tue 25/06/2024

Prince, 1958-2016 | reviews, news & interviews

Prince, 1958-2016

Prince, 1958-2016

Unique, irreplaceable, unequalled: the incomprehensible loss of a complete one-off

'He delivered heart-stoppingly great performances': at the Dolphin Stadium, Miami in 2007(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Prince Rogers Nelson was the most gloriously disruptive presence in popular culture from the very start to the very end. Everything about him was off kilter and wrong: it's not for nothing that the first major biography of him was called The Imp of the Perverse. His songs were full of deranged filth, skewed social comment with a conspiratarian edge, had a very individualist take on Jehovah's Witness spirituality and mysticism, and all manner of personal cyphers and in-jokes.

He was a constantly self-creating work of art of the most esoteric and incomprehensible sort – yet for all that he dealt in the most direct and accessible communication of all. Whether he was making scintillating pop songs, groin-level funk, searing rock or all three, he consistently perfected the form he was working in.

His run of hit singles and albums in the 1980s and into the 1990s was unrivalled – and that's before you get to the insane catalogue of songs he wrote for others as easily as breathing. He formed part of a pop triumvirate with his  contemporaries Michael Jackson and Madonna: all were subversive and brilliant in their own way, but neither of the other two were the total package in the way Prince was. Even if he'd just been as good as he was as a singer, virtuoso on whatever instrument he picked up, composer, dancer or stage performer he could have been a superstar – but he was world-class at all of those things, and managed to unify them all into the single unique achievement of Being Prince. Even the things at which he didn't excel – you'd be hard-pressed to find even a devoted fan who'd rate his dramatic movies as great cinema, for example – somehow managed in context to contribute to that wider achievement of Being Prince.

Pick any record and you are guaranteed to find fun, weirdness, sauce, funk

Inevitably, his later work suffers in comparison with this (pun intended) purple patch – dammit, when you've made something as perfect as Sign O' the Times and its devastating accompanying concert movie, you've set the bar impossibly high – but he never let up in the project of Being Prince, and in fact he never stopped delivering mind-boggling music. Over the last 20 years he made around 20 albums, operating more or less completely detached from the music industry and selling direct to his legion of passionate fans until his return to Warners in 2014, and if you pick any one of those records, you are guaranteed to find fun, weirdness, sauce, funk, and far more killer hooks than that later work is often credited with. Right up to the end, he was delivering heart-stoppingly great performances, too, and the immensity of the tragedy of his passing is incomprehensible: this was very obviously a man with so much more to give.

His influence is immeasurable. Obviously, without Prince we wouldn't have Pharrell, Andre 3000, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean or any of the other leftfield stars of hip hop and R&B: not only does his music resonate through everything they do, but he smashed apart all preconceptions of what a black artist could do and be in American culture – ironically the very diversity of personalities around now can all be traced to one man. Even the career trajectory of Beyonce owes vast amounts to Prince. And as befits someone who was never going to be shoehorned into the roles allotted to black artists, his influence spreads far beyond black artists too: from Beck to Lady Gaga to Justin Timberlake to Pink to Taylor Swift, there's scarcely a pop star with a modicum of interest about them who doesn't owe a deep debt to Prince. And throughout hip hop, underground dance music, and right into the far leftfield, his music and the gesamtkunstwerk of Being Prince echoes more and more with each passing year.

Impossible, irreplaceable, world-conquering: there's really no way to comprehend just how much we have lost.

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