R.I.P. Prince: Constant Innovation, Boundless MusicApril 21, 2016
In 1855, the great American original Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” a poem that would end up capturing the young nation’s diverse character. It featured the immortal line: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
126 years later, another of our nation’s creative originals, Prince, who died today at age of 57, took up that great American mantra of contradictions, put a groove to it, and turned it into a series of questions: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?…Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” Prince got metaphysical as hell in “Controversy,” in a way that Uncle Walt would have approved: “Some people want to die so they can be free.” When history books of Classic American Art are written, The Bard of Democracy and His Purpleness will not be far away from each other in a chapter labeled “Geniuses.”
Genius. It’s a highly overused phrase in music criticism, and yet one tailored for a beautiful, diminutive, classy man from Minneapolis, who, when he wasn’t single-handedly helping reinvent the sound of global pop music, was a master craftsman, an unparalleled performer and a Barnum-esque creator of huge cultural moments. One who would at times magnetically walk to the spotlight, at others hide far from it, but who – push comes to shove – released almost an album a year the length of his staggering career, 37 non-compilation albums in all since 1978.
Prince was a confident man right from the start. When he signed with Warner Bros. as an 18 year-old, he not only wrestled full creative control from them (For You, his debut, found him playing all the instruments and producing), but also became part of its rock, rather than R&B roster, which at the time was a standard case for major label pigeonholing.
In retrospect, the prescience of this move served both parties, not only confirming the artist’s musical ambition (like many of his associates in the Minneapolis scene, Prince saw his music as a boundless conglomeration of rock, funk, soul and any adjacent experimentation he dreamed up), but the topical impact of his lyrics as well.
Beginning with his very first single, entitled “Soft and Wet,” Prince chose to push culturally risqué buttons. His first real hit, 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” made the language of his come-on easy to understand; but by 1980’s Dirty Mind, a punk-funk/new wave masterpiece whose black and white cover showed our hero in a G-string and a trench coat, and which featured not only the lascivious slant of the title track, but also a paean to loving one’s own “Sister,” Prince was letting his creative libido out for a walk, to the shock of many cultural gatekeepers, and to an increasingly rabid and diverse audience. He’d made the radar: even if you hadn’t heard his music, you had definitely heard about him.
Soon enough, the music was everywhere. Released in the fall of 1980, Dirty Mind began a decade-long run that combined peak-level creativity and platinum-level commercial success, which may be hard to match in the history of recorded music. The albums came regularly and explored an ever-broadening range of musical ideas and worldly notions — Controversy (1981), 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), Around the World In A Day (1985), Parade (1986), Sign of the Times (1987), Lovesexy (1988), Batman (1989). Some hit singles were simply enormous (“Little Red Corvette,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Raspberry Beret,” “U Got the Look,” “Alphabet St.,” “Batdance”), while others have become late-20th century American pop standards (“1999,” “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” “Sign O’ the Times”).
And the productivity didn’t stop there. He was creating or giving away huge hits to Chaka Khan (“I Feel For You”), the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), his Minneapolis brothers in The Time (“Jungle Love”), his protégé Sheila E (“The Glamorous Life”), even Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”), not to mention the incredible Art of Noise/Tom Jones collaboration (“Kiss”).
Those names and titles represent the tale of the charts. But it’s impossible to overstate the influence Prince had on the decade’s creativity. When producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis left The Time (Prince’s long-time Minneapolis cohorts who play his rivals in the film Purple Rain), they passed on some of the city’s sound secrets to artists like Human League, and jump-started the career of Janet Jackson. Soon enough, much of global pop radio was under the spell of the Minnesota music scene. When the film Purple Rain made Prince a Hollywood star, his style, which had advanced since the days of G-string and thigh-high boots to a baroque psychedelic dress full of flowery patterns and lingerie, became couture.
Yet through it all, guided by a personal muse, Prince remained his own artist, not a mere chameleon. His ears took him towards smooth jazz and balladeering on one hand, but also to the clubs of Chicago where a new house sound was going ’round. He could play any instrument, none better than the guitar and the drum-machine. He showed up at clubs at 3 am and rocked ’til the sun came up. He positioned himself somewhere between James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Withers and Frankie Knuckles.
After the 1980s came to a close, Prince’s hit parade slowed down, but his vision, productivity and an expressive view of the world carried on. In the early 90s he began a prolonged battle with Warner Bros. that forever changed how he saw his place in the music business. He was fiercely skeptical of the Internet and new digital distribution methods, releasing music on his own NPG imprint, finding new and innovative distribution methods (he gave away 2007’s Planet Earth with the Sunday edition of a London newspaper), and championing artists rights.
And he could always be called upon to steal a show, from any number of Grammy Awards ceremonies, where his sheer presence lifted the room’s energy, to his unforgettable appearance at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where in paying tribute to George Harrison, he played one of the young century’s great rock-guitar solos on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” His concert schedule continued unabated — veering between secret club gigs and increasingly huge events, none bigger than the Super Bowl XLI halftime show in 2007, a staggering 12-minute tour de force that closed, almost inexplicably, with a cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You.”
Prince had become not just a living legend, but also a continuing current presence. Touching the way electronic and dance music gets made from London to South Africa to Detroit; a guiding light for two decades of rappers from Atlanta and California; and, with “Baltimore,” a song he released for free in 2015 after the death of Freddie Grey, a statesman and a conscience.
Last month, in the middle of a tour that took him around the world with just a “Piano and a Microphone” and his endlessly rich catalog, Prince announced he was writing a memoir. He was ascending to new roles.>
In 1992, Prince had another “Song of Myself” moment, and it was pretty explicit. The opening track on his untitled “Symbol” album was a declaration from its title on down: “My Name Is Prince.” After a decade-plus of lascivious yearnings, the song was a gospel-themed rap about making amends with the Lord above, and maybe even preaching His gospel, but didn’t abandon who he’d previously been in a fit of piqued piety. “I know from righteous, I know sin/I got 2 sides and they both friends,” he sang, accepting all the multitudes inside him — all the differences that made him forever unique.
Piotr Orlov is a Senior Editor at NPR Music. He blogs at Raspberry Fields