present music as a path toward the peace for which they long, as well as a means of protest in itself. Prince’s guitar solos here blend quick, hopeful licks with poignant, grounding blue notes; near the end, a rock and roll bassline mingles with gospel-choir vocals, turning the song’s California sunniness into something more incendiary. At its peak, “Baltimore” presents itself as a new “Dancing in the Streets” — a song that offers a brand new beat in the name of real change.