R.I.P. Prince, the Greatest Solo Artist of the Rock Era
Nobody had as much of an influence on the past 40 years of popular music as the Purple One
Of all the many reasons why it seems impossible that Prince Rogers Nelson could possibly have passed away, you could probably start with this: He never aged. As far as we could tell watching him from afar, he was the exact same Cassanova making blockbuster albums in the early ’80s as he was confounding pop expectations under an unpronounceable symbol alias in the ’90s, as he was dropping jaws in the best Super Bowl halftime show ever in the ’00s, as he was releasing TIDAL exclusives and inspiring award-show memes in the ’10s. At any point in time, you saw him, and he looked like like himself. He was a vampire. He was immortal. He was Prince.
For almost 40 years of popular music, Prince was a part of everything. At various points in his career, he could make claims to being the best pop star, the best classic-rocker, the best new-waver, the best soul man, the best albums artist, the best singles artist, the best music-video artist, the best live performer, the best singer, the best songwriter, the best musician, the best dancer, the best Batdancer, the best dresser, the best talent scout, and the best self-promoter. Hell, you could have called him any of those things this week and even those brazen enough to disagree wouldn’t dare be disrespectful enough to voice their dissent. If the honorific of Greatest Living Artist was passed out in music the way Greatest Living Baseball Player was unofficially designated in sports, the title would’ve already been Prince’s for decades, with no new challenger remotely on the horizon. (Especially since Prince’s only other real solo rival for artistic endurance, shapeshifting imagination, and widespread musical and cultural influence was also tragically removed from the running earlier this year.)
Because all human beings technically have to come from some place, Prince came from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The child of soon-separated parents, he jumped around homes a lot as a teenager, joining his cousin Charles Smith in the band Grand Central when he was still in high school. After some time in that group and in local funk outfit 94 East, Prince made a solo demo and was eventually signed to Warner Bros. A musical prodigy, he was credited as playing all 27 instruments on his debut LP, 1978’s For You, which spawned a minor hit in “Soft and Wet” and attracted a small following — one which would expand exponentially with 1979’s self-titled LP and Prince’s first real crossover smash, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Third album Dirty Mind, released in 1980, was met with a muted commercial reaction, but drew critical raves for its unprecedented sonic blend of funk, synth-pop, disco, and new wave, and for the singular filthiness of many of its lyrics, delivered less for shock value than as just a shrug at self-censorship. Prince arrived as a true pop star with 1982’s 1999 (his first album featuring longtime backing band the Revolution), whose title track and “Little Red Corvette” became top-ten hits. By the time of 1984’s Purple Rain — which topped the Billboard charts for 24 weeks, spawned two number-one hits, and eventually sold more than 20 million copies worldwide — he had officially elbowed his way alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna to form the Holy Trinity of ’80s pop.
Of course by then, Prince was much more than just a recording artist. He was a film star: Purple Rain was released as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which starred Prince as a lightly fictionalized version of himself, and was a commercial success in its own right. He was an MTV icon: “When Doves Cry,” “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and a dozen other clips had become standards of the channel’s formative years, making him one of the few artists of color to break the channel’s early race barrier. And he was one of the most in-demand songwriters: By 1984, he had written songs that became hits for Chaka Khan (“I Feel for You”), Sheila E. (“Glamorous Life”), and Purple Rain co-stars Morris Day and the Time (“Jungle Love”) and Apollonia 6 (“Sex Shooter”).
The rest of the ’80s saw Prince continue to expand his dominance over pop music, with more classic smashes for himself (“Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “Alphabet St.”) and others (Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” Sheena Easton’s “The Lover in Me,” and, in 1990, Sinéad O’Connor’s iconic “Nothing Compares 2 U”). The Purple One’s second foray into feature film, 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon, didn’t fare as well as his first, but in 1989, his work on the Batman soundtrack (including the chart-topping “Batdance”) made him a formative part of millions of Gen-Xers’ childhoods. Most notably, he released the record many today consider to be his masterpiece: 1987’s double-disc panorama Sign o’ the Times, an album that mixed gender-bending ballads, street poems of social consciousness, love songs to a higher power, and a couple of absolutely dynamite pop singles into one of the most essential musical documents of its entire generation. (Last year, SPIN ranked it as the third-best album of the last 30 years.) In those days, even the albums Prince didn’t release were more famous than those most of his peers actually did.
In the ’90s, things got more complicated. Having ditched the Revolution in the late ’80s, he picked up the softer-edged New Power Generation as his backing band early in the next decade, and released a string of platinum albums (Diamonds and Pearls, The Love Symbol) and psych-tinged pop-funk hits (“Gett Off,” “Cream,” “7”) that, while fondly remembered, rarely inspire quite the same reverence as the previous decade’s classics. In 1993, a contract dispute with Warner Bros. led to Prince formally changing his name to the unpronounceable symbol, a move that further endeared him to his cult of fans but left the mainstream mostly befuddled. As the millennium approached, Prince drifted further from pop’s center, but still remained a fixture of the culture — the final Top 40 hit of his lifetime in the U.S. was a Y2k-anticipating re-release of “1999.”
In the 21st century, with memories of his name change and increasingly experimental late-’90s albums growing distant, Prince’s legacy again came to be properly celebrated. In 2004, the world’s sexiest Jehovah’s Witness was paid two very different kinds of memorable tribute — he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and he was portrayed by Dave Chappelle in a surreal Chappelle’s Show sketch that recounted a story of him kicking Charlie Murphy’s ass in an impromptu late-night basketball showdown while he was still dressed in full puffy-shirt regalia. (“Game: Blouses.”) Three years later, he played a medley of hits (and time’s only noteworthy Foo Fighters cover) at the most universally approved halftime show in Super Bowl history. He continued to record throughout the ’00s, drawing acclaim for mid-decade efforts like 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121, and was cemented as one of the country’s greatest live attractions, earning a $5 million paycheck for his headlining performance at Coachella in 2008.
Prince never stopped putting out new music, delivering two albums in 2015 alone, in the TIDAL-released HITnRUN Phase One and Phase Two. He also stayed topical, recording the one-off “Baltimore” in response to the death of Freddie Gray (and subsequent Maryland riots) last year. But if Prince never wrote another song or played another show, he still could electrify just by showing up — any time His Purpleness appeared at an award show, late-night interview, or any other public venue, he could shut down the Internet just by batting his eyelashes. He was that kind of icon: Plenty of greats throughout the history of pop only needed one name for recognition. The Artist Formerly Known As didn’t even need that many.
The outpouring of grief following his passing earlier today from a still-undetermined cause of death just confirms what we already knew to be true: Nobody in our musical lifetime has touched as many careers, directly and/or indirectly, as Prince. Throw a dartboard at the list of the most acclaimed albums of the last couple of years — Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, Taylor Swift’s 1989, Tame Impala’s Currents — none of them sound a thing like they do without the Purple One’s divine intervention, if any of them even exist in the first place. Four months into a year that you’d think would have desensitized us to celebrity death by now, the loss of Minneapolis’ finest still resonates at a devastating frequency, because while there will obviously never be another Prince, we were pretty sure we’d at least always have the one. Nevertheless, let the epitaph read as he would want: His name was Prince, and he was funky.