Prince’s premature death at 57 is all the more shocking for the prolific nature of his genius. Music poured from the Minneapolis singer-songwriter in a profusion of rhythms and melodies, played with seemingly effortless fluency on the wide range of instruments he mastered.
Produced with scant regard for the commercial timetabling of record company release schedules, his endlessly multiplying songs appeared to be a life force in their own right.
To have them curtailed so abruptly, at a time when their maker gave no hint of slowing down, leaves unfinished one of the most fecund careers in music.
Born in 1958 as Prince Rogers Nelson, he played a key role collapsing boundaries between disparate audiences and genres. He drew freely on different sources, mixing rock, funk, soul, R&B and pop, one moment unleashing a psychedelic guitar solo on Paisley Park, the next delivering a seductive ballad in the feathery style of a born Romeo on Adore, then snapping into lewd funk with Black Sweat. His vocals were equally changeable, from the choked-with-emotion cries of Purple Rain to the slinky falsetto of Kiss, all uttered with virtuosic ability.
His mother was a singer while his pianist father had a jazz band, the Prince Rogers Trio, after which Prince was named. Although his path led elsewhere, he was infused with the spirit of jazz.
Concerts were unpredictable affairs with long passages of improvisation and set lists that varied on a nightly basis. Often he would play several gigs in a row, starting in the evening and stretching into the early hours of the morning. “I think Prince’s music is pointing to the future,” Miles Davis once said.
His breakthrough came in 1982 with the futuristically entitled album 1999 whose title track anticipated a millennial night of partying to infectious electronic funk: it had not dated by the time the real millennium arrived. Purple Rain was an even bigger hit in 1984, selling 22m records. It sealed Prince’s status as one of the three US titans of 1980s pop alongside Madonna and Michael Jackson.
All three challenged the racial and gender divisions that ran through the charts at the time. Jackson was the first black performer to be played on MTV while Madonna turned female singers from sexual objects into sexual actors. Prince’s songs drew on the traditions of his African-American heritage but were alive to “white” sounds too. Meanwhile, his lyrics were sexually explicit, yet his look and voice were androgynous. As he sang in I Would Die 4 U: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.”
He constructed his own studio at his Paisley Park home near Minneapolis in order to allow his muse free rein. A contractual dispute with his label Warner Bros in the 1990s derailed his career’s commercial momentum but still the music kept coming.
Its ceaseless nature meant the quality became increasingly variable, an aspect amplified by eccentric enthusiasms such as his membership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet there remained numerous pearls amid his output, continuing into his most recent album Hit n Run Phase Two, released last December.
Recently he was on an upswing, mending his relations with Warner and embarking on pop-up gigs in cities around the world, prompting a firestorm of Prince-mania wherever he turned up.
His youthful appearance and creative vitality gave the impression of agelessness. It was illusory. We are left with the half-hopeful lament from his 1987 masterpiece Sign o’ the Times: “Some say a man ain’t happy, truly/Until a man truly dies/Oh why, oh why, Sign o’ the Times.”
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