Dearly beloved, we are gathered here 2day 2 get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means 4ever, and that’s a very long time. But I’m here 2 tell U there’s something else.”
There’s something I can’t help but think about when any great artist dies: Did this artist accomplish their great work? Did he or she create the work that stands up as the culmination of all the ambition, the talent, the possibility, they were working with? 4 most of the artists that I feel truly emotional about, I have 2 assume that the answer is yes. And I could not possibly ask 4 more from Prince than the trio of perfect albums (Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ The Times) that he gave us in the ’80s, and his extensive repertoire brimming with songs and albums that pushed music in astounding new directions.
But there’s also the question of whether or not the artist themselves felt they had accomplished what they set out 2 do. And when it comes 2 Prince, I have absolutely no idea.
Not only did he continue 2 release impressive, ambitious, and sometimes even good music until the end of his life. But from even the earliest moments of his career, it was clear that he saw his goal as a musician as being far bigger than making good music, but related more 2 a change in the entire world as we know it.
He was the artist who would pull an album from release a week before it was out 4 fear that it would unleash evil upon the world. He demanded that we party like the world was going 2 end, and even hoped that it would.
He is most famous 4 his groundbreaking and energetic pop singles. Perfectly catchy songs like “Raspberry Beret” and “Little Red Corvette,” that exemplified pure ecstasy, sexy and raunchy without sounding dirty, light and fun without being flighty.
Watch: “Little Red Corvette” – Prince
They weren’t quite rock and didn’t quite fit in with funk, featuring influences from Post-Punk and New Wave as much as from R&B. He played guitar like a master, while also breaking new ground in the world of synthesizers, and being among the first musician in rock or soul 2 use a drum machine. He played with multiple incredible backing bands (including The Revolution, The New Power Generation, and 3rdEyeGirl) but also managed 2 release complex and beautiful works while playing every instrument himself.
But Prince’s music always went beyond being simple pop songs. There was a darkness there, an eeriness 2 much of his music. Songs like “Computer Blue” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” belied the strangeness he always contained. He sang of deep joy and ecstasy, but far from innocently, coming instead from an understanding of the world, a rejection of evil as part of his mission of love.
Prince’s music is a synthesis of all the forms of love that a human can feel. It makes no distinction between love and lust, between human adoration and religious devotion. In Prince’s music, there was nothing dirty about primal desire, because it was all part of a greater spirituality that consumed the body and the soul. He was just as likely 2 want 2 fuck God as he was 2 marry his lover, and he couldn’t always tell which 1 was which.
4 a certain type of black musician (Andre 3000, The-Dream, D’angelo, Miguel…) there would reliably come a time in their career when they would pick up an electric guitar and try 2 be Prince. They’d put on furry boots and crazy sunglasses, and give the keyboards a more sugary sheen. The drums would get sillier and the vocals would add a bit more of a squeal.
But imitating Prince was always a ludicrous proposition, even as these artists would often end up making amazing work while channeling the Purple One. His fusion of Rock, Funk, and R&B could be imitated, as could his ineffably sexy persona. But the greatness of his music never came from the instrumentation or even the larger than life performer on stage.
Prince’s music was great because it always sounded like it came out of somewhere unknowable, that if U added up all his influences and ideas, U’d still never get something like “When Doves Cry.” No one else would have ever decided 2 cut out the bass on the track, even now.
Prince’s genius, like of course, that of any great artist, came from his individuality, the way he defied expectations in both his music and his life. Even as he had somewhat faded from view in recent years as a musician (or maybe not…), he remained a true eccentric, and even inspired what is probably the greatest Chappelle’s show sketch.
Prince sometimes seemed crazy, “look[ing] 4 the purple banana as they put us in the truck.” And sometimes his music made no sense.* It was always clear that he was working at a different level, impossible 2 understand from outside his own head.
And it is 4 this reason that I cannot begin 2 figure out what he thought of his own accomplishments. 2 me, he was a true visionary.
But 2 himself? Well, nothing compares.
Watch: “Purple Rain” (live 1983) – Prince
*I’ve been looking 4 a place 2 mention “Starfish And Coffee,” 1 of my all-time favorite songs, and I guess this is it.