On the same day the British isles got the bunting out to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday, 4000 miles away, in a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis, the music world bade farewell to true royalty. Prince may have been a famously-diminuitive physical specimen, but in every sense of the word that matters, he was a giant – no, a titan – of modern music, an artist who operated beyond the confines of genre, a superstar who wasn’t afraid to take on the might of the industry, and a cultural icon who smashed through racial boundaries. His list of achievements is staggering; his loss – at the tragically young age of 57 – is almost too much to bear.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958, the eldest child of two jazz musicians, John Lewis Nelson and Mattie Della Shaw, and so named because his father, “wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Across a career that would span more than 40 years, almost as many albums (if you’re not including the ones he never got around to releasing) and over 100m in worldwide sales, Prince would accomplish that and much, much more.
Like many of my generation, I first became aware of Prince during that period in the mid-to-late ’80s when popular culture seemed to turn on the triple-axis of himself, Michael Jackson and Madonna – three extraordinary personalities who would forever change the face of pop music. Even compared to those larger-than-life contemporaries, however, Prince always stood out as something different, something alien – a quality he carefully cultivated, and never lost. As a child, I remember being both awed and slightly intimidated by this exotic, androgynous tyro who seemed neither man nor woman, black nor white, but something new and mysterious and maddeningly unquantifiable. Listening to his music, I got the same illicit thrill that came from watching an 18-rated movie after my parents had gone to bed, smug in the knowledge that I was consuming something meant for ‘grown-ups’, even if most of it went way, way over my head.
In a way, of course, Prince never stopped going over our collective heads, right up until the end. As an omnipotent, all-conquering megastar – selling 22m copies of ‘Purple Rain’, soundtracking the societal ills of Reagan’s America with ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’, shocking prudes the world over with his lascivious performance of ‘Gett Off’ at the 1991 MTV VMA Awards – he was fiendishly difficult to pin down, but as a person, he was a constant enigma, a figure of myth and rumour as much as flesh and bone. He wrote and recorded compulsively, almost haphazardly, amassing a vault of unreleased material in the basement of his Paisley Park recording complex that – so the legend goes – is large enough to release new albums from until well into the next century. He didn’t do interviews, so much as summon journalists for an audience. In 1993, he even changed his name to an unpronouncable symbol as part of an ongoing feud with his label and later started appearing in public with the word ‘Slave’ written on his face. He moved in ways so mysterious, he made God look predictable.
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As inscrutable as he was, however, it’s hard to imagine much of today’s musical landscape existing without him. Beck, Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Miguel, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Beyonce, St. Vincent… you could spend all day compiling a list of artists who owe a debt to Prince, and it still wouldn’t be anywhere close to exhaustive. The sheer breadth and scope of his music – encompassing pop, rock, funk, soul, jazz, R&B, metal and psychedelia – meant he was an artist of many parts, yet he somehow added up to more than the sum of them. He looked like Little Richard, played guitar like Hendrix and was possessed of the same funk and revolutionary fire as James Brown and Sly Stone; even the great Miles Davis once described him as “pointing towards the future.” If the arc of black American music was long, it seemed to bend towards Prince.
As a cultural figure, he toyed with our perceptions of gender, and challenged conservative attitudes towards sex, often making it the front-and-centre theme of his music – too front-and-centre for Tipper Gore, who in 1985 founded the Parents Music Resource Centre (they of the infamous ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers on album covers) as a reaction to hearing ‘Darling Nikki’ for the first time. The song was subsequently placed atop the ‘Filthy Fifteen’ – a list of recordings the PMRC found most objectionable – for its explicit lyrics about masturbation. Sheena Easton’s ‘Sugar Walls’ – also written by Prince – was at number two. You imagine he took no small amount of satisfaction in getting a censory board of busybody Washington housewives so hot under the collar.
Yet above all, Prince was a musical polymath, a songwriter and producer of obscene, barely-believable talent, who lived by the ethos that, “the key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.” At 20 years old, he self-produced his debut album, 1978’s ‘For You’, and played every instrument on it (on the four that followed, he merely played almost every instrument). Later, he would seamlessly blend the disparate styles of Detroit techno, New Wave and R&B to create a revolutionary new strain of pop music – the Minneapolis Sound – whose influence is still being felt today. And while his commercial star had undoubtedly waned over the last couple of decades, Prince simply shrugged it off and followed his muse, continuing to release music at an extraordinarily prolific rate – two albums in 2015 alone – and always on his own terms, eschewing both major labels and online streaming services. This was not your run-of-the-mill pop star, nor even your common-or-garden genius: this was, in the words of his one-time protege Cat Glover, a “modern-day Mozart.”
And now – like David Bowie, one of the handful of artists whose seismic influence bears any real comparison with Prince’s own – we must begin to contemplate the world without him. His vast body of available work may only be the tip of a much larger iceberg – one that we may never know the full extent of – but it was more than enough to cement a legacy that will not soon be forgotten. The purple reign may be over, but Prince’s music will outlast us all.