PRINCE ROGERS NELSON, who has died aged 57, was a one-off: a musical prodigy who absorbed an extraordinary range of soul, funk, rock, pop, jazz, even classical influences, to produce ever-changing music over five fertile decades. Born and raised in unfashionable Minneapolis, he carried that chip on his shoulder into a Stakhanovite work ethic and back-to-the-wall attitude that belied his diminutive stature. André Cymone, a member of one of his earliest bands, remembered his talent shining through from the moment they met at high school.
“He played the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme on the piano and I thought, This dude is awesome.”
Prince bandmate André Cymone
“I was in a line-up of the new kids,” he told your writer in 2014, “and I saw this one little kid who was kind of looking like I felt. I started a conversation and he said he played music. I said, ‘Are you any good?’ We went to his dad’s house and jammed. He played the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme on the piano and I thought, This dude is awesome.”
Over 37 officially released studio albums of continually unfolding awesomeness, there were constants. A preoccupation with the crossover between sex and spirituality was one. An obsession with high-grade musicianship was another. Sometimes he could be po-faced but at his best – Kiss, If I Was Your Girlfiend, Darling Nikki were all funny, sexy and transgressive in equal measure – his music evinced an unparalleled, elfin wit.
He was on a crusade, too: a crusade for artistic freedom and musicians’ rights (Michael Stipe from R.E.M. met him once and all Prince would say was “Do you own your masters?”). No artist has taken the kind of hit Prince did at the height of his fame, taking on the record industry establishment, and withdrawing his labour at massive personal cost. The renunciation of the name Prince in favour of an unpronounceable glyph, and the attention-grabbing inscription of the word SLAVE on his face were interpreted at as an eccentricity too far, but looking back his stand seems brave and righteous (“Didn’t you know that black people don’t get a second chance,” he told MOJO’s Will Hodgkinson in MOJO’s 2014 cover story) and his subsequent establishment as a cottage industry (not without its birth pangs) turned out to be a visionary presentiment of the music business reality we inhabit today.
“Real music lovers are my favourite kind of people.”
His religious beliefs were deep and sincere, flowing over into his music in ways both good (his 2001 jazz odyssey album, Rainbow Children is joyous, kaleidoscopic) and bad. He became sniffy for a while about his more bawdy material and his faith lay behind his withdrawal of The Black Album days before its mooted December 1987 release, perturbed by the perceived darkness and cynicism of its hard-funk content. It would be terrible and ironic if, as seems possible, his beliefs led him to neglect or refuse treatment that might have ameliorated his health problems.
His hits, while extraordinarily instant and compelling, were never achieved at the expense of cleverness or musical daring: the baritone sax hook of Girls & Boys, the coruscating guitar solo in Let’s Go Crazy, these coups of the imagination ensure his most commercial work will never pale. But his fecund catalogue also harbours a myriad deep cuts that sustain a following of hardcore Princeologists (three personal favourites: Parade’s Life Can Be So Nice; Lovesexy’s Eye No; X’s Face from the recent Hit N Run Phase One). Issues around his catalogue remain, however. What, for instance, will happen to The Vault, the notorious archive of hours and hours of unreleased music, some of it – insiders insist – as good as anything he’s done, now he’s gone? And will someone undertake a long-overdue remastering campaign?
The recorded legacy is huge, but it’s the shows for which he will perhaps best remembered by his fans – shows that were part celebration, part communion, athletic feats of showmanship he learned from the soul and funk masters lit up by transcendental musicianship.
His influence has been immense, more so than ever in this century, where musicians across the pop, indie and R&B spectrum have absorbed him, and you can hear Prince in recent records by artists as varied as Field Music, The 1975 and Laura Mvula. Wherever the idea of pop music as progressive playground is valued, Prince will be there.
In 2014, he ended a revealing audience with MOJO magazine (the usual rules: no tape recorder, no notebook, no notes) with a plea and gesture of fellowship. “Real music lovers are my favourite kind of people,” he said, “because they like to know, rather than just be told what to think. If you really love music… come see me.”
Tragically, that will no longer be possible.
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