Prince's purple reign ends too soon

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Prince performs on Oct. 11, 2009, at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Prince, who died Thursday at 57, was a one-of-a-kind pop genius whose polymorphous brilliance as a genre-crossing funk, rock, and R&B recording artist turned him into a superstar who pushed boundaries musically and sexually in the 1980s, and who continued to be a mercurial, electrifying performer in the decades that followed.

His talents were boundless. The ease with which he delicately sang a Joni Mitchell song like “A Case of You,” then ripped into a Jimi Hendrix-worthy guitar solo, seemed almost unfair in comparison with mere mortals. It was as if he had been touched by otherworldly grace.

The singer, guitarist, and songwriter best known for Purple Rain, the title of his 1984 megahit album, song, and movie, died at his Paisley Park studio and home base in Minneapolis, according to his publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure.

The musical polymath who was born Prince Rogers Nelson put out a string of releases beginning with his 1978 debut, For You, up until 1987’s double LP Sign O’ the Times that constitutes one of the most dazzling creative winning streaks in music history, a period when the acclaimed artist competed for pop dominance with Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

He was rumored to have been hospitalized last week after his plane was forced to make an emergency landing. Fears for his health were quieted, however, after he made an appearance at a dance party Saturday night at Paisley Park, where he told fans, “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”

No cause of death has been given. Deputies responding to an emergency call Thursday morning at Paisley Park found “an unresponsive adult male in the elevator,” Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and Prince was declared dead at 10:07 a.m., Olson said. An investigation into the cause of death is continuing.

The news shocked a music world already grieving such recently deceased legends as David Bowie, Maurice White, and Merle Haggard. Roots drummer and Prince aficionado Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson tweeted, “Long Live The King.” Justin Timberlake wrote, “Numb. Stunned. This can’t be real.” Erykah Badu’s one-word reaction spoke for disbelieving fans: “No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

President Obama said: "Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. … ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said. And nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.”

And locally, WXPN deejay and syndicated World Cafe host David Dye said: “I’m not sure the world fully realized what Prince did in seamlessly combining the rock and funk worlds. An influence far beyond the ‘80s.”

The prolific artist released his first album when he was just 19 and had his first R&B hit in 1978 with “Soft and Wet.” He would go on to score 18 Top 10 pop hits, including “Little Red Corvette,” “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” “U Got the Look,” and “Kiss.”

He was recently performing solo dates billed as the Piano & a Microphone Tour, but canceled recent shows in Atlanta amid reports he was battling the flu. He made up those dates last week, but after an April 14 show, his plane had to make an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., on his way back to Minneapolis.

Prince’s death comes as such a surprise in part because he seemed immune to the ravages of time, with his lithe, athletic, erotically charged dancing and the still-salacious sexual appetites that were expressed in music that was, above all, about the healing power of love and community.

A Paste Magazine reviewer who saw him perform last week in Atlanta and thought he seemed to have made a full recovery said Prince always seemed “not fully human.”

But though he delivered music with the appearance of uncommon ease, Prince was actually a tireless worker, a James Brown acolyte given to playing postconcert jam sessions that never began before midnight and usually ended close to dawn.

Prince was a willing collaborator whose many well-known associates included Morris Day of the Time, Sheila E., and Maceo Parker, and many female proteges, including Apollonia and his Purple Rain costar Vanity (Denise Matthews), who died in February. And while he was a demanding leader with his backing bands the Revolution, New Power Generation, and his latest all-female trio, 3rdEyeGirl, he was also a famously self-contained, all-knowing, all-doing one-man studio band.

He was the son of a pianist and songwriter father and jazz-singer mother. “How can you just leave me standing / alone in a world so cold?” he sang in one of his most famous lyrics, for “When Doves Cry,” hinting at family drama that was characterized as an oedipal struggle in the vaguely autobiographical Purple Rain movie, in which he played a character named the Kid.

“Maybe I’m just like my father: Too bold,” the song continued.

This year, when Prince played the first of his “Piano and a Microphone” shows at Paisley Park, Rolling Stone reported that he framed the evening as a psychodrama in which he remembered sneaking down the stairs at night to sit at the keyboard and wonder, “I can’t play the piano like my dad. How does Dad do that?”

In time, Prince learned to do everything by himself. His second album, titled simply Prince, was his first to sell a million copies. By his third, 1980’s Dirty Mind, he had fully introduced a playful, sexually explicit, androgynous persona through which he demonstrated a predilection for positively filthy funk.

Two years later, on 1999, he explored another one of his signature themes — we’re all going to die someday, so let’s party like the apocalypse is already here — with a double album so full of infectious, hypercatchy songs like “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious” (not to mention satisfyingly strange, deep cuts such as “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics Love U in New York”) that pop and rock audiences could no longer deny themselves the pleasures that had previously been the purview of R&B and funk fans.

Through most of the rest of the 1980s, Prince went from strength to strength. Purple Rain in 1984, which turned him into global sensation; Around The World In A Day the next year, an uneven effort which produced two signature songs in “Pop Life,” and “Raspberry Beret.” The video for the latter on MTV caught him at his most playful, coughing on camera rather than pretending to lip-synch.

With 1986’s Parade, he got rid of his curly hair and frilly shirts, and while the Under The Cherry Moon movie it was a soundtrack to was an indulgent debacle, the album had perhaps perhaps his greatest, most elemental single in “Kiss.”

Sign O’ The Times — with a peace sign, naturally, in place of the O — was a tour de force that explored all his sexual peccadilloes (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”) and spiritual yearnings (“The Cross”), as well as his talent for gorgeous balladry (“Adore”). And while we’re going on about Prince in the 1980s, let’s not forget The Black Album, the down-and-dirty funk masterpiece that was recorded as Sign O’s follow-up and was widely bootlegged at the time, though not officially released until 1994.

After his ’80s heyday, Prince’s record output was problematic, and his touring schedule was often fitful.

He had some success with 1990’s Diamonds and Pearls (and a No. 1 single with “Cream”) but over time, between his record company battles and uncomfortable attitude toward hip-hop and electronically programmed music, he was pushed off the pop charts.

Most of the albums released in those years — 1996’s Emancipation, 2001’s The Rainbow Children, 2004’s The Chocolate Invasion — probably don’t ring a bell even to people who consider themselves fervent Prince fans. 

And in the internet age, Prince became deeply suspicious of the digital distribution of music. He had established a partnership with Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, through which he made a concert available last year. The concert was in honor of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. Prince also wrote the moving tribute “Baltimore” about Gray.

But though the 5-foot-2 purple imp would reveal his talents to be wholly intact if you were ever lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them — as in his 2007 Super Bowl performance that’s the best ever — they were only in partial view in the later years of his life.

That’s in part because his music, as great as it is, is largely absent from the streaming internet that now dominates music-listening habits. You’re not going to hear Prince, except for a few scattered songs, on YouTube or Spotify. He was old-fashioned: If you wanted to dive into his music, you needed to buy it. Time to get started.