Prince ( June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)
The music world was rocked with news when the iconic singer and songwriter Prince died after battling a recent illness. The Minneapolis native remains as one of the most influential musicians of his era, and his loss is nothing short of devastating.
Prince is one of the most naturally gifted artists of all time, and also one of the most mysterious. In the Eighties, at a time when other megastars such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, were delivering an album every three years or so, Prince remained prolific to an almost inhuman degree. A byproduct of his inexhaustible output was Prince’s tendency toward wayward, self-indulgent career moves (like changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the Nineties) that sometimes alienated even his most ardent supporters.
Prince Rogers Nelson, songwriter, singer, producer, and all-round musical icon, was born on June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Music was a part of Prince’s family; his father, John Nelson, was a jazz pianist whose stage name was Prince Rogers, and his mother, Mattie Nelson, was a vocalist. Prince’s home life, however, was turbulent, and he left home at the age of 12 and was adopted into another family. In highschool, Prince formed his first band Grand Central (later known as Champagne) with André Anderson (who later changed his name to André Cymone) and Morris Day.
In 1978, Prince was signed to Warner Bros. Records. In a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince revealed that when he was a child, he suffered from epileptic seizures and that he was teased in school. He told Smiley: “… Early in my career I tried to compensate by being as flashy and as noisy as I could.”
In 1978, Prince dropped his debut album, For You, which was followed by Prince (1979). He played practically all of the instruments on the albums, and the sophomore release contained his first top 20 pop hit, the easygoing “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” The critically acclaimed Dirty Mind dropped in 1980, consisting of material that was graphic in its exploration of sexuality and fantasy.
Controversy (1981) continued playing with the themes of its predecessor, as seen with the dance-oriented title track, which reached No. 3 on the r&b charts, as well as songs like “Sexuality” and “Do Me Baby.” Yet as Prince continued to develop his career, he would also be known for tracks that had a deep spirituality, with a yearning for majesty and wonder.
The singer found international success with the release of his 1982 album, 1999, which included the top 20 title track, an exquisite synth-funk ode about nuclear doomsday, as well as the top 10 hits “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious”.
With his band The Revolution, Prince went on to create the classic album Purple Rain (1984), which also served as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, grossing almost $70 million at the U.S. box office. Co-starring Apollonia Kotero and Day, the movie garnered an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. The melancholy title track “Purple Rain” reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the hits “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” both reached no. 1. While “Crazy” readily joined the pantheon of wild, electrifying rock songs, “Doves Cry” had one-of-a-kind signatures, displaying an otherworldly meld of electronic and funk elements without a traditional chorus. The soundtrack offered two other hits: “I Would Die 4 U” and “Take Me With U.”
To understand Prince, one must appreciate the extent of his musical obsession. He has always been a willing servant of his tireless muse. “There’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can,” he claimed in a 1985 interview. “Music is what keeps me awake.” Because he is a workaholic, it’s difficult to keep track of all he’s recorded for himself and others in his orbit. There are reputedly hundreds of unreleased songs in Prince’s vault. In 1998, he unveiled some of these leftovers on the five-CD set, Crystal Ball. That leviathan followed Emancipation (1996), a three-disc set of new material. The single discs Chaos and Disorder (1996) and New Power Soul (1998) also came out during the same time frame. That’s 10 CDs’ worth of music in a three-year period – much more material than most artists manage in a lifetime – and it doesn’t even include albums by Chaka Khan (Come 2 My House) and Graham Central Station (GCS 2000) on which Prince played a major role. Given such prolific output, it doesn’t take long to realize that Prince isn’t just a musician but a force of nature.
One must also accept the fact that Prince is a genuine American eccentric who defiantly marches to the beat of his own funky drummer. Consider that in 1993 he changed his name from Prince to an unpronounceable cipher: a hybrid of the symbols for male and female. He was thereafter referred to (at his own suggestion) as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” or simply “The Artist”.
“I follow what God tells me to do,” Prince explained. “It said, ‘Change your name,’ and I changed my name to a symbol ready for Internet use before I knew anything about the Internet.” In May 2000, he went back to being Prince. Although his motivations may sometimes seem mysterious, Prince is never uninteresting and always capable one more hit record or a return to stardom.
On April 21, 2016, Prince was found dead at his Paisley Park compound in Minnesota. The week prior, his plane made an emergency landing and the singer was hospitalized for what was reportedly a severe case of the flu. Early reports by TMZ, though, have revealed that the musician had overdosed on Percocet, which he had been taking for a hip issue linked to corrective surgery in 2010. The Carver County sheriff’s department and Midwest Medical Examiner’s office have launched an investigation into the cause of death.
Tributes to a profoundly unique artist have poured in from fans across the globe, as evidenced by impromptu memorials and celebrations of his work. With love especially hailing from the city where Prince was born and continued to live, thousands of mourners sang to “Purple Rain” in downtown Minneapolis on the night of his death.