Over the past few decades, no artist has been the subject of as much controversy, mystery and adoration as Prince. His public battles with record labels and the details of his personal life have all been fodder for countless articles, TV programs and gross speculation. Prince is one of the last great iconoclasts, a man whose work is completely inseparable from the shroud of mystique that surrounds his every step.
But for all the unfair assumptions and expectations laid at his feet, his songs have often been held up as some of the most articulate and technically wondrous pieces of music to be released in recent memory. Borrowing heavily from classic soul, funk and old-school R&B, Prince creates a vibrant and skewed pop reality where the only thing that’s certain is that Prince is the only one who knows what’s going on.
Known for his flamboyant live performances and sexually charged lyrics (although, more recently, he has dropped some of the most explicit songs from his live shows), Prince has been doing his own thing for over three decades and shows no signs of stopping. His fusion of so many styles of music was revolutionary when he first began releasing music. And that hasn’t changed in the interceding years. His music still has the capacity to shock and instill a shivering euphoria in whoever happens to be within earshot.
Born in Minneapolis in 1958, he began writing songs when he was just 7 years old. By the time he was 19, Prince had recorded several demo tapes but had met with little to no success. But under the guidance of manager Owen Husney, he released his official debut record, “For You,” in 1978. However, it wasn’t until he released his self-titled sophomore album in 1979 that his stature as an artist was given its full due. On the strength of subsequent singles “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” his second record was certified platinum and gave fans a glimpse of what was to come.
His next few albums formed a triptych of alien R&B, funk and rock sounds that continue to astound and amaze. They were weird, wonderful and completely without reference. And it was exactly this sense of ambiguity in terms of their influences that helped them achieve something close to legendary status among fans. But with the release of “Purple Rain” in 1984, Prince began a whole new chapter in his strange career. He had taken to calling his backing band The Revolution and gave them billing with him on the cover. The change wasn’t just the name of his band-the arrangements here were denser and more fleshed out, with a focus on full band performances.
With “Purple Rain” being his sixth record (and the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, which he also starred in), Prince was no stranger to redefining and refining his already well-developed sound. “Purple Rain” felt more confident and sure of itself and was one of his most beloved collections. This record was the first time Prince had ever used live recordings on a studio release. “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star” and “Purple Rain” were all taken from a live show in Minneapolis, with overdubs and edits made later on in the recording process.
There is nothing subtle about these songs-not that there is really anything subtle about Prince’s music in general-“Purple Rain” is grand and operatic in its bombastic nature. There is a good deal of thick pop tendencies slathered all over this record. There’s the usual funk, soul, rock and jazz predilections, but this is a pop record first and foremost. The pop, however, isn’t simple or easily categorized. This was pop from somewhere in the distant future, a time when the rules regarding success and experimental processes weren’t mutually exclusive.
Just look at “When Doves Cry,” a song that was stripped of its bass line, itself a rhythmic constant of his music, and which still became one of his biggest hits. These songs lived and breathed through Prince’s creative impulses. Hearts were broken and lungs were scorched, all in the name of love and its resulting emotional scars. Prince was and continues to be a very technical guitarist, and he displayed a dramatic understanding of how best to tame and subdue the feral waves of sound that constantly echoed from his frets. The songs often ventured into psychedelic territory, as Prince shook the sound of his instrument and filtered it all through a handful of vibratory pop and funk filters.
Prince wasn’t successful because he conspicuously played around with genres-OK, he wasn’t only successful because of that. His music, no matter how raunchy or racy, was always pulled close to the heart. There was a beating, thudding melody that drew everything together. His voice was the lone guiding light in dark cavernous space, and whether he realized it, this was something that had never been done before. “Purple Rain” is a monument to ambition and talent and was a need to prove himself capable of great things. This record made people look at music in a different way.
The details of his life, and any ensuing difficulties therein, are known by millions of people, but despite this, Prince never allowed these obstacles to keep him from his music. Although the majority of his early ’80s output was marked by a progressive and experimental perspective, he continued to buck expectations well into his later years. There may be some argument from fans about his best work, but there’s no denying the staggering importance and influence that “Purple Rain” had on countless musicians who needed something to latch onto during those years, and who subsequently found their salvation and individual creative drives through his music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.