Prince, 1958-2016: His Purple Reign Has Ended
In a year that's already been so hard-hitting in terms of losing musical giants, 2016 has added arguably the most significant one with the stunning passing of Prince on April 21. As great as the now dearly departed David Bowie or Merle Haggard were, their talent and musical acumen never could quite match that of the always diverse and intriguing musical maverick named after royalty (and at one point in the 90s, named a symbol he created when he felt his original name had been hijacked by his record company turning him into their "slave").
Neither of them- and frankly almost no one ever- wore the hats of producer, writer, musician and performer all to the great extents that Prince did. In baseball, they refer to the perfect prospect as the five-tool player (ie can hit, field, run, throw and think the game all at an elite level). Well Prince was that to contemporary music: almost equally as effective at producer, writer, musician, singer or live performer. Sure there have been better producers, writers, musicians and singers in the history of recorded music but few better live performers and few if any who could combine those five tools into one brilliant package.
Prince could handle anything the public demanded of a musician- other than perhaps to placate and give them constant availability to his everyday persona and life. Like so many geniuses, that was the single area that gave Prince the biggest headache of all. And yes, genius is a word getting all too bandied about today and always has really.
When superstar names such as Kanye West or Beyonce get called geniuses, it makes this author feel irritation considering we actually do have a few scant high-profile geniuses still in our midst musically- whether or not their music still lives up to the label, for example Sly Stone, Bob Dylan or Van Morrison were musical geniuses at one time or another, but may not quite be of that stature anymore. Genius is indeed a word Prince is befitting of. Despite his all-too fickle and difficult nature at times, Prince never disrespected or demeaned his fans as he could dish the goods out for them in mesmerizing fashion- whether on record, TV or concert. He would even leave many of his peers or even legends of yesteryear in a stupor of amazement.
His feminine, shy, eccentric and erotic demeanor was a turn-off to some and Prince wasn't everyone's cup of tea for how boundary-pushing and shocking he was in terms of content and visual appearance. But nearly everyone has a Prince song or two that they dig, or can even hum on cue. That's what makes his passing at a relatively young age of 57 so stunning. Here was a man that always seemed so healthy, active and durable. For a seemingly indestructible figure like Prince to turn up dead- and because of the effects of a common illness such as the flu- comes as a shock, especially in this day and age when major diseases can be cured. Right up to the end, we know Prince stayed a prolific workaholic- constantly constructing his career and even recently announcing plans for a memoir to be called The Beautiful Ones. Blessed with incredible energy and endurance, he often stayed up for days without sleep when making records. Apparently that nose-to-the-grindstone mentality contributed to his poor state of health in his final days. Even though he was even a strict avoider of the usual music industry pitfalls, drugs and alcohol, he ran himself hard physically.
Over the past decade plus, Prince became one of the first major musicians to become his own enterprise and industry, free of the traditional structure of record company servitude. Never relenting to conventions, Prince put out just under 40 studio albums in not even 4 decades of work not to mention a few live releases, a few compilations, several singles, EPs, soundtracks and even starred in/produced/directed a few feature films (Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, Graffiti Bridge)- the semi-autobiographical Purple Rain (1984) being the only success among them.
Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson truly owned a prolific and wide breadth of talent. Instead of seeing what other unique ventures he had in store, we're left to be dissect what he left, celebrate his memory and quite rightly so praise his impact on contemporary music. All the great music he was likely to keep churning out in the later stages of his career has been robbed from us so cruelly and suddenly. Plus the 1980s' collection of megastars in the early MTV age is shrinking even more (Prince joining Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Bowie in the Great Gig in The Sky. Madonna better be preparing her will at this rate!).
Prince was perhaps the only figure in contemporary music of the rock era who could seamlessly jump between- or blend- funk, rock, R&B/soul, hip-hop and/or jazz without seeming a novice at any of the styles. Truly Prince could fit into any style of music like a glove. One minute he could be emulating a power pop sound like heroes the Beatles ("7," "Raspberry Beret") and Todd Rundgren ("Free," "The Cross") then the next be mellow and folky like another hero Joni Mitchell ("Sometimes It Snows in April," "Graffiti Bridge"). Then the next he could be laying down a hardcore slice of funk like Sly & the Family Stone ("Alphabet Street," "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker") or James Brown ("Partyup," "Sexy M.F."). And even one could find him laying down pure gospel-fed soul like Aretha Franklin ("Call My Name," "Adore") or Al Green ("Damn U," "Satsfied"). Prince also never aged poorly or became dated like so many others do. In his maturity, he also scaled back the charged, hyper-sexual come-ons of his 80s and 90s heyday.
Musically, Prince always explored newer sounds and technologies, then incorporated them into his existing sound. In the early 80s, he even spearheaded an industrial R&B movement which was built up on new wave touches with guitar, synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines. And because he was at the epicentre, it became dubbed the "Minneapolis Sound."
Speaking of Minneapolis, Prince always stayed true to his hometown and home state- often promoting local acts and owning several homes in the area. His mansion he was found dead at was located in the suburb of Chanhassen. You'd think that a star of his glitzy and glamorous nature would have gone Hollywood, but that would be the assumption of those who didn't really know the real Prince. That civic pride led him to write a song dedicated to the Minnesota Vikings football team and he often attended Minnesota Timberwolves games- no surprise as he was a noted aficionado of watching and playing basketball. Prince resides right up there with Bob Dylan as the biggest musical phenomenons to emanate out of the state of Minnesota.
Despite standing a mere 5-foot-2, Prince packed a serious punch for that pint size. Looks can always be deceiving and he certainly was no shrinking violet, though he often came out dressed like the purplest of violets! Able to play nearly any instrument, Prince was capable of cutting entire albums all on his own, while using the studio to cultivate breathtaking arrangements- and often he did both, yet was always able to replicate that arsenal of skill in concert to a tee.
Live, he could match his vocal prowess on tape; whether his come-hither baritone croon, erotic falsetto, guttural shouts or gender-defying high-pitched squeals and screams. Not to mention non-vocal attributes such as blistering, Hendrix-rivalling guitar solos. Prince did all this while carrying on the Little Richard tradition of flamboyance by dressing up in makeup, several unique hairstyles, glittery outfits and even women's clothing in his early controversial days. But even though this led many to believe Prince could be gay, nothing could have been further from the truth. He most certainly kept his entire focus lyrically on the ladies- to whom he often fancied himself a modern day Lothario.
His songs frequently were about blatantly sexual matters, often to his detriment in the public sphere as parent councils and morality groups targeted his "obscene" lyrical matter as corrupting toward youngsters. The sex obsession is something he may have over-relied on in the first part of his career, whether or not he was looking to get noticed for it or just felt artistically/personally compelled to. A conversion to the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001 tempered his music's sexual overtones a bit and focused his lyrical matter on more spiritual and social matters than ever before. But make no mistake, Prince was the most blatantly erotic musical artist of the 20th century. No one ever sang about conquering the ladies as well as he did. And the ladies rarely felt disrespected or slighted because Prince was far from a sleazy, selfish chauvinist about it either. So how did it all began? Where did this one-of-a-kind talent come from?
Born the son of jazz musicians in 1958, Prince overcame early childhood obstacles such as epilepsy and his parents divorce, to become a distinguished and accomplished musician by his teens. Growing up with that disrupted home life due to his parents' split (their feuding reflected in his most famous hit, 1984's "When Doves Cry"), Prince had close friends to rely on such as neighbour and future band member/collaborator Andre Cymone, leading to stints in the bands Grand Central and 94 East.
By 18, he had been cutting his own demos, had management representation and then landed a record contract as a solo artist on Warner Brothers Records. In 1978, just shy of his 20th birthday, he released his debut album For You- which, according to the liner notes, he played every instrumental part on (all 27 of them!). Commercial and critical success eventually followed with each new release, first on the R&B charts and then on the pop charts too. And there was usually one LP every year: Prince (1979), Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981) and the concept double LP 1999 (1982) all established him as one of music's most exciting new stars. Just in time for the dawning of a new decade too.
On top of that, he was a staunch critical favourite- though more important to Prince was the approval and adoration of some musical legends such as Miles Davis who bucked all the expectations that a jazzman should eschew modern music by raving about Prince as one of his favourite musicians in the 1980s (as he had done in the 70s with Sly Stone as a main musical inspiration).
It wasn't all just one big solo star trip for Prince either as he formed a band to accompany him live and later in the studio too- initially unnamed, eventually dubbed the Revolution by 1982. Working for Prince demanded a lot of time, good chops and the ability to deal with his ever-changing whims and demands. It was certainly a musically rewarding endeavour though. The Revolution was also a multi-racial group made up of nearly equal parts female and male members- a nod to the dynamic of Sly & The Family stone, one of Prince's true major influences growing up. The Revolution would end up getting co-billing on the next few Prince albums after their official christening in 1982. The very next one after 1999 brought him the bonafide mega crossover success he'd been striving for.
The companion to his also successful film, 1984's Purple Rain sold in the millions, went platinum several times over and spawned a handful of top 10 hits. Whatever negative attention and, as it were, controversy that had dogged Prince before, it didn't matter at this point. He'd hit the top and was in the same stratosphere as a Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. Prince expanded upon 1982's breakthrough pop hit "1999" with a slew of them on Purple Rain: "I Would Die 4 U," "Let's Go Crazy," the chart topping "When Doves Cry" and the radio favourite album cut title track. Many of these were accompanied by high-budget, glossy, eye-catching music videos that broke Prince onto MTV like never before. He'd been making clips for a few years before, but they'd never had the elaborate sheen (budget?) of the Purple Rain bunch. By this point it had become well established he fancied purple as his colour of choice. Prince incorporated the colour into his sets, lighting and costumes on stage and abroad. It quickly became his calling card.
Around this point in time (the mid-1980s), Prince had become associated with a few other Minneapolis acts that he wrote and produced for such as the Time, Apollonia 6 and The Family. He collaborated with other notable artists such as Sheila E and penned giants hits for Sheena Easton ("Sugar Walls"), the Bangles ("Manic Monday") and Sinead O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U").With him riding the wave of newfound monster fame, any predictions that Prince would become one of those sporadic, meticulous superstars who took years to craft each successive LP (see Jackson, Michael), became sorely mistaken when Prince put out Around The World In A Day (1985)- an album he insisted be released with a grace period of a month before any singles off of it were put out, so listeners could absorb and enjoy the LP as a whole instead of via some song on the radio. Around The World In A Day was a bouncy, ambitious, psychedelic pop record that confused some listeners and critics who considered it an inferior follow-up and overkill considering so many Purple Rain tunes were still on the charts.
Little did those people learn that Prince always followed his yearning artistic muse and rarely did a year go by without him churning out something from the studio. That trend continued with 1986's commercial bounce-back Parade that featured another of his signature, high-charting hits with "Kiss" and served as the soundtrack for his mostly panned film Under the Cherry Moon. Even more notice for Prince's artistic merits came with 1987's double LP Sign O' The Times, a tour de force of every style Prince had come to be known for and then some. On it, the "Purple One" flexed his muscles when it came to funk, soul, pop, rock, jazz, folk, psychedelia, you name it. Critics were in even more agreement than ever that he'd created a masterpiece album and it indeed topped many end-of-the-year critics' polls. Prince didn't slow down from there of course, in 1988 releasing the less revelatory LoveSexy after shelving a sassy funk disc entitled The Black Album that didn't see the light of day until 1994 (The Black Album wasn't the first, nor the last planned album to be set aside by Prince).
From those relatively uneventful efforts, Prince went to another high profile spotlight turn in 1989, providing the soundtrack to the live action Batman movie. Though his music on it did not quite meet his usual lofty standards, it nonetheless incorporated itself memorably into certain sequences of the film (namely "Partyman" when the Joker shows up to entice Vicki Vail to become one of his twisted art subjects).
One last stab at silver screen success happened with Graffiti Bridge in 1990 but the accompanying studio album proved a lot more popular than the film, which was universally panned. Prince had disbanded The Revolution after an acrimonious 1986-87 tour in support of Parade, but he returned to a backing group by forming what he called The New Power Generation in 1990, an outfit that would continue to be his backing group- credited on the albums on-and-off throughout the 90s- right up until 2013 (going through several members along the way of course). At the outset, the New Power Generation would give forum for Prince's growing interest in burgeoning urban sounds such as hip-hop and new jack swing.
NPG at times employed members who were there just for on-stage dancing or raps. So it was as much an entertainment troupe as a band. The switch didn't disrupt his commercial fortunes at all, as Diamonds & Pearls (1991) became a top seller with Prince doing a bigger media blitz than usual to promote it. The Love Symbol Album (1992) though was less of a success with the consumers and it sowed the seeds for acrimony between Prince and the powers-that-be at Warner Bros. That rift came when Prince bristled at them for refusing to release his massive unreleased catalog steadily. He reacted by making public appearances with the word "Slave" written on his forehead and publicly adopted a new symbol as his name, claiming Warner Bros. owned Prince and had expropriated it for their commercial purposes. It was certainly an unprecedented, somewhat oddball move in a career full of them. The media soon began referring to him as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" or merely "The Artist."
Now carrying this symbolic moniker, Prince got his wishes to release another curious project of his, the poor-selling Come (1994)- a highly erotic collection of tunes which he credited to "Prince: 1958-1993." Now determined to release albums as frequently as possible to fulfill his contractual obligations with Warner Bros., Prince had been irked by their insistence he release material more sporadically to avoid market saturation. Of course, pissing off a sensitive genius such as him only generated what they preached against as Prince decided to saturate the market, to hell with those bosses and damn the torpedoes.
In 1995, Warner Bros. hesitantly released the somewhat better-selling The Gold Experience before finishing off his studio album career at Warner Bros. with the weaker selling, but surprisingly melodic and guitar-driven Chaos and Disorder, in 1996. Later that year, through EMI, he put out the triple-disc Emancipation (1996) on his own label, NPG Records. The hoopla of this newfound freedom, the fact Prince was including cover material ("One of Us," "I Can't Make You Love Me") and the promotional blitz he embarked on, returned Prince to the forefront for a brief time.
This began a process that built Prince's catalog up to his own wishes, setting him on the path to more and more distributional control as he was by this point wealthy enough to do it any way he wanted. Over the coming years he would often have short-lived distribution deals with major record companies which often determined how high profile certain releases would be. Therefore Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999), Musicology (2004), 3121 (2006), Planet Earth (2007) and 20Ten (2010) would become good sellers while other records often sold through his NPG fan club/website- The Truth (1998), The Rainbow Children (2001), N.E.W.S. (2003), XPectation (2003), The Chocolate Invasion (2004), The Slaughterhouse (2004)- were only well-known among critics or hardcore Prince devotees. A great example of how he often did cater to the hardcore fan was in the sheer size of many releases, such as the expanded 5-CD set of unreleased tracks called Crystal Ball (1998)- well worth the journey as if you sift through the numerous tracks you'll find some of Prince's true golden moments. Prince in the late 90s and 2000s started using multi-media to get his recordings and concerts across while doing more TV appearances and granting more access to interviews than ever.
In his personal life he experienced two marriages and two divorces and in 1996 the tragic death of his week old son Boy Gregory, born with Pfeiffer Syndrome. Sadly it was the only child he's known to have fathered, as it turns out. There was also that conversion to the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001 thanks to the urging of friend Larry Graham (former bassist of Sly & The Family Stone and Graham Central Station). Suddenly Prince had reached a spiritual catharsis that transitioned him out of the sexual nature of his previous work. Prince kept relevant even after he found himself inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004- a ceremony where he turned heads with fiery guitar soloing on an all-star jam of fellow inductee George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Prince even headlined the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 while devising inventive record distribution tactics such as negotiating to have UK newspaper The Guardian sell his 2007 album Planet Earth free with every copy. Each one of his new releases during this decade kept fans and critics on their toes, proving he was artistically vital than most artists when they reached their 50s.
Amidst all his personal fame and vast fortune, Prince had a few health problems pop up such as needing a double hip replacement- reportedly from dancing in high-heeled boots on stage for many years. His newfound JW faith also prevented him from accepting any surgeries than involved blood transfusions, so speculation was that he never got the operation done or opted for more holistic, bloodless methods. All that said, no one expected a tirelessly tenacious, wonder-being such as Prince to run into his eventual demise thanks to a battle with the flu but early reports appears to be indicating that was the case. The brightest stars often burn out fast, as they say. But in the case of Prince they can, on those rare occasions, burn for years and years before finally flaming out. Wherever Prince goes in the after life (a place he preached about in the memorable spoke word intro to 1984's "Let's Go Crazy"), he left behind us quite the dizzying, mammoth oeuvre of music.
There's little chance we see a musical genius of his level for a very long time, that's for sure. Questions will be indeed rampant about how his death could have happened, but there will be no questions at all about what a vital musical legacy was left by the Purple One himself.
Evan Dowbiggin @Edowrimple
Evan has spent six years at TSN working on the floor. A stat junkie, Evan operates the TSN stats Twitter account.