When Prince Rogers Nelson died at his recording studio, Paisley Park, on April 21, 2016, we not only lost the last true music icon of the 1980s — Michael Jackson was, of course, the other — we lost one of the last true self-made independent geniuses of modern music.
It’s almost pointless to try to explain Prince’s genius by running through his catalogue, given the embarrassment of riches it provides to even the slightly curious musical listener. (Short version: Every record he released between 1979 and 1998 is obligatory; if you’re looking for an entry point, try the 1993 three-CD set The Hits/The B-Sides.) But the sheer scope of his output from 1978 to the present day is tribute to a singular act of self-fashioning: A man who at all times knew who he was and what he wanted to be, and expected us to either come along for the ride or step to the side.
That stubbornly independent streak was well in evidence at the start of Prince’s career: As a precocious 18-year-old musical polymath from Minneapolis shopping demos in Los Angeles, he won a record contract from Warner Brothers by herding a bunch of executives into a recording studio and laying down an entire song, instrument by instrument, from start to finish in the span of two hours to prove he could self-record his own album on the cheap. (Tellingly, that album, For You, came in late and over budget, as Prince’s perfectionist streak asserted itself.) Although he would soon put together a touring group, he continued to record most of his music alone in his custom-built Minneapolis studio; up until Purple Rain, the most substantive instrumental contribution by an outsider would be a two-fingered synthesizer line from his touring keyboardist on the title track of 1980’s Dirty Mind.
The other key aspect of Prince’s resolute, independent streak had actually begun to emerge in his music the previous year, on his self-titled 1979 record. Having sold himself to Warner Brothers as an R&B/funk artist, he promptly set to declaring he would not be categorized, labeled, or put into a box with such unapologetically pop and hard-rock songs as “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and “Bambi.” More than anything else, this is the source of Prince’s legend as a man who could “do it all”: not just play any instrument but work in any style, from deep funk to light folk. (It’s little remarked upon these days, but much of Dirty Mind is a sonic tribute to Lindsey Buckingham’s solo work on Fleetwood Mac’s then-recent Tusk.)
It was this refusal to be limited to one genre, or one audience, that freed Prince’s irrepressible talent to conquer the world during the 1980s.
Prince’s sound was indisputably rooted in black music — his closest sonic progenitors are probably Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone — but he also idolized Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell in equal measure. Their influence (and that of countless others) is woven inextricably into the fabric of his music. It was this refusal to be limited to one genre, or one audience, that freed Prince’s irrepressible talent to conquer the world during the 1980s. How, after all, does one characterize a song such as “When Doves Cry?” Is it R&B? Rock? Pop? It’s all of those things, and none of them at the same time: It is simply “Prince music.” Nobody else could have written it, nobody else could have recorded it, and nobody else could ever have taken it to the top of the charts.
In that sense, Prince cut a strikingly different artistic path from that of David Bowie, his fellow recent departee from this mortal coil. Both were giants of music, noted for their quirky, quixotically independent approaches, but Bowie was always fundamentally a collaborator: He sought creative equals to bounce his ideas off of, from Mick Ronson to Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. Prince, on the other hand, admitted of no equals: He was more than happy to record his albums as a one-man band if need be, and while he enjoyed acting as mentor to young (and usually female) protégés, their presence in his work seldom, if ever, rose to the level of co-author.
#share#Prince was a guardedly private person — which naturally only contributed to the mystique of his persona — but in a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley he briefly opened up about his fraught relationship with his jazz-musician father (Prince’s parents separated when he was ten), who would constantly push the young Prince to improve on guitar and piano, saying, “you’re not as good as me yet,” and withholding approval. It’s always dangerous to play armchair psychologist, particularly when it comes to a personality as unique as Prince’s, but it’s impossible to resist speculating that a shy child who grew up constantly being challenged to better himself and avoid complacency developed into a man with the strength of mind to not care what others felt he should be doing with his music.
When he felt like he was getting a raw deal from Warner Brothers, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
That willingness to forgo easy approval explains so many of Prince’s decisions throughout his career. When Lovesexy (the eagerly anticipated 1988 follow-up to his highly acclaimed album Sign o’ the Times) was due, Prince insisted on releasing it as one conjoined track, forcing listeners to take in the entire record as a whole rather than skipping around from song to song. When he felt that he was getting a raw deal from Warner Brothers, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol to make his work harder to market, and he began submitting uncommercial work to stymie the record company.
And just as the rest of the music world began to finally catch up to the transgressive sexuality and lyrical rawness of his ’80s work, Prince converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and proceeded to remove all profanity from his live performances. YouTube and the major music-streaming services also famously felt the wrath of His Royal Badness, who insisted they remove all of his material from their sites and kept to that promise right up to the moment of his death. Uncommercial moves, all of them, but clearly Prince was operating on a different level from that of mere commercial calculation. Having conquered the world several times over during the 1980s and proven that he could do it again and again if he wanted to, he decided to make music for himself and his cadre of loyal fans.
It would be overstating the case to say that, with of the death of Prince, we have lost the last of our great singular geniuses of the modern musical era. As long as Bob Dylan continues to draw breath, or Beck and Thom Yorke continue to make music, there remain a few others. But the loss of Prince is devastating because he truly was an American original: Nobody else has ever been so single-mindedly determined and overwhelmingly talented and charismatic that he managed to transform his own manifest oddness into a unique stylistic approach beloved by all. Prince was that man: He altered the world to fit his purposes, not the other way around. He didn’t make black music, or white music, or rock music, or pop music — he made Prince music. He did it all, and as Frankie might have said: Most of all, he did it his way.