As much as his death was unexpected and a cause for grief, the outpouring of appreciation for ‘Prince’ Rogers Nelson has only added luster to what was already an unmatched reputation as a performer, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and, a musical force of nature. John Mayer called him, “the Greatest Pop Musician who ever lived,” Elton John tearfully remembered him as “the Greatest Performer [he] had ever seen,” Miles Davis had once called him the future of music, and even Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma), having mocked him in the past, broke down on his passing.
While 2016 has been heartbreaking in the number of Greats we have lost, Prince’s passing was the least expected as he was still a vital musician and there had been little or no sign of decline, artistic or otherwise. He was 57 years young.
The compliments that showered in were not hyperbole, but were merited. He really was that good. Unlike Michael Jackson, his closest rival in the ‘80s, he, for all his reclusiveness and cultivated mystique and missteps (the name change to an unpronounceable symbols), his talent never got overshadowed. Michael Jackson played next to no instruments. Prince played them all. Michael Jackson danced up a storm, Prince did the same in heels. MJ locked himself away in a menagerie, Prince never lapsed into MJ’s freakiness. With Michael Jackson, his peccadilloes and more got in way of the music, Prince was closer to Bowie in the impact he had as a visual and musical package. However, in terms of musicianship Bowie could not hold a candle to him. Prince really was one of a kind, jack of all trades and a master of all.
At least in his pomp, in the Eighties, he was a master of all. He had the unmatched distinction of having the top single, the top album and the top movie in the US at the same time.
What stood him apart from other artists was that the songs always came first. At the end of his life, Prince stood on an unmatched body of work: 39 studio albums, 3 live albums, all varying from groundbreakingly stunning to excellent to, at worst, very good.
He was prolific to a fault, independent too. This was at the heart of his disputes with his label. He wrote and recorded so much more than could be marketed by his label. So he wrote “slave” on his face and publicly protested. All the while, his castoffs ended up being career-making hits for others: ‘Nothing Compares to U’ for Sinead o Connor; ‘Manic Monday’ for the Bangles; ‘Waiting Room’ for No Doubt; ‘U Got the Look’ for Sheena Easton; Martika’s ‘Love thy Will be Done’, ‘I Feel For You’ for Chaka Khan, ‘Kiss’ covered by Tom Jones, the list went on, even beyond his protégées like Sheila E, Vanity 6, Appolonia, for whom he made careers. He nurtured great established talents; Larry Graham; Rosie Gaines, etc. Other withered when he moved away.
There were so many aspects to his brilliance. Though the story might be apocryphal, Eric Clapton when asked how he felt about being the greatest guitarist alive, said, “I dunno, ask Prince.” He was possibly the greatest drum programmer around, his use of synths was groundbreaking, his arrangements even more so. He played almost all instruments, barring horns, and was as good as they come on bass, drums, guitar, synths, piano, and many others. When he performed he could wipe the floor with anyone. Cue him blowing rock legends away with his solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, at the George Harrison Tribute. Winwood, Petty, Lynne, all looked on in awe. His compositional skills were groundbreaking. His production skills were trendsetting. He was a master of all styles, rock, ballads, r’n’b, soul, even jazz. He mastered rap too, but it really did not connect for him. Not only did his recordings push boundaries, but also his content. He was shamelessly raunchy and famously titled an album Dirty Mind. He was the reason CDs carried parental warnings. Tipper Gore had one listen to his ‘Darling Nikki’ and launched a movement to protect the children of America.
As a performer, he was immense. Prince bootlegs form an entire library on their own. For all his efforts to stop them, the bootlegs in fact added to Prince’s stature with some legendary performance being rated as some of the greatest ever. The Black Album (later officially released), Small Club, Glam Slam East, are but some of his live bootlegs which have passed into legend; his studio outtakes are equally essential with the 5 CD The Work being a good starting point. His video live performances are electric and after being missing on YouTube for the longest time, are readily available. He could play and dance better than anyone, and that too in heels (he was diminutive, though only in height) and perhaps that led to his physical decline (damaged hips) and ultimately death through painkillers.
For all his artistry, all was not well with him: there was not much to his personal life it appears. Two marriages ended in divorce and no children. He left no will and claimants to his fortune now seem to be sprouting out of the woodwork. But then again, maybe he had a reason: for him, his music was to be his ultimate testament. He was at times also reclusive or eccentric (YouTube Kevin Smith talking about his meeting with him) but nothing scandalous like Michael Jackson. He had a sense of humor (check out David Chappelle talking about him responding to a skit Chappelle did about him) and squired around some of the most beautiful women on the planet.
His albums are possibly the most superlative a body of work of any artist in the modern era. The earlier albums were sparer in instrumentation, and reveled in funk and raunch. While the raunchiness still remained, the nineties saw his production more pristine and the songs more complex. The nineties were in a way his lost decade and his audience waned even though his powers never did. He did not seem to connect to modern rap and r’n’b though he excelled at that too. He experimented with being current and did so quite effectively, but the publicity associated with his song ownership dispute with his record label and his changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, made him the butt of many a joke. His work quality still remained high. Gold, Diamonds & Pearls, Emancipation, etc. were all excellent albums. He mellowed in the Noughties when he found religion and matured into a supreme musician. It showed in his albums as a lot of his fans fell away. He carried the banner for real music and performance and non reliance on sequenced music. In that he swam against the tide of modern music and tastes and suffered commercially. Maybe his label Warner Brothers had a point in that his output needed to be limited. His later day albums were indeed more musicianly and at time self indulgent (Rainbow Children, etc).
Madonna’s failure to a decent enough job at a Prince tribute at the Billboard Music Awards only highlighted how far ahead he was from even his most celebrated contemporaries and how much his skills were beyond even them.
A curious aspect of his music is that one did not find he crossed over that well in Pakistan, which for some unexplainable reason doted on Michael Jackson, even after MJ’s scandals. MJ was loved, but generally we considered Prince a freak. Perhaps the raunchiness did not translate well, while Michael Jackson’s non-threatening, asexual pop did.
In the end, Purple be the color of a bruise. Prince left us bruised and heartbroken at his passing too soon, but then again he has left us with an unmatched catalog of music, released and unreleased, which in itself is to be thankful for and to be celebrated.
Five perfect Prince albums (5 stars out of 5)
• Purple Rain – His biggest album. ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, every track was a classic.
• Parade – Possibly his most sophisticated and deep album. With the classic single ‘Kiss’ and the heartbreaking ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’.
• Sign of the Times – His eclectic genius double-album with the hit singles ‘U Got the Look’, genderbending ‘If I Was Ur Girlfriend’, raunchy ‘It’, amazing ballads ‘Forever in My Life’, ‘Adore’.
• The Gold Experience edges out ‘Diamonds & Pearls’ from his later era. ‘Gold’, ‘319’, ‘We March’, ‘Shhh’, etc.
• The B-sides from the Greatest Hit pack. Some of his best work was on B-sides: ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore’, ‘Shockadelica’, ‘She’s Always in My Hair’, ‘I love U in Me’, ‘Erotic City’, each one stunning.