Prince Rogers Nelson – globally known as Prince – passed away at his suburban Minneapolis home on Thursday. To simply call Prince a rock star, or even a rock superstar, would be a vast understatement. He was so much more than that – to so many people. Prince was an American original.
America has lost so many incredible musical talents in the last few years. Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson. David Bowie. Now, Prince. Once again, America’s loss is world’s loss.
This next analogy has basically been the same for every one of us. We’ve all known someone who was so talented at something – be it athletics, the performing arts, or academics – that it seemed effortless. That uniquely talented individual made the rest of us and our efforts seem pedestrian by comparison. Well, Prince Rogers Nelson was such a person. The difference was this: he was so talented at so many things, it left the rest of us in awe. He taught himself to play guitar. At age 12!
Prince was an incredible singer with a ridiculous, multi-octave vocal range, yes; but he was an unparalleled composer in terms of his work ethic and in terms of his output of completed songs/albums. For the entirety of his highly illustrious career, Prince served as his own one-man band in the recording studio. In addition to being one of the greatest lead guitarists known to man, he also played two dozen instruments: drums, piano, synthesizer, keyboards, clavinet, bass guitar, saxophone, and multiple percussion instruments. He arranged and sang almost all of his own background vocals in all parts: bass, tenor, alto, first soprano and second soprano. Prince’s music covered many genres: rock, pop, R&B, rap, hip-hop, folk, alternative, easy listening, blues, funk, soul, and contemporary jazz to name a few. As a revered music producer, he wrote hit singles for solo artists (Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, Shelia E., Tevin Campbell, Sheena Easton) and for groups (The Time, The Family, Vanity 6,The Bangles). He won a multitude of Grammys, American Music Awards, and even Academy Awards for his music.
I’ve been blessed enough to have seen many concerts in many venues in many cities. The best concert by far I ever saw was Prince. I caught his “Lovesexy” tour in 1988 at the Omni in Atlanta. The man was sensational. For 4 hours, 4 separate encores, and at least a dozen wardrobe changes, Prince was an absolute force of nature. That night, on that stage, no one on earth could sing better than him, dance better than him, or play better than him. Prince performed as if his life depended on it. He was that rare artist who was much better live than the records, the cassettes, the videos, and the CDs could ever begin to convey.
In 1984, Prince broke the world when he released his semi-autobiographical movie, “Purple Rain” and the original motion picture soundtrack album that accompanied it. That’s why it was fitting that his death broke the internet once the news about it was reported.
Prince totally redefined style and fashion. He wore clothes, fabrics, textures, colors, and accessories that no man in his right mind could ever hope to pull off successfully – and yet, he managed to do so even as he redefined societal concepts of masculinity and coolness.
Prince completely redefined celebrity status. He demanded your attention. In a postmodern world where musical artists seemingly aspire to be one-hit wonders, Prince masterfully crafted a vast catalog of multi-platinum albums, smash hit singles, obscure albums, and intensely personal tales set to his music. In spite of being one of the most famous people on earth, you only really know about Prince what he allowed you to know. He was a mysterious musical prodigy wrapped in a riddle buried in an enigma.
Prince set a new benchmark for how a famous person expressed his/her faith. Most entertainers, athletes, politicians, or notable members of the media choose to conceal their spirituality and/or religious beliefs from everyone. Not Prince. He was proud and transparent in being a devout member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He steadfastly asserted that sexuality and salvation were not mutually exclusive concepts. In interviews, during concerts, and at speaking engagements, Prince spoke openly and honestly about his love for God. In doing so, he made other celebrities feel comfortable about openly expressing their system of faith.
Prince was black… and proud of that fact. Prince carried himself in such a way that no one could or would ever be confused about his ethnicity. If his hero, James Brown, was Soul Brother #1, then Prince would have to be considered Soul Brother #1A. The blackness of “His Royal Purpleness” was apparent in how he walked, spoke, danced, and everything else. For the past few years, he even wore his iconic long hair in an afro. Enough said.
Prince warped popular music to his orbit. Countless music stars and superstars readily cite Prince as a major influence in their careers.
It is said that Prince has hundreds – or possibly thousands – of songs no one has ever heard. Think about that. Perhaps his best music has yet to be discovered. Only time will tell.
I have heard several media outlets describe Prince’s passing as untimely. I respectfully disagree with that sentiment. Prince came, he saw, he rocked the planet, and then he left. While some of his music lyrics were dark and dense, many of his lyrics were enlightening and existential.
His social commentaries, love of life and impish sense of humor were ever-present. Who among us didn’t blast “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Sign O’ The Times,” “Purple Rain,” or “Kiss” in their cars, college dorms, or homes?
As long as there are human beings, Prince’s music will be played and enjoyed by them. Though he will be missed, he will remembered, too.
Whether you knew him as Alexander Nevermind, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, Camille, Christopher Tracy, His Royal Badness, Jaime Starr, Paisley Park, or “The Kid,” he was singular. There is, and was, no one like him. Prince was an American original. Well played, sir. Well played indeed.