Correction appended: April 22, 2016
There wasn’t an instrument he couldn’t play, a style he couldn’t write in, or a song he couldn’t make funkier.
With the loss of Prince on Thursday goes one of the most wide-reaching, and accomplished, musical artists of the last half century. He made waves in a daunting number of areas, from race to commerce to sexuality to sound. Both as a musician, and a persona, he could be erudite or earthy, camp or sincere. Every mood suited him.
From his birthplace in Minnesota, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson created an entire school of music—the Minneapolis sound, marked by staccato beats, stabbing synthesizers, and funky bass lines, all grounded in resounding melodies. Scores of artists took inspiration from that sound, from Janet Jackson and The Time in the ’80s, to OutKast and Lenny Kravitz in the ’90s, to Lady Gaga and Sia today.
Prince started crafting the sound as a prodigy, having released his debut album For You at the age of 20 in 1978. The approach he took to funk back then became a inspiration to later hip-hop stars. They took even more eager notice of his subversive take on language. Credit Prince for greatly advancing pop’s love of using numerals instead of “to” and “for” in song-titles, as well as reducing “you” to just one letter. He did that all 4 U.
Over a 40-year career, Prince created scores of undying hits—from “Kiss” to “Little Red Corvette” to “Raspberry Beret”—while always resisting the lures of common commercialism. Though he scored one of the biggest selling albums of all time, 1984’s Purple Rain, he never lost sight of his uncompromising muse. His fidelity allowed him to extend the often lost values of the classic rock and soul era right up to the present.
In that vein, he also sought to bolster under-appreciated artists of an earlier time, producing and releasing on his own label, work by artists like Mavis Staples, Maceo Parker and Larry Graham. He could also be generous with his songwriting, aided by his great productivity. Prince wrote chart-topping hits for Sinead O’Connor (the laid-bare ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U”) and The Bangles (the pop perfect “Manic Monday”).
Prince reigned, too, as a witty sex symbol and a stage performer extraordinaire, electrifying audiences with his leg splits, fast sashays and charismatic gaze. The hyper-sexual presentation was both an in-joke and a legitimate turn-on. His purple persona became one pop’s most rococo characters.
The carnal focus of Prince’s early career, elaborated on albums like 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy, made him a thrillingly subversive presence, as well as a lightning rod for censors. On those albums he luxuriated in odes to three-ways, sibling pile-ons and oral sex. In the politically-conservative ’80s, his salute to female masturbation, “Darling Nikki,” became a target of the Parents Music Resource Center which, led by Al Gore’s then wife Tipper, aimed to have music they deemed offensive scarlet-lettered with stickers.
Diminutive and pretty, Prince played up his androgynous side in the ’80s. He did so in an often fey stage demeanor, as well as in songs like “Sister,” in which he teased about being bisexual. At the time, such moves made Prince a brother to Madonna in the battle to push society’s bounds for sexual acceptance.
Both live, and in the studio, he dazzled with his guitar work, creating long solos of both elegance and drive. In concert, Prince let his “Guitar God” flag fly, spinning out cadenzas as exciting, and complete, as his compositions. A Prince show always prized spontaneity, even as rigidly choreographed concerts became the pop norm. His songs often bled into each other, advancing through elastic medleys which always left room for surprise.
Prince’s vocals had every bit as wide a range. He could run from a commanding baritone to a lilting falsetto in a flash. Few male singers found as much truth and nuance in so high a range.
Compositionally, Prince drew from rock, funk, pop, fusion, big band jazz, bossa nova, opera and more, combining them to create songs that sounded like no one else’s. He released a rash of multi-album sets in a seemingly futile effort to contain his ravenous tastes and ambitions. Two of his double-albums — 1982’s 1999 and ’87’s Sign O The Times — stand with the most fully realized multi-disc sets of all time, along with the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street and Derek and the Dominos’ Layla.
He kept the quality of his work high, even as its quantity rose, releasing no fewer than 37 solo albums in as many years. And that isn’t counting live albums, or those created in collaboration with side bands like The New Power Generation. In just the last 18 months he issued four full albums, highlighted by engaged performances, catchy tunes and witty words.
It’s key to Prince’s character, and societal role, that he also broke color lines, making his way into the top playlists of MTV and rock radio where few African-American stars are allowed, even today. His popularity also forced MTV to play his clips at a time of virtual pop Apartheid, back in the early ’80s.
That decade holds a special place in Prince’s legacy. In the ’80s, he formed pop’s defining triumvirate, with Madonna and Michael Jackson. Ironically, all three were born in the same year (1958). Now, just one survives.
All three stars have had daring, talent and great cultural resonance. But Prince retained a special sense of exceptionalism. He held his commitment to art over commerciality at a time when Jackson tipped woefully in the latter direction. And unlike Madonna, Prince had great technical chops. As a singer and musician, he ranks with the most accomplished and iconoclastic of all time.
From the start, he was a pop exception, a man of transcendence in a world of categories and cliches. Though, like every artist, he came from a certain time, place and culture, Prince pushed beyond those factors to become one of the last lingua franca pop stars, someone who could make anyone, anywhere dance.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Prince’s full name; it is Prince Rogers Nelson. It also misstated when Prince’s albums Dirty Mind and Controversy were released, and how old Prince was when For You was released. Dirty Mind and Controversy were released in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and he was 20 when For You was released.