PARTY LIKE IT'S 2004

A technician is sound-checking the trademark purple guitar, and the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is growing impatient. The 5-foot-2 singer adjusts the long poet sleeves of his white blouse, strokes his goatee, fidgets with his diamond-encrusted pendant and taps his platform heel on the concrete of this sports arena in Reno, Nev. Finally, he leans over to me and whispers, "I'll give you 20 bucks if you yell 'Freebird.' C'mon," he says with a nudge, "25 if you shout 'Skynyrd, dude!' "

Prince may be joking about his biggest nightmare--playing rock anthems to lighter-brandishing fiftysomethings at county fairs--but he's taking no chances. On his first nationwide arena tour in almost a decade, he'll still be performing his own anthems, such as "Purple Rain" and "Little Red Corvette." But he's using the old Prince--who busted sexual taboos on such albums as "Dirty Mind" --to introduce the new Prince, a Jehovah's Witness whose new album, "Musicology," is an enticing yet odd mix of funk, faith and fantasy. A second coming? With Prince, anything's possible.

Twenty years ago his megahit "Purple Rain," from his film and album of the same name, marked the sexy funk artist's total domination of an otherwise androgynous and angular decade. Long before the crossover success of hip-hop, Prince's intoxicating blend of dancemusicsexromance permeated the cities and the suburbs, forging a common groove between the dance floors of "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train." But the party waned in the '90s when he fought to break his contract with Warner Brothers and, in the process, alienated casual fans by dropping his name for an unpronounceable symbol, and performing with the word slave scrawled across his face.

" 'Prince is crazy'--I knew what people were saying," he confides in his candlelit dressing room. At 45, he's still more beautiful than Alicia Keys and Mandy Moore combined. His features are exquisite; his skin is baby-smooth; his thick hair is combed back a la Little Richard, sideburns trimmed to perfection. But yes, he's also as eccentric as ever. He wears eyeliner, even on days off, and insists that no tape recorders be used during interviews because he doesn't like the sound of his voice. "When I became a symbol, all the writers were cracking funnies, but I was the one laughing. I knew I'd be here today, feeling each new album is my first."

The rest of us, though, would never have predicted a new Prince moment 26 years--and 25 albums--after his first record was released. But here we are: there's his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, his recent performance with Beyonce at the Grammys (which provided the show's biggest buzz) and the booming ticket sales for his 38-city tour, which includes three nights at Madison Square Garden. Prince even stopped his crusade against the record biz long enough to sign with Columbia for his new album (out in April), though members of his subscription-only Web site, NPGmusicclub .com (as in New Power Generation), have already downloaded "Musicology." (And everyone who buys a ticket to his show receives a copy at the door.) "See, if I sell 400,000 tickets to my shows, that would make me No. 1 on the charts before I even release a CD into record stores," he says. "You feel me? Then Norah Jones is gonna have something to worry about."

Getting one over on "the System" or "the Machine" (as he calls the record industry) is a source of pride for Prince. "I can tell you who made the System," he says. "Gangsters. Look at the jargon: hits, bullets." But when he won artistic autonomy after being released from his Warner Brothers contract on Dec. 31, 1999, his revolution was hardly televised. Instead, he churned out music on his own Web site and NPG label from his secluded compound, Paisley Park, outside Minneapolis. Now he wants more people to hear his new music--and his new message.

Prince became a Jehovah's Witness four years ago; he's been dropping references to Jehovah on his last four CDs, and he proselytizes throughout the interview about God and the Bible. Once again, he's at odds with the pop culture around him. "Now there's all these dirty videos," he says, twisting the only ring he wears--a plain silver wedding band. "We're bombarded. When I was making sexy tunes, that wasn't all I was doing. Back then, the sexiest thing on TV was 'Dynasty,' and if you watch it now, it's like 'The Brady Bunch.' My song 'Darling Nikki' was considered porn because I said the word masturbate. Tipper Gore got so mad." He laughs. "It's so funny now."

Prince clearly loves the attention but hates the scrutiny. He's uncomfortable when I write in my notebook during the practice set ("Really, don't write about the way this sounds, it's just a run-through"), but he drops my name in "Sign o' the Times" to see if I'm really listening. Does he think he's sacrificed anything by stepping out of the spotlight for more than a decade? "That notion of me losing something is a fallacy," he says, and unleashes a scriptural analogy. "There's Adam and Eve--artists--in the garden, chilling. God tells them they're supposed to have sex, and they do. Here comes a snake--the record-industry guy--and tells them the grass is greener on the other side. And when they fell for that, boy, did they fall. No, I didn't lose a thing."

But it's hard to believe Prince didn't at least miss the mass adoration. On his second tour stop last week, the sold-out 20,000-seat Staples Center in L.A., he got a standing ovation for a surprisingly moving acoustic rendition of "Little Red Corvette"--and he sat down on a stool in the middle of the stage and wept. The audience, a mix of older R&B fans, punk rockers, hip-hop kids and average-looking moms who knew every damn lyric, kept it up until he regained his composure. Even Andre 3000 of Outkast (likely taking mental notes for his next album) got to his feet for the man.

But while Prince reminded the crowd of what they'd been missing for the past decade, he also showed them who he is now. When he came out to do the long-expected "Purple Rain" for his encore, he added a line: "Say you can't make up your mind? I think you better close it and open up the Bible." The crowd may have to shrug it off, but Prince meant every word. "There's certain songs I don't play anymore, just like there's certain words I don't say anymore," he says. "It's not me anymore. Don't follow me way back there. There's no more envelope to push. I pushed it off the table. It's on the floor. Let's move forward now." His public may not go with him all the way, but nobody was hollering for "Freebird."