Remembering Prince, an unparalleled musical genius

He passed away today at the age of 57


Something feels fundamentally wrong about imagining music without Prince: it’s like a chill on the back of your neck, a taste in your mouth your body immediately begins to reject. If contemporary pop music is a tree, Prince’s work is a huge chunk of its roots. If it’s a skeleton, then his writing, singing, playing, visual flair, and unparalleled charisma are the bones holding everything together. He was an auteur in every sense of the word, a multidisciplinary genius who rewrote the rules of stardom and astounded even the people around him with his skill and passion; he was a contemporary folk hero, one who flailed against record labels and the internet and served up theoretical pancakes on Chappelle’s Show like some kind of magical purple elf.

There will never be another musician or celebrity like him, a testament to both the remarkable ways in which the world changed during his lifetime and his sheer idiosyncrasy. He passed away today at age 57 in his Paisley Park estate, less than a week after assuring fans that a bout with the flu was little more than a minor concern: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers,” he said on Saturday. It was a typically cryptic statement that now feels like a knife in the heart.

He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis on June 7th, 1958, the son of two musicians. He started writing music while he was still in elementary school, banging out songs on his father’s piano, and he was playing and recording with local bands by the time he was a teenager. He signed a record contract when most people are preparing for their high school graduations, and he was one of the most popular musicians in the world within half a decade, overcoming initial reservations regarding his provocative appearance and speculation regarding his sexuality. (He tossed them aside with a laugh on albums like 1981’s sublime Controversy.) Thanks to mid-'80s hits like "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," and "Kiss," he kept pace with megastars like Michael Jackson and Madonna during one of the most of competitive periods in pop music history, and he remained a commercial and creative force well into the twilight of his career. Even as the relevance of his musical work waned, he remained a ferocious performer and a beloved guardian of musical tradition.

The timing of his passing is already earning his life and work comparisons to that of David Bowie, another iconoclastic giant who passed away this year. It’s a natural line to draw: arriving as a star a decade earlier, Bowie blazed a trail for Prince in terms of musical breadth, transgressive power, and the malleability of gender. If Bowie exposed gender and sexuality’s performative cores with his library of characters and personae, then it’s hard to imagine a better follow-up than Prince recording an entire album’s worth of tracks as Camille, an alter-ego with a pitch-shifted voice and a freaky temperament. (You can hear what could’ve been on "If I Was Your Girlfriend," a strange and scary highlight from 1987’s landmark Sign o’ the Times.) The two were always the coolest people in the room, no matter the room. Prince covered "Heroes" live in Toronto less than a month ago.

If Bowie’s career was a testament to the power of self-determination — you can be anything you want, and you can have fun with it — then Prince’s was a monument to the undeniability of genius. There was no transforming Prince, no disguising him in symbols or names like Jamie Starr. He could strip himself of his name entirely — render himself the Artist Formerly Known As Prince — and it wouldn’t do anything to compromise his unflinching brilliance or his singular vision. He was a prodigy the way Mozart was a prodigy, and describing him as the most talented singer, guitarist, pianist, and producer on the planet was both completely reasonable and possibly true.

Bowie was a mimic and a sponge, a considerate listener who hopped from genre to genre with the help of skilled collaborators and a voracious appetite for new sounds. Prince was a synthesist, taking all of the genres he loved — rock n roll, funk, R&B, pop, even the folk and jazz-fusion of his beloved Joni Mitchell — and mixing them into one electric cocktail. He did it on his own from his first album — For You, released in 1978 at the tender age of 19 — to his last, last year’s two-part HITnRUN collection. In between, he pushed the boundaries of genre and style to their absolute limits with albums like Dirty Mind — economical, explicit, and rough-hewn — and Sign o’ the Times, a sprawling, sensual, and socially conscious double LP. And while his popularity peaked with the 1984 album-movie combo of Purple Rain, his discography was rich enough that it’s hard to pinpoint any one release as his true creative peak. Like Roger Federer or Frank Gehry, the quality of his work was only overshadowed by the length of his golden age.

Like many other geniuses, he could be ornery and uncompromising. He spent much of the '90s locked in a battle with his record label, an entity he believed was shackling his creative spirit, and he released a string of substandard albums as a means of freeing himself from his contract. (It didn’t help that he started going by an unpronounceable symbol in 1993, one that couldn’t be easily typed or used in the media of the time.) When he finally managed to extricate himself from his label drama, his ire began to shift toward the internet, a service he declared "over" in 2010. (His concern had just as much to do with the digital age’s uncertain economics as his natural eccentricity.) Some of his records were given away on tour; others were given away alongside newspapers or only made available in physical forms. His music can only be streamed in full on Tidal today, and it’s difficult to hear using otherwise commonplace services like YouTube because of his aggressive copyright stance. His skepticism regarding the internet has made it tougher for his millions of fans around the world to appreciate his legacy.

He became an adored elder statesman by the mid-'00s anyway, one given a boost by the aforementioned Chappelle’s Show sketch and a run of incendiary performances at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammys, and the Super Bowl. He kept making music and mentoring protégés like Bria Valente and 3rdeyegirl, occasionally recapturing the studio magic he’d kept alive from the late '70s through the mid-'90s. (2014’s Art Official Age remains a late-career peak.) He toured the globe as long as he could stand, sharing his incredible gift with as many people as he could and doing so with an ineffable charm and spirit.

A world without Prince may be hard to fathom, but it doesn’t have to feel tragic. There was nothing anguished or depressing about his life and work, all of which radiated a vitality and pure joy that seemed to defy age or circumstance. His is a legacy that demands a specific kind of appreciation, one devoid of grief or rage. He laid out the terms and conditions in almost four decades of music: party like it’s 1999, do it all night, play in the sunshine. Look to the opening monologue he delivered on "Let’s Go Crazy," a dozen lines that are already being passed around social media like they’re his last will and testament. We’re all gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Let’s celebrate a man who lived it to the fullest.