I am by no means the world’s biggest Prince fan. For me, he’s always been the epitome of what you might call a greatest hits artist – the kind of performer whose best of compilation will suffice. What I am a serial lover of however, is pop music; its history, its competitive nature, and its ever-changing aesthetic. Upon news of Prince’s passing, I began to consider my relationship with his music, but quickly I was moved to thinking about the wider implications of his artistry. In the end, I figured, you could’ve loved him or hated him, but you’d have been plain wrong to pretend he wasn’t one seriously talented guy.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958. A musical prodigy, he wrote his first song at the age of seven; a mere twelve years later he’d sign a recording contract with Warner Bros. After a slow start with disco-influenced albums, 1978’s For You and 1979’s eponymous Prince, he had his first chart successes in 1980 with Dirty Mind, and again in 1981 with the expertly self-produced Controversy, before mounting the apex of his career in the mid-‘80s with a string of top 20 singles and albums. 1999, Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy, I Would Die 4 U – these are some of the best loved and most successful songs of the decade. Prince might be a greatest hits artist to me, but it has to be said, that’s one hell of a greatest hits record.
Revered as a highly energetic performer, and enormously underrated as a musician, Prince’s most remarkable feat was arguably the relative isolation in which he composed his hit records. He’s been backed by any number of backing bands, from the Revolution to the New Power Generation, but more often than not, he’s the main man behind the wheel: the sole writer, performer and producer. With 1985’s When Doves Cry, he was in fact, the last solo artist to score a platinum-selling single in the US before the requirements were lowered in 1989. Prince’s mixes, those released in the ‘80s particularly, represent a stellar reworking, from the epic eight minute version of Little Red Corvette, to the crisp knuckleduster percussion punches on Kiss. His, are proper dance records, and they’ve lost none of their razor-edge in the thirty years since their inception. I say ‘his’ – what about the multitude of hit songs he wrote for other artists? The Bangles’ Manic Monday, Sheila E.’s The Belle Of St. Mark, and of course, Sinead o’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U – to name but a few.
Let’s not forget of course – Prince was one of the best-looking performers, perhaps, of all time. I say those words with trepidation; it’s to let nostalgia get you carried away. But take a moment to look up some photographs of the man in action. Be it on his big purple motorcycle in the Purple Rain movie, dressed in frills with an inviting look in his eye; or in the mid-’90s, rocking an tangerine-lined aqua suit and a mauve, symbol guitar – damn it, Prince looked cool. You only wish you could look that cool.
In the 1990s, he underwent a serious of name change, genre-hopping on his way – re-titling himself as unpronounceable symbol, ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ continued producing new music at a prolific rate, building along the way, an enormous archive of unreleased material, one which has become the stuff of urban musical legend – to this day, it’s one of the most sought-after musical archives, due in part to the sheer volume of its contents. Prince knew it and, in typically different fashion, he would maintain a provocative air of mystery that saw, amongst other things, interviews conducted in total silence and, more recently, the withdrawal of his music from digital outlets. No doubt about it – the man was an enigma, known best unto himself and, seemingly, himself only.
For his succession of excellent radio hits, to his mastery as a producer, Prince was a man who knew pop well. He infiltrated the status quo and exploded it from within, vanishing in the same, exceptionally sexy puff of purple smoke that marked his magnificent entry. This was a musician who understood the facets of his craft, from the creative processes that make bulletproof rock music, to the mutually rewarding skill of hardworking live performance. Like so many already this year, he seems to have passed on far before his time. It’s just so amazing then, that he’s left such an incredible pop legacy behind.
Rest easy sweet prince. This is something we will never comprehend.
Prince Rogers Nelson, singer, song-writer and actor, born June 7 1958, died April 21, 2016 at his Paisley Park recording complex. He was fifty-seven years old. He is survived by his two ex-wives, Mayte Garcia and Manuela Testolini.