The artist forever known as Prince

Prince

All this morning I’ve been thinking of how to approach this essay on Prince, but without repeating myself.

It’s difficult. I keep on going back to the same thoughts I had on David Bowie, who passed away just over three months ago.

It’s not difficult to link the two. Both artists share the same fiercely independent streak, and the same restless mind – two things that manifested in their every creative endeavor. However, you risk suggesting that Prince was just like David Bowie, when in fact, I only came to this realization because of timing, more than anything. The two are their own persons, but how it reflected couldn’t have been more different.

David embraced personas throughout his career, quietly ruminating on questions of identity and place as he released songs that evolved from glam rock to pop rock to jazz. Prince, for the most part, didn’t. What he did instead is continually push all known boundaries and see what he can get away with, and that defined his music.

Unlike David though – and also unlike Michael Jackson, a contemporary and frequent comparison – Prince’s contribution to music is not celebrated as widely. His name comes up when you think of music legends, sure, but it’s very likely his name will come up fifth or sixth if you’re asked now. The three artists did evolve and experiment wildly, sure, but Prince changed his tableau so frequently that it was hard to pin down a definitive characteristic.

But think about it a bit more, and you’ll get to something. Prince put the Minneapolis Sound on the map, if not created it himself: a groovy, flawless merger of R&B flavors and rock sensibilities, leading to crowd-pleasing anthems that do not sound out of place in a rock festival. Whether he’s out to have a good time (“1999”, “Little Red Corvette”) or out to woo a lover (“Purple Rain”, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) the trademark is there… if you do a little deeper listening. Prince’s boundary-pushing was also definitely manifest in his lyrics. He was not afraid to go suggestive – subtly, yet very, suggestive – earning him an unfortunate reputation for being “filthy” during the time of moral outrage overseen by Tipper Gore.

But all this was somewhat overshadowed by his battles for complete creative control. Warner Brothers signed him up in the late 1970s with the unusual condition that he has the final say on his first three albums. The results, of course, were good. But later in the relationship Prince felt stifled, as the label’s financial considerations and his restlessness – he was pursuing films; he was writing for others – clashed. Prince’s process of “emancipation”, as he called it, may have been reduced to the punchline of him changing his name to an unprintable symbol, or simply “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” – that’s certainly how I first remember him, as a kid – but it shows to an uncompromising attitude that has put him to where he is today.

Granted, this meant there’s a lot of chaff amidst the, err, cream of the crop. Also, this meant there will be no YouTube sidebar adventures when it comes to Prince’s songs – he recognized early the role of the Internet in music, and managed to control this distribution channel early on. He continued releasing music until just last year, dropping both singles and albums with such frequency that news of a new Prince track doesn’t attract much of an event unlike, say, David’s Blackstar. It’s safe to say that’s also why we tend to take Prince a bit for granted – just a bit, although we know his contribution. Now that he’s gone, though, we have all the time to make sense of what he really is, what he really tried to do.

I’m betting we won’t have an easier, and yet more apt, description than “Prince is Prince”. [NB]

Prince Rogers Nelson; born 7 June 1958, died 21 April 2016.

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