There was never a time, not even a passing moment, that Prince didn’t matter.
As a singer, Prince summoned the masses with a time-tested collusion of the sanctified and the smutty, sex transubstantiated into sacrament. As a guitarist he was among the first black players taken seriously after Jimi Hendrix, whose psychedelic noise and lysergic spiritualism he copped freely and authoritatively. As a leader of superb bands, whose musical talents he unfurled in brilliantly bespoke finery, he ranked alongside such legends as Sly Stone, George Clinton, maybe even Duke Ellington.
Prince, 57, died on Thursday at his home near Minneapolis, of causes as yet undisclosed.
From the time he broke through to the masses — in a big way with songs like “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” and then in a ubiquitous, world-beating way in the 1984 film “Purple Rain” and its attendant album — the artist born as Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 was among the most groundbreaking figures American music ever produced.
You might not have guessed it before “Little Red Corvette” hit MTV in 1983. If Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” had pried open the network’s racial barriers that year, then Prince kicked the doors off the hinges for good with his ballad: a virtuoso mix of male vulnerability, coy innuendo, and economical guitar heroics. The breathy rise and fall of its chord progression was a midtempo sigh you couldn’t get out of your head.
Even if you’d overlooked his five previous albums (the first issued when he was just 19) or his torrents of side projects (The Time, Vanity 6, and more), you couldn’t miss Prince’s 1984 apotheosis, ignited with the high-tension-wire eroticism of “When Doves Cry” and fueled to an unstoppable blaze with the title ballad from “Purple Rain,” a slow burning string of apologies that ignites into incandescent evangelism, with its throaty guitar solo a beam from earth straight to heaven.
Even now, I can recall feeling swept up by the media-stoked frenzy while attending my first Prince concert, part of his post-“Purple Rain” victory lap. That show was a sensation. But it was another encounter that drove home the magnitude of his genius, during his “Lovesexy” tour of 1988-89. What I witnessed still ranks high among a lifetime’s memories: an artist in absolute control of his medium and his message, allied to a band that could deliver everything he demanded of it, while also responding instantly to his passing whim.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, coming so soon in the wake of “Sign o’ the Times,” a titanic 1987 comeback after two worthwhile albums that — despite such hits as “Raspberry Beret” and “Kiss” — never stood a chance of measuring up to “Purple Rain.”
With “Sign,” Prince showed the world for the first time that he couldn’t be counted out. A double-LP set featuring the slow-burn urban politics of the title track, blissful ear candy like “U Got the Look,” genre-stretching ambiguities such as “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and more beside, it astonishes even now with its imaginative writing and brilliant playing. “Sign” proved Prince’s resilience, his ability to rebound, his capacity for surprise.
That quality was tested continually. There was “The Black Album,” the notorious back-to-funk LP that surfaced briefly in 1987, then disappeared when Prince had a spiritual change of heart. (He channeled its positive aspects into “Lovesexy,” while wisely burying its embarrassing early grapples with hip-hop.)
There were his desultory attempts at a silver-screen rebound with “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge.” There was the unpronounceable glyph he took as his name, and the flood of uneven albums he produced during a contract dispute with Warner Bros. in the 1990s.
Even then, his throwaways were worth hearing. But you needed determination to find a gem like 1991’s “Diamonds and Pearls” — a focused, potent LP that yielded five hits, including a No. 1 in “Cream” — amid the flotsam and jetsam of a career seemingly unraveling.
No Prince album thereafter would measure up, though some came close (2004’s “Musicology” in particular), but all had points of light worth finding. Searching, you confronted a bitter truth: For all of Prince’s get-off-my-lawn crabbing against technology —
Hostility toward platform advances and paradigm shifts likely hampered his career. Yet paradoxically, he could be a playful imp on Twitter, delighting fans while showing his own undimmed enthusiasm.
And he could always astonish. People still speak in hushed tones of the guitar solo Prince unreeled during a performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Steve Winwood at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: a spine-tingling display not just of technical prowess, but also of deep insight and passionate respect for the song and its creator.
In 2007, playing under a cloudburst, he mustered gospel prayer-meeting passion with “Purple Rain” during TV’s stiffest, fakest musical experience, the Super Bowl halftime show.
It wasn’t just TV. “Welcome 2 America,” the concert tour Prince launched late in 2010, packed arenas worldwide during its two-year run, reasserting Prince’s artistic primacy not just through the veritable jukebox of hits he drew upon, but through the company he kept as opening acts: forebears and peers like R&B diva Chaka Khan, James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, and Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, as well as upstarts and proteges including soul-revival singer Anthony Hamilton, art-funk auteur Janelle Monáe, and jazz-bass chameleon Esperanza Spalding.
Even after, there was no coasting. In November 2014, Prince commandeered “Saturday Night Live” for eight uninterrupted minutes, bypassing obvious hits in favor of fresh acid-funk fare with his final backing band, 3rdEyeGirl, and the latest rising star he’d taken under his wing, singer Lianne La Havas.
When news broke last week of an emergency airplane landing in Moline, Ill., followed by hospitalization and a flu diagnosis, fans learned that Prince had been on the road once more, with a tour in which he sang and played piano — and nothing more.
One video that’s surfaced, a segment of “Purple Rain” shot with a phone in Atlanta, his last tour stop, and posted on Twitter, shows that Prince didn’t need anything more. The 26 seconds of wobbly footage telegraphs what’s essential and enduring about the song and its singer: not flashy moves, costumes, or pyrotechnics, but a voice rising undimmed, in tones of humility and rue — with everyone singing along.
Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.