Prince Rogers Nelson passed away yesterday, leaving behind a massive body of work and millions of fans in mourning. Prince was prolific; over a career that spanned four decades, he released 39 albums, worked with and launched numerous fellow artists, and influenced a generation of artists that followed in his wake. Pop music today would be unrecognizable without him. He broke all the rules, and, indeed, he was the best.
Many of us here at The Verge have been fans of Prince's for years. Some of us have seen him live. Others of us turned to his music in times of need. Each of us has a connection to his work, and here we're celebrating his impact.
"Breakfast Can Wait"
Kwame Opam: Prince’s genius as an artist is undeniable, but it’s almost impossible to overstate his impact on culture. Fashion, art, sexuality, it didn’t matter. And if you were a weirdo geek like me, he was all the more inescapable. There he was on Animaniacs. There he was, bidding Jack Nicholson’s Joker dance to "Partyman" in Batman '89. And there he was, dunking on Charlie Murphy in that classic Chappelle's Show sketch.
Above all, I'm a fan of Meme Prince. Shady, "Girl, what did you just say to me?" Prince and "Zooey Deschanel is utterly unprepared for my presence" Prince. But It was around the time that the single "Breakfast Can Wait" came out that it was so plainly clear the man had a gift for playing pop and high culture like a maestro. You remember the album cover:
That cover, sending up Dave Chappelle’s own parody of the Purple One’s breakfast prowess, was inspired. Chappelle himself called it a Judo move. What do you say to something like that?
The truth is, all you can do is bask in the work. When the song came out, it was exactly the kind of funk Prince had so perfected over his long career. (The track landed on Art Official Age, the man’s 37th record. Few artists are anywhere near that prolific.) And when that video came out, there he was once again playing with masculinity, femininity, and sensuality through yet another young talent he was fostering, all in the same way he’d done over his long career.
Prince was a trickster
That was Prince’s power. He was a trickster. (Really, the best kind of god.) With one record, he could touch on so much in culture with almost preternatural ease. A lot of ink will be spilled over the next few days about how he broke rules and transcended convention. He did that by taking the things he liked — and things we all loved — and twisting them just enough to serve him. And he almost always made something incredible as a result.
"Do Me, Baby"
Jamieson Cox: "Do me, baby." It’s one of the least sexy phrases imaginable. Say it out loud and imagine it coming out of the mouth of someone boorish and foul, someone with whom you associate an odor, someone expecting service: "Do me, baby." Prince’s career was defined by startling acts of genius rattled off the way a baseball player slaps singles into right field, and this is the one that’s sticking with me: he turned an inelegant, brutish expression of lust into something delicate and striking.
"Do Me, Baby" is the longest song on Controversy, one of Prince’s earliest masterpieces — it stretches out over almost eight minutes, and even longer live — and it’s an unrelenting exploration of lust. It feels almost like a dare: Prince is going to use his unearthly falsetto and his command of every instrument you can build and his will to communicate pure ecstasy, and he’ll challenge you not to surrender. He’ll moan, howl, and whimper in a manner that’s borderline pornographic; he’ll even let you watch, if that’s what you really want. (He’s not gonna stop until the war is over.) You’re tempted to laugh until you grasp how deadly serious he is about the whole thing. And what phrase does he choose to anchor this extended meditation on the spiritual bliss two consenting adults can achieve together? "Do me, baby." It sounds like it’s coming from an angel.
It sounds like it's coming from an angel
It feels like there’s some essential truth being captured every time he sings the words. You can treat our most basic, primal urges with tremendous gravity and laugh at how silly they are in the same breath. Prince’s discography is stuffed to the brim with songs about sex: serious songs, funny songs, dumb songs, elliptical songs, brilliant songs. "Do Me, Baby" is the one that comes closest to capturing the feeling of lying beside someone and laughing like an idiot at the force of your love. It’s a phrase I no longer take for granted and a romantic ideal to which all of us can aspire.
"When U Were Mine"
Russell Brandom: Only Prince could write the best New Wave song of the '80s and have it register as only a blip on his singles sheet. "When U Were Mine" is a breakup song, but pop fate had me fall for it during the early days of a new relationship. I was excited, nervous, and still feeling things out. It turns out, it’s a song about that, too. The guitars snap and Prince coos, sounding more vulnerable and unsure than he ever would again. Dirty Mind turned out to be a gateway to full-blown Prince fandom, but "When U Were Mine" stayed with me as more raw than the paisley dreamscapes that would follow. There’s real emotion behind the polyamorous tease in the lyrics — a brilliant kid testing his limits and getting hurt when he finds them.
Tamara Warren: Squinty strobe lights, a school night, and after the final verse, a shattering guitar solo that made us all weep hot, sweaty delirious tears: Prince at the Fox Theater in Detroit, April 1993. He climbed the walls, perched on the theater’s golden Egyptian adornments, and unfurled like a seductive cat. It was the ultimate first almost-grown concert, and for me live music was never the same.
He perched on the golden Egyptian adornments, and unfurled like a seductive cat
I first heard and saw Purple Rain in elementary school, when Prince went VHS-pop, memorizing lyrics to the score I was too young understand, but that I could still feel. I imagined myself a bold Wendy or a Lisa, though maybe I wanted to be a little Apollonia and Prince-like, too. I choreographed dances to "Raspberry Beret," strutted to Sheila E’s "Glamorous Life," collected B-side tapes, and backtracked to discover the oozy funk of "Dirty Mind." I can tell you how, before my time, the mysterious Detroit radio DJ, the Electrifying Mojo, first broke Prince, and later, about countless all-nighters at all-vinyl Prince parties from Detroit to modern-day Brooklyn. I have stories about touching a real Prince guitar in the late '90s at a house off Six Mile Road and a short, breathless dance on stage thanks to my friend in the fan club who shared her front-row arena tickets at the Meadowlands with me when I was brand new to New York City. That’s as close as I came to the artist — or wanted to. I’ve written hundreds of stories about music that I love, but I once passed up the rare opportunity to meet and maybe interview Prince, because I wanted to admire him from afar — my elusive music man — untainted by human observation others had already made. I wanted him to stay mine.
Prince feels personal, the way indelible superstars loom in the backdrop of the eras from which they emerge, like a Miles or a Mozart. It’s no wonder that in Minneapolis on the April Thursday he passed, it rained palpable, paisley-purple tears.
Andy Hawkins: Growing up as a Midwestern nerd, I prioritized movies and comic books over music. As such, most of my early exposure to music came through soundtracks, especially those from movies that appealed to 12-year-olds with bad acne, no older siblings, and questionable taste. Wayne’s World, Encino Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to name a few. But one OST stood above the rest: 1989’s Batman, featuring nine other-worldly tracks by the one and only Prince.
It was rare for a soundtrack to feature just one artist, but when that artist was Prince, all questions of what was and wasn’t done get tossed. Who cares that Prince only recorded the soundtrack as part of a synergistic scheme by Warner Bros. to both promote Tim Burton’s movie and revive the artist's flagging career? The songs were danceable, dystopian, dangerous, and above all, fun. "Trust," "Partyman," "The Future," and of course, "Batdance" — the video for which had Prince dressed as a split between the Joker and Batman, by way of Two-Face.
I loved comic books and, above all, I loved Batman. But I didn’t know jack about The Kid, his magenta-hued rain, nor his revolution. But I could tell there was a reverence for the source material in these songs. And Prince was like the living embodiment of a comic book character: all outrageous costumes, a love for bold colors, and a hint of danger beneath all that gyrating sex.
Prince was like the living embodiment of a comic book character
The album, which reigned at the top of the Billboard charts for six consecutive weeks and sold over 11 million copies, marked a change in Prince’s ever-fluid persona. Gone were the curls, frilly clothes, polka dots, and lace, replaced with darker clothing, straighter hair, and knee-high boots that even Bruce Wayne could admire. Batman rubbed off on Prince, which led to Prince rubbing off on me. It broadened my musical horizons, freed me from my self-imposed nerd prison, and above all, taught me to trust.
Arielle Duhaime-Ross: The first time I heard "Raspberry Beret," I was probably close to 15, and I instantly connected with it. In just under four minutes, Prince and The Revolution describe a first sexual experience — an ideal first time, complete with horses, thunder, and a raspberry beret. The result is a song that's raunchy, groovy, and downright infectious. I remember daydreaming about being Prince as I listened to the 1985 hit on my Discman some 20 years later; I dreamt of riding my motorcycle up to my crush and sweeping her off her feet — just like he did. As a young queer woman, I didn't come close to being suave, but something about the way he described the encounter gave me hope. In retrospect, some of the lyrics in "Raspberry Beret" are a tad unsavory ("she wasn't too bright, but I could tell when she kissed me, she knew how to get her kicks") — but that wasn't on my mind at 15. Prince's ability to match harmony, rhythm and narrative is unprecedented, and "Raspberry Beret" is a great example of that.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance
Dan Seifert: Prince was not always a part of my life. I was born after "1999" and "Purple Rain" were released, and his graphically sexual lyrics weren’t something that would fly in the conservative Jehovah’s Witness home I grew up in. (This would prove to be hugely ironic many years later.) I probably couldn’t have named a Prince song if you asked me to for most of my life.
So it wasn’t until 2004 that Prince walked into my world, during the TV broadcast of the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Prince was among the list of inductees that year, which included George Harrison, Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, ZZ Top, and others. Harrison had died three years earlier, so his induction was honored by a group performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and yes, Prince, taking the stage for it.
The song itself starts off fairly boring, with Petty and Lynne trading off verses and Winwood playing fills and licks between lyrics. Prince isn’t even visible during the first two minutes of the song, until the camera angle shows him, stage left, quietly playing along. He’s not dressed in anything provocative, just a red hat, pinstripe suit, and red shirt (this was during the time that he was finding religion with the Jehovah’s Witness faith, so his conservative outfit here isn’t hugely surprising). He’s not even wearing anything purple; the only "Prince-y" thing in his ensemble is the leopard-patterned pick guard on his yellow Fender Telecaster that he’d been playing for decades.
He just let his guitar do all the talking
It’s not until three minutes and twenty-seven seconds into the song that Prince steps forward and hits the first note of his solo, and forever cements this performance in my memory. He proceeds to own the stage for the next three minutes and forty-five seconds, leaving the other heavyweights there to just hold the rhythm and bask in his talent. He plays soulfully, effortlessly, and with so much talent, coaxing every note out of the guitar as if it were an extension of his body. He doesn’t sing, doesn’t do anything controversial, and doesn’t cede the spotlight back to Petty and co. He just lets his guitar do all the talking and easily becomes the highlight of the night, and of any other Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Many would later go on to say that this was the greatest recorded guitar solo ever performed. He tosses his guitar up in the air (Does it come back down? The camera doesn’t show.) after his final note and disappears backstage just as quickly and quietly as he arrived, no bowing, no hand-shaking, no blowing kisses to the audience.
Prince’s fans at the time likely felt (rightfully) slighted that he wasn’t given the stage to perform one of his own songs during the ceremony. But for me, the fact that he didn’t was more influential. As an 18-year-old guitar nerd who wasn’t exposed to his work, seeing Prince show off his musical talents and completely shred, held far more value to me than him playing a song I may or may not have recognized. Prince opened my worldview with just a few notes on his Telecaster.
Now, and for eternity, our guitars weep for you, Prince.
"Let’s Go Crazy" Super Bowl performance
Ben Popper: Part of what always stood out to me about Prince was his unflappable cool. His approach to music and to fashion were that of a perfectionist, but when he was onstage, there was something so effortless and elemental about him. He would show up out of nowhere, slide onto a stage with a band he had never met, and lock into the groove or just murder a guitar solo. He was completely unafraid to break into a wild improvisation because he knew the energy and the ideas inside his phrasing would overwhelm any small imperfections. As so it was at Super Bowl XLI — facing what the event’s production designer described as a "a scene from Moby Dick" — harsh winds, unrelenting rain, and bolts of lightning. The NFL had called him just before halftime to make sure he was comfortable performing — onstage in an open-air stadium with four different electric guitars — under this kind of downpour. "Can you make it rain harder?" Prince asked. Striding out onto the glyph-shaped stage in front of a crowd of 100,000, with a hundred million more watching at home, he oozed confidence. By the time the 12-minute set reached it’s climax, you felt that Prince had done the whole thing on purpose; had called down the weather for dramatic effect, a grand gesture to amplify the musical intensity of this tiny purple god.
"Creep" Radiohead cover
Casey Newton: Radiohead’s first big hit is sometimes taken as a joke song — a knowing Thom Yorke mocking the self-pity of a teenager. But the world always took it seriously as an anthem for the dispossessed, and when Prince performed a surprise cover of the song to close his set at Coachella in 2008, so did he. Prince’s twist was to constantly shift the song’s viewpoint. The "I don’t belong here" of the original became "you don’t belong here" and, finally, "we don’t belong here" — a line that sounds, in retrospect, like a tribute to every freak who ever followed his work. In Prince’s hands "Creep" is an accusation, a commiseration, and finally a benediction. Nearly seven minutes in, the slow-burning cover ignites into a guitar solo for the ages, casually brushing aside Johnny Greenwood’s iconic guitar work in favor of something wilder, deeper, more volcanic. Prince later ordered all footage of the performance removed from YouTube — as a perfectionist, he likely did not want there to be a record of his improvisations. But with Radiohead’s blessing, last year he relented, and the performance now stands for all to see. Raw though it may be, the cover stands an enduring testament to his freaky talent. "Creep" had been with us for two decades, and suddenly Prince had made it brand new.
Dieter Bohn: For me, and for anybody who grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Prince wasn’t just a great musician; he was part of the fabric of the place we lived. I spray painted Graffiti Bridge in Eden Prairie (my hometown) before it was torn down — a chunk of it still sits in my old bedroom. I smoked cigarettes and drank bad coffee at the Perkins just down the road from Paisley Park in Chanhassen.
It wasn’t just that we were proud of Prince as a star who decided to stay in Minnesota instead of lighting out for LA or New York — though of course we were. It’s that Prince was in the air, all the time, a constant presence. My friends who listened to Metallica weren’t too cool to light it up at an impromptu dance party when "Delirious" came on. In the late '80s, if you walked into a bedroom that didn’t have a Purple Rain poster on the wall, it felt strange.
He was in the air, all the time, a constant presence
That image of Prince, brooding down at you from the seat of a purple motorcycle, was inescapable. He was a constant reminder that there was a wider, more exciting, and more unashamedly sexual world out there. More than that, he was a reminder that that world wasn’t actually far away. It was right here, in our home town, in our bedrooms and bars, even in the most white-bread Midwestern suburbs you could possibly imagine.
I don’t have a particular Prince song that means something special to me because they’re all part of me. It’s a small grace that I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where Prince decided to live, but it’s one that I’m thankful for.
James Bareham: My love affair with Prince’s music was brief, but the memory of it is enduring. Until the release of Diamonds and Pearls in November of 1991, I was only passingly familiar with his greatest hits. But the track "Cream" changed everything. I played that track, and that album, so much that many of the people I became friends with during the fall and winter of '91 assumed that I was a lifelong Prince fan. They would quiz me on my other favorite tracks and ask me to pick out other "Prince moments" — of which, of course, I knew nothing.
Though I continued to have massive respect for Prince, his music, his eccentricities, and above all his exemplary skill as a musician, I never again bought another Prince album. On the day of his death at such a tragically young age of 57, that fact seems totally insane to me, and I can’t for the life of me think of a single reason why.
"I Would Die 4 U"
Lizzie Plaugic: I don’t remember the first time I heard a Prince song. I’m not sure if it was "When U Were Mine," or "I Would Die 4 U" or "Graffiti Bridge" or "Pussy Control" or any one of his dozens of songs that first made me think, "What is this?" Prince’s music, like Prince himself, always felt like it was everywhere, all the time. Even if I took a hiatus from listening, there he would be: serenading a crowd of people folding socks in a laundromat, soundtracking a ride through a fast food drive-thru, or coming out of the mouth of an overly eager impersonator at karaoke. For all the descriptions of Prince as a freaky alien weirdo or an otherworldly being, I didn’t love Prince because he was inhuman. I loved him because he was unapologetically human. His songs weren’t about other planets or undiscovered lifeforms; they were about people and intimacy and sex and love. He did all the same things we did, because his music existed in every place we existed (except, of course, on the internet).
Prince was unapologetically human
It’s a useful mental exercise to imagine that Prince was just like us. That when he wasn’t writing No. 1 singles and playing sold-out stadiums, he also sometimes felt confused, and wrong, and fucking alone. Despite once claiming he never wanted to cause us any sorrow or any pain, Prince has now, suddenly, done both. It’s the most human thing he’s done so far, and maybe that’s why it hurts so much.