Prince Rogers Nelson spent years changing the world. Today, he left it. Even casual music listeners should mourn the void he leaves.
At his artistic and commercial peak—the stretch of albums spanning 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1988’s Lovesexy—he was simply the greatest pop star on the planet, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, ingenious singer, mind-bogglingly prolific songwriter, provocateur, sexual libertine, unapologetic gender-fucker, genre-bender, master of the then-nascent medium of music video, and visionary sonic craftsman. For a while there, he seemed to innovate as a matter of course.
There are so many tangible and oft-discussed instances of his brilliance in the realm of pop music that they’re practically clichés at this point. Here is a man who sent a creepily minimal song in a minor key without a bass line, “When Doves Cry,” to No. 1 in the United States for five weeks in a row. He pulled a Beyoncé when Beyoncé was barely out of diapers, releasing 1985’s Around the World in a Day—his low-key followup to the multimedia pop cultural sensation Purple Rain—without promotional interviews or so much as a preceding single. He had piles of music at one point that went unreleased—envisioned albums called Dream Factory, Crystal Ball, and Camille, a full-length recorded under the guise of his female alter-ego—and instead of a disastrous mess, what emerged from those efforts was arguably the finest full-length of his career, 1987’s socially conscious double-album Sign o’ the Times.
It’s beautiful to look back on the way that Prince resonated with the masses while producing music that at times verged on the alien—listen to the skeletal “Kiss” and find me a weirder sounding song that went to No. 1 in the United States. (“When Doves Cry” is one of a handful of serious contenders to that title in the history of pop music.) He thrived when the world was receptive to individuality, before everyone got so scared and samey, before radical self-expression, when it has been so bold as to announce itself as such, started coming packaged in a postmodern game of spot-the-reference (cf. Lady Gaga). Even when he walked around in the mid-‘90s with “SLAVE” scrawled on his cheek, Prince seemed like the freest person on the planet.
He was funny as shit, too. Supposedly, the “6” in the name of his protégé girl group Vanity 6 derived from the number of nipples in the band. There’s a part in Sign o’ the Times’s gushing “Adore,” a regular contender in the ever-changing cycle of what I consider to be my favorite Prince song, where he breaks for a second or two, interrupting his litany of ways that he loves his object of desire: “This condition I got is crucial, crucial baby / You could say that I’m a terminal case / You could burn up my clothes / Smash up my ride—well maybe not the ride / But I got to have your face.” His hammy performance in Under the Cherry Moon lives on through memes and gifs that flooded the internet over 20 years after its release.
Prince was often called “enigmatic,” but his inscrutability—the backward messages in his songs and videos, temporarily changing his name to a symbol, all this talk about living 2 see the dawn—brought a sense of puzzling fun to pop. He refused to let journalists record him, sometimes to the point of not letting them take notes during interviews. He would brazenly lie (about, say, his association with the 3rdEyeGirl Twitter account, only to eventually reveal that 3rdEyeGirl was the name of his new band), and never look back or apologize. There’s so little mystique left in pop music these days, when everything is instantly available and artists seek to collapse any sense of distance between fan and act, but Prince always seemed distant, unknowable, magical.
I could go on and on about his unfathomable stage prowess, his unabashed femininity, his gleeful wordless yelps, his recent obstinacy about access to his back catalog (see: many of the janky embeds in this post), how devotion to religion—he was a Jehovah’s Witness—had him in the early 2000’s renouncing much of what made him such a brazen pioneer not 20 years earlier.
I could just name names—“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “17 Days,” “Gett Off,” “Controversy,” “Insatiable,” “Do Me Baby,” “Crucial,” “Alphabet Street,” “A Love Bizarre,” “Sexy Dancer,” “Little Red Corvette,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “1999,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Erotic City,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “The Beautiful Ones,” fucking “Purple Rain.”
Prince gave us so much. Even if his post-’90s material didn’t hold a candle to his ’80s creative peak, it didn’t matter. There’s never been a time in my life when Prince hasn’t been relevant. Since my teens, I’ve been cycling through weeks-long periods of intense love of Prince’s catalog. When I come back to him after just a few months away, his music sounds so fresh that it demands compulsive listening. Even though Prince is gone, even though there’s never been a world without Prince to me (he released his debut album, For You, on April 7, 1978, some seven months before I was born) and today is as earth-shattering as it gets when it comes to celebrity deaths, I know these Prince-centric cycles will continue throughout my life. I never had to contemplate a world without Prince, and I won’t. Right now, I feel more grateful than sad.
Prince used to bless us, his kingdom: “May u live 2 see the dawn.” Through him we did, and that was nothing short of an honor.