The greatest artist of his era was never satisfied. Indeed, Prince Rogers Nelson — whose death on Thursday (Apr. 21) rocked pop culture enthusiasts, die hard music heads, instrumentalists and every rule-breaker worldwide — was not one to wear presumptive labels or revel in seemingly career-defining victories. When the ridiculously gifted Minneapolis, Minnesota, product signed his first recording deal with Warner Bros. in 1977 at the age of 19, he was billed as the next Stevie Wonder. Prince, a card-carrying Wonder fan, was having none of that. The 5-foot-3 bantam musical prodigy wanted to set the world on fire on his terms. His first single, “Soft & Wet,” was bubblegum soul on the outside and an obscene, sexual adventure on the inside: “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane / That I wanna lose in you / Baby can you stand the pain…?” No, this was not “Isn’t She Lovely.”
It was a glimpse into the boundless future of one of pop’s most challenging, unpredictable and influential acts; an artist who got off on confounding his critics. When 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” made him into a R&B sensation, a restless Prince had other ideas. The game-changing Dirty Mind, released in 1980, was less soul and more brazen, X-rated, new wave rock and roll. Prince was Black. Never mind the eye-winking press releases that portrayed him as a half-Italian/African-American one-man-band force of nature who could outplay most of his peers on guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Prince had no intention on being boxed in by race, or sartorial confines for that matter; he appeared on the album cover in a blazer and high-rise briefs.
The album’s flag-planting title track could have been a whitewashed, synthesized Gary Newman number. “When You Were Mine” boasted the best rhythm rock guitar of the ‘80s. The censorship destroying combination of the funk absorbed “Head” and punk-leaning “Sister” aimed straight for the gut. Prince explained his mixed up musical palette in a 1981 Rolling Stone interview: "We basically got all the new music and dances three months late, so I just decided that I was gonna do my own thing,” he said of his time growing up in a mainly white Midwestern city. “Otherwise, when we did split Minneapolis, we were gonna be way behind and dated. The white radio stations were mostly country, and the one black radio station was really boring to me. For that matter, I didn't really have a record player when I was growing up, and I never got a chance to check out Hendrix and the rest of them because they were dead by the time I was really getting serious. I didn't even start playing guitar until 1974.” Prince was an eye-winking quote monster, too. “I never got a chance to check out Hendrix…” It was Prince’s way of saying, Yeah, I play guitar… but don’t be lazy. Not every Black man with an ax is Jimi!
He was born into the music, for God’s sake. His father, jazz pianist John L. Nelson, bore the Prince Rogers moniker on stage alongside his mother Mattie Shaw, years before the name would evolve into a legendary mononym and bearer of the “Minneapolis sound.” After his parents’ divorce in 1966, Prince would spend time between both of them before branching off on his own, an early sign of his staunch, necessary and unwavering independence.
And so Prince went on to do whatever the hell he wanted. When he wanted his own funk band, he made live horns obsolete (a shock in ’81 for R&B-based acts), plugged in his Linn drum machine (which would become the back beat of his influential sound) and created The Time. When he felt like there was a space for a blush-inducing girl group fronted by his ridiculously gorgeous better half Denise “Vanity” Matthews (who also passed away this year), Prince put together, wrote and produced “nasty girls” Vanity 6.
Then the man got downright ambitious: Oh, you don’t think I can be a pop chart marauding star? Here’s 1999, haters. What’s that? No one can compete with Michael Jackson? Well, I’m going to create a racially/gender mixed band called The Revolution, drop a modern day rock movie classic entitled Purple Rain, gross a shocking $70 million at the box office, sell over 14 million albums, play to sold out stadiums, unleash the weirdest omnipresent No. 1 single you’ve ever heard with “When Doves Cry,” win a freaking Oscar just because and do it all while rocking the finest blouses.
Prince owned from 1984 to 1987. He’s the reason we had parental advisory stickers on albums (The too-bold “Darling Nikki” literally kick-started the government-backed PMRC, which deemed Prince and other artists as too obscene for the virgin ears of music fans). His synth-heavy, keyboard, funk-rock-pop sound was seemingly everywhere from the Pointer Sisters to Janet Jackson. So what’s a world-beating superstar to do when he literally has the world at his feet? You deliberately turn your back on the plastic fandom; embracing your inner, quirky, rule-breaking bandleader.
In a lot of ways Prince was a mirror image of his friend, the ever-evolving jazz giant Miles Davis. The Purple Rain hype hadn’t even cooled off yet when Prince released 1985’s psychedelic, ‘60s rock-inspired Around the World in a Day, which contained arguably his purest pop triumph “Raspberry Beret.” He then shot for music geek heights with Parade, a jazz-classical-funk-rock-experimental work that showcased the rich contributions of his Revolution outfit, in particular guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman. And just in case there were still detractors out there who believed that Prince no longer had the ear of the masses, he walked out the studio with “Kiss,” a No. 1 hit so ubiquitous within the Prince canon (No bassline! Prince doing his best James Brown without a tightrope) that it still gets played at family functions and clubs like some cool national anthem.
Prince did it his way. His landmark 1987 double album Sign ‘o the Times remains his artistic zenith. Just download the mind-blowing “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” which contains some of his finest lyrical moments (“I took another bubble bath with my pants on…” = safe sex).
Throughout the ‘90s, Prince’s career hit its proverbial highs and lows. There were more hits like “Thieves in the Temple,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” “Cream,” “Sexy MF” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World…” But hardcore fans deemed his hip-hop obsessions as watering down his lane-switching sound. Again, Prince gave no Fs.
We should all thank him. Certainly, musicians of every stripe should celebrate a figure who had the balls to take on his own record company at a time when it would have been easy to just take the $100 million check and smile. When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol during a high profile battle with Warner Bros. over the label’s control of his music and masters to his mammoth catalog, the press was quick to mock him. But years later, his fight for artistic (and monetary) freedom in the music industry is now viewed as a Nostradamus moment. Now the recording industry is barely holding on; 360 deals (labels dipping their hands in touring and merchandising revenues) have become standard. Prince said no to recording contracts. By the late ‘90s, he was already utilizing the internet to sell his music and connect to fans before it was deemed as viable. Show off.
Prince never stopped. He never gave you a chance to put him in the nostalgia closet. When he made his 2004 comeback with the critically-acclaimed, sold-out Musicology tour, he included his album of the same name in the ticket packaging to boost record sales and chart movement. On its own, Musicology would have gone platinum, but Prince bucked the system and moved an extra million plus copies from ticket sales. Billboard balked at the enterprising move. Again, Prince won.
So who was Prince? A guitar rock god who could melt off collective faces with solos that have become legend. A protest artist who was so moved by the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 that he released a song entitled “Baltimore,” as well as put on a sold-out Rally 4 Peace concert in the city that had nearly burned down in anger just days before. Oh yeah, Prince knew that Black lives mattered. His Afro returned. And he never stopped dropping music. The most recent HITNRUN Phase One and Phase Two showed an artist who never rested on his legend.
Maybe we should have seen his shocking death coming. His plane made a surprise, mysterious hospital landing last week (Apr. 15) following the Atlanta stop on his stunning Piano & a Microphone tour. But even before that, something was different. It was just the man himself — live onstage with his prodigious talents telling stories about his now-deceased father. Like all of us, he wanted his pop’s attention, his admiration. “I can't play piano like my dad. How does dad do that?" the enigmatic great said in a rare moment of openness. No, Prince. You could play. It was just in your own follow-me-or-sit-down way.
(Photos from top: Photoshot/PacificCoastNews, Phil Ramey/RameyPix/Corbis)