When Prince died unexpectedly on April 21 at 57, the world seemed to rotate, for a spell, around his axis. Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin offered tribute versions of “Purple Rain,” which quickly morphed from anthem to requiem. First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue he put on the map, corralled an all-night dance party for mourning fans. Buildings and monuments around the world were lit purple for a night. But for all the attempts to decode Prince’s life—remixer of masculinity, bulldozer of the binary—his death has proved equally confounding: he died of yet-unknown causes, with a not-so-secret vault of unreleased music and no apparent will. In the words of his 1981 hit: “Oh, yeah, controversy.”
Two weeks after his death, new details continue to emerge daily about the state of Prince’s health before he died. In the meantime, his longtime bank has begun the arduous process of sorting out the artist’s hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets, including his vault of unreleased recordings—for which only Price knew the code—which has since been reportedly busted open. Here’s what we know so far about how Prince may have died, what may become of his massive estate and whether we might see posthumous additions to his already vast discography.
Prince’s Cause of Death
Of all the mysteries surrounding Prince’s end, the only one with a prospect of near-term clarity is the question of how he died. Toxicology results from an autopsy performed the day after his death are expected within weeks, though the Carver County Sheriff’s Office will decide which details to release, if any. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on May 5 that according to a source close to the investigation, the painkiller Percocet—a blend of the synthetic opioid oxycodone, the main ingredient in OxyContin, and acetaminophin, widely sold under the brand name Tylenol—was found in Prince's body; whether it contributed to his death remains unclear.
That revelation is just one of many that lend credence to reports that Prince may have struggled with painkillers. Law-enforcement sources told NBC and CNN that prescription painkillers were found on his body when he died, bolstering a TMZ story that the performer had been prescribed Percocet for chronic hip pain stemming from years of high-heeled, athletic performances. A lawyer who represented two of Prince's now-deceased half-siblings has said that they revealed to him, before they died, that their brother had struggled with an addiction to Percocet.
The timeline leading up to Prince's death seems to corroborate these troubling reports. The singer's reported possible use of drugs is also the subject of a new lawsuit involving comedian and talk show host Arsenio Hall and singer Sinead O'Connor. Hall filed a defamation lawsuit against O'Connor on Thursday, CNN reported, after she accused him of supplying drugs to Prince throughout his career. Hall's lawsuit calls the accusations "outlandish defamatory lies."
The timeline leading up to Prince's death seems to corroborate these troubling reports. On April 15, Prince’s plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., after he reportedly overdosed on painkillers, for which he was given the opioid antidote Narcan and briefly hospitalized. Five days later, representatives for Prince called Dr. Howard Kornfeld, a California opioid-addiction specialist, according to the Star Tribune. Those close to Prince hoped that he would travel to California to work with Kornfeld, who runs an outpatient clinic, Recovery Without Walls, in Mill Valley.
Kornfeld was unable to fly to Minnesota immediately but made plans to see Prince on April 22. Due to his concern for Prince’s reportedly “grave medical emergency,” he dispatched his son Andrew, a practice consultant for his clinic, to review treatment plans with Prince in the meantime. But when Andrew Kornfeld arrived at Paisley Park on the morning of April 21, it was already too late. He was one of three people at the estate that morning, and reportedly made the call to 911 when Prince was found unresponsive in an elevator.
The senior Kornfeld, a national authority on opioid addiction treatment, is an advocate of the use of Suboxone, a drug that curbs opioid cravings but which many doctors have not yet completed the federal training required to prescribe. It's a drug that's gaining support in the field, embraced even by the well-known Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which for many years preferred to treat addiction without additional medication. Dr. Kornfeld reportedly sent his son to Paisley Park with a small amount of buprenorphine, which is contained in Suboxone, though an attorney representing the family said on May 4 that Andrew, who is not a doctor, did not intend to administer the drug to Prince himself, and that the drug was indeed never administered at all. Although Andrew has been questioned by investigators, Mauzy says he believes Andrew is protected by a Minnesota law that allows people to report overdoses without fear of prosecution.
On May 4, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that they had joined forces with local investigators in the ongoing criminal investigation into Prince’s death. It is still unclear whether Prince had a prescription for painkillers and how he acquired them, and the federal agencies have said that they will not comment further until the investigation is complete. In the meantime, questions regarding the Kornfelds' handling of the case have been raised, namely whether Andrew was authorized to carry the buprenorphine across state lines and whether, upon learning of the gravity of Prince's condition on April 20, more proactive measures might have been taken to alert emergency responders in Minneapolis.
Minnesota's medical board could investigate the Kornfelds for practicing medicine without a state license, the Associated Press reported on Friday. Dr. Kornfeld was not licensed to practice medicine in Minnesota, and he was not registered to practice telemedicine in the state either, according to the AP. While the state's telemedicine regulations provide an exemption for an "emergency medical condition," it's not clear whether that would apply to a non-physician carrying a Schedule III controlled substance across state lines.
The Future of Prince’s Estate
What Prince left behind—in assets that can be easily valued, like his $27 million in property, and those that can’t, like his vault of recordings—will take far longer to figure. For an estate estimated by Forbes to be worth between $150- and $300 million, a missing will is surprising, given Prince’s history of tightly controlling the rights to his music, and doesn’t bode well for a speedy resolution. The estate of Jimi Hendrix, for one, was still immersed in a bitter battle 45 years after his death.
For now, a judge has appointed Prince’s longtime bank, Bremer Trust, to administer his estate. If no will is found, according to Minnesota inheritance law, Prince’s estate will be split among his sister, Tyka Nelson, and five half-siblings—assuming no one comes out of the woodwork claiming to be Prince’s secret offspring, or in some other way entitled to a piece of the pie. It is not unusual in cases like this for such claims to arise in abundance—a child would trump siblings in claims to the estate—and indeed, a company called Heirs Hunters International told Good Morning America that several people have already come forward, including a man born in the 1980s whose mother allegedly crossed paths with the musician more than once. The company has also identified potential heirs described as a niece and a teenaged grand-niece.
As for Prince’s 55,000 square-foot Paisley Park estate in Chanhassen, Minn., Nelson’s husband Maurice Phillips said the family plans to turn it into a Graceland-style museum. But such plans are a long way from fruition. Without a will that dedicates funds specifically for a non-profit museum or charity, the estate will be subject to up to 50 percent in taxes, significantly reducing the capital available to make it happen. And without a stipulation from Prince declaring his intention for the site, his heirs may disagree over whether to sell the property or use it for some other purpose.
Even in the absence of contested claims to the estate, divvying up Prince’s assets is a recipe for conflict: you can’t, after all, split a guitar six ways and expect it to retain its value. It often takes as long as a year to close the estate of a person of average means. And as has happened even with major recording artists who died with a will in place, like Michael Jackson, the scope and complexity of not just tangible possessions but intellectual property can see these cases drag on for many years.
The Fate of Prince’s Unreleased Music
Prince was spectacularly prolific, issuing 39 studio albums and 104 singles over the past four decades (not to mention EPs and live albums). But they may be merely the estuary to an ocean of purple songs. Musicians who worked with Prince have said he released less than half the songs he recorded. A former collaborator, Brent Fischer, told the Guardian Prince may have enough unreleased recordings to release an album each year for a century. But in the absence of clear instructions from their creator, will we ever hear them? And should we?
Jeff Jampol, president of JAM Inc., which manages the estates of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Otis Redding, believes we will hear some of the recordings at some point, but to release them hastily or without a broader plan to preserve Prince’s legacy would be a considerable disservice. “These songs are unreleased for a reason,” he says. “I’m guessing it’s some amalgam of, some were not finished, some he didn’t feel worthy of release, some he was saving for special projects, some he just hadn’t gotten to. How do you parse through all that? If it’s not up to the quality that Prince saw fit to release, are you not then doing greater damage to the legacy?”
To Jampol, focusing only on the music Prince left behind is reductive at best. “There’s really two ways to approach management of a pop culture legacy,” he says. “One way is to be like a vulture, circling around and looking for little islands of pink flesh you can pluck off and feed the machine today, which seems to be the way a lot of people think about it. I believe if you reanimate the body and bring the body back into the pop culture conversation, then the revenue streams come right along with it.”
It’s not just the revenue that’s at stake, of course—that is only of concern to those who stand to profit. How the music is handled is key to ensuring that Prince’s legacy is respected, preserved and introduced to a new generation of fans. To release unissued tracks without the context of a broader plan serves the diehards who will always clamor for more, but who are also already saturated—went to the concert, bought the t-shirt. The majority of fans are most interested in the hits, which unreleased songs, by definition, are not—at least, not yet.
Jampol compares the legacy of an artist to a dark, empty fireplace with a half-dozen matches lying on the mantelpiece. Prince’s recordings are one match; light it and hold it up to the darkness, and you get 30 seconds of illumination before a swift return to darkness. Invest in logs and kindling—a comprehensive understanding of the magic that connected Prince to his fans and a thoughtful plan to reintroduce it into the cultural conversation—and that match ignites a fire that burns bright and long.
– With reporting by Katie Reilly