So he’s gone. It is too easy to say that there will never be another so let’s just say that there has never been anyone like him. A Rocker, a Funk man, a Soul singer and an R&B artist, a guitar player extraordinaire and a full blown enigma. He was an undecipherable symbol whose name we couldn’t pronounce, so someone called him TAFKAP (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince). And then he was Prince again-Half black, half white. Half man, half woman.
In 1984, Purple rain – the song, album and film – made him a global superstar but he was a vital artist way before that. He was a musical prodigy who wrote his first song when he was seven and earned a contract with Warner Brothers when he was just in his teens. We know how that situation would pan out nowadays so it is important that we appreciate the sheer bloody mindedness, singularity of purpose and enormity of talent that made it possible for him to put out, even in the early days, that heady mix of funk, R&B and rock despite efforts by his label to market him as some sort of post disco star. Some of his pre- Purple Rain work which are contained in the albums Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999 is like a massive all night jam fearlessly celebrating the sex, smoke, horns, booze and drugs in America’s most disreputable honky tonks, speak easies and night clubs. But all of it done with the greatest musical refinement and invention that filtered Sly Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and the pre ‘My Cherie Amour’ Stevie Wonder. Celebration is key here because his music is a carnival of sounds and styles that held nothing back just like the way his songs dragged the prevailing ‘my love gun/love your peaches’ sexual innuendo into broad daylight.
Prince’s celebration of sex is legendary. He did it fearlessly and the boldness of his songs that casually celebrated masturbation and cunnilingus outraged even so called sexually liberated America of the 1980s. So it’s no surprise that they shocked the living daylights of Tipper Gore and her ilk. The song ‘Darling Nikki’ was the unintentional catalyst for the founding of the Parent Music Resource Center and all the attendant crushing of liberties that it brought along. Yes, he’s penned some of the naughtiest lines about sex and love making but also few have evoked heartbreak and longing (Nothing Compares to You), fear of rejection (The Beautiful Ones) inadequacy (Diamonds and Pearls) and romantic abandonment (When Doves Cry) like he has.
Prince was a musical polymath in constant need of invention and the rate at which he was doing it brought him into conflict with his own label which refused to keep up with the pace of the new music that he was producing and that he wanted released. Also his insistence that he owns the master tapes of his old releases caused an acrimonious split with the label which resulted in his public appearances with the word ‘Slave’ written on his face.
This was a period of intense creativity which peaked with his masterly re-interpretation of the blues, funk and R &B in Sign O’ The Times – the title track of which, along with When Doves Cry, are probably songs that combine musical and lyrical artistry in a way which are truly unique to him. That blazing bass line and sparse funk guitar in Sign of the Times as he sings ‘In France a skinny man/ Died of a big disease with a little name’ or the Hendrix like flourish of the guitar in When Doves Cry that belies the gospel strains of the chorus ‘Maybe I’m just too demanding/ Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold’. It’s easy to write about his genre busting music but the alchemy of different black styles (and white styles too) that he achieved in his career can only be heard.
As we remember his genius so also a thing or two may be said about his generosity. Prince has probably written more hits for other artists than most of the expensively assembled modern day ‘producer-songwriter’ teams. Going through the hits is like a tour of the ‘who’s who’ of one hit wonders and superstars- Vanity 6, The Time, Monie Love, Martika, The Bangles, Sheila E (his protégé), Sinead O Connor, Chaka Khan and Stevie Nicks to name a few. He tends to be more generous to female artists, I guess.
2016 has dimmed the lights of two truly great artists –David Bowie and Prince. Both share a lot in common- their blurring of the lines of gender, sexuality and identity and their expansion of the vocabulary and possibilities of popular music. But in one area they differ. Bowie brought into pop music sensibilities from modern art, architecture and classical music but Prince developed into high art the popular black styles he loved. His work is art without being ‘arty’.
Let’s remember him as the artist who transcended all boundaries of music, gender, identity and race in the most joyous, emancipatory and subversive manner. Words will always be inadequate. Rest in Peace. Prince Rogers Nelson(June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016).