Prince, who's coming to the Tacoma Dome on December 19, is a fantastic live performer. Of this there can be no dispute. He can dance like James Brown, play guitar like Hendrix, and boasts virtually unrivaled vocal dexterity. In fact, if one were to make the argument that Prince has staged the most consistently spectacular concerts in the history of popular music, one would be on very solid critical ground.
Which tends to obscure another virtually unassailable fact: After an extraordinarily strong decade at the outset of his career, Prince's recordings over the last two decades have been mediocre at best.
While many observers (including myself) consider the brilliant Sign o' the Times to be the last time Prince put out an album full of spirited material, we'll spot apologists Lovesexy ('88) and Diamonds and Pearls ('91). After that, Prince stopped being Prince, both literally (ditching the royal moniker for his infamous symbol as a bird-flip to his label) and musically (shifting from electric, frilly-collared funkadelia to the new-jack kitchen-sinkism of "Pussy Control" and the like). Was 2004's Musicology worth a shit? Arguably. But as one noted Prince-ologist put it in response to an informal email survey: "The best Prince record after Sign is Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh."
Which brings us to another important point: Even while making middling music, Prince remains perhaps the most influential artist of his time. He's blurred boundaries between genres to the point where they don't exist anymore, and a lot of great music by artists not known as Prince has ensued.
If we look at Prince's contemporaries--Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, R.E.M. (R.I.P.) and U2--and ask if they've managed to put out meaningful new music throughout their careers with very few speed bumps, the answer is, to an artist, yes. Except for Prince, that is. While neither is necessarily a contemporary, Prince's career is best viewed as a hybrid of Radiohead and The Rolling Stones. Like the Stones, Prince concerts are held in sky-high esteem despite the fact that Prince's best songs were written over two decades ago. And like Radiohead, Prince has been extraordinarily prolific since his biggest radio hits. It's just that Radiohead and Prince have danced to no one's beat but their own--mostly to the detriment of listeners. Say what you will about the shackles of record contracts, but some artists benefit from creative constraints and commercial pressures.
This argument shouldn't stop anyone from catching Prince at the Tacoma Dome in a couple weeks. But anyone who thinks they're watching anything besides an exceptionally talented nostalgia act is probably also a huge fan of Mick Jagger's solo career.