Prince, one of the most iconic and influential rock and soul stars of the past 40 years, died at age 57 Thursday at his Paisley Park estate in Minnesota.
Even to the casual music fan, Prince was known as “the Purple One,” an eccentric and diminutive musical virtuoso who usually composed every song, and in some cases played every instrument, on his albums, which date back to his debut at age 19 in 1978. His sexually charged persona and lyrics made him a considerable source of controversy over the years, but he also combined his sensual preoccupations with earnest spirituality. And there was no denying the beauty of his remarkable falsetto and gravity-defying electric guitar solos.
Prince’s arrival signaled a sea change in not just popular music, but black artists’ role in it. Alongside Michael Jackson, he played an integral role in breaking down racial barriers on radio and what was once the brand new format of MTV. But Prince’s propensity for gender-bending and reinvention set him apart.
It’s ironic perhaps that the music world would lose Prince just a few months after the tragic loss of David Bowie. Because he too had a special appeal to audiences who felt like they were outside the mainstream.
His unique fusion of elements from virtually every genre of music (including jazz and rap) made Prince one of kind and a touchstone for many artists who followed in his wake. Besides the slew of artists he helped make household names – The Time, Sheila E. and Vanity, just to name a few – the list of stars who own him a debt, from D’Angelo to The Weeknd, is endless.
The signature “Minneapolis sound” that Prince introduced to America can be heard in the beats of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. His vocal stylings and playful double entendres have been mimicked endlessly, too, but never topped.
Prince himself was the product of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Little Richard, with a dash of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And yet he was one of the more unlikely global superstars of 1980s and ’90s. Although his stranger antics – changing his name to a symbol, for instance – usually scored the headlines, he was also one of the artists to ever have a film, song and album at the top of the charts at the same time. And even after some fallow periods he would routinely remind audiences of how dynamic he could still be – with his Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, which arguably upstaged the game itself, or his tribute to the late George Harrison at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004, where Prince delivered what some have called the greatest guitar solo of all time.
Fans of Prince had been celebrating the news that he was planning to write a memoir about his career, and for someone who was famous for his tight-lipped nature and aura of mystery, the anticipation was astronomical. The fate of that project and the purported thousands of unreleased songs that are rumored to be within his vaults, is unknown now. Prince was famous for passionately guarding his music and was vocal about his dissatisfaction with the direction of the music industry.
In later years, Prince also walked away from his more salacious side and became a devout Jehovah’s Witness. And while his music and legendary live performances never suffered, it’s become increasingly apparent that his physical health did. There are rumors that Prince required hip surgery for years but refused to seek treatment because his religious beliefs prevented him for receiving a blood transfusion.
Right now we have so few answers. But what we do have is a treasure trove of hits and a body of work that speaks to a singular talent’s boundless curiosity. In recent years, thanks to anecdotes from the likes of Charlie Murphy and “Tonight Show” bandleader Questlove, America has come to recognize that Prince was a funny, self aware man who could poke fun at himself and his own quirks as well as anyone.
The word genius is thrown around a lot, and it’s not always easy to quantify. Certainly Prince’s abilities as an instrumentalist, songwriter, performer and humanitarian will stand the test of time. But perhaps the greatest measure of his power has been and will continue to the be the longevity of his music. His songs set the soundtrack to the last part of the 20th century and will continue to rock dance floors in this one.
We partied like it was 1999 before and after that year came to pass, and Prince will live on in our heart and our ears, too.