“I’m your conscience. I am love.”
Since the shocking events of April 21, 2016, fans, critics and fellow artists have come forward to express their love, respect and adoration for the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. The world was not prepared for Prince to leave it. And in spite of the speculation and rumors that have been swirling in the wake of his death, there is no doubt that this man’s legacy will not be defined by tabloid conjecture. Prince will forever be celebrated for his art and his commitment to artistry and humanity.
From his earliest releases sporting the now-famous tag of “produced, arranged, composed and performed by PRINCE,” to his recent work with 3rdEyeGirl and collaborations with artists like Janelle Monae, it’s always been obvious that music is Prince’s greatest love — bordering on an obsession. But that only sounds negative if you have no clue what it’s like to be consumed by your own vision, to be a vessel for some divine creativity — Prince was the living embodiment of all that a music lover could want in a singular artist.
“Anyone who was around back then knew what was happening,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1990, reminiscing about his early days playing long nights in North Minneapolis. “I was working. When they were sleeping, I was jamming. When they woke up, I had another groove. I’m as insane that way now as I was back then.”
His breaking of gender taboos and perceptions of sexuality changed so much in Black music and pop culture, in general. And his immense talent, commitment to his own vision and always-present musicality were showcased on every album he released and not once did it ever feel like Prince was repeating himself as an artist. His creativity was always front and center.
It was in the futuristic grooves of For You and the creative ambition of his eponymous sophomore album. It was in the brazen New Wave of Dirty Mind and the visionary topicality of Controversy. It was in the perfected Minneapolis sound on 1999. It was in the pristine pop of Purple Rain. The light psychedelia of Around the World in a Day and sparse melodrama of Parade. It was in the eclectic artistry of Sign O’ the Times. The faux conceptualism of LoveSexy. The bold funk of the Batman soundtrack.
“There’s nothing a critic can tell me that I can learn from,” Prince told RS. “If they were musicians, maybe. But I hate reading about what some guy sitting at a desk thinks about me. You know, ‘He’s back, and he’s Plack,’ or ‘He’s back, and he’s bad.’ ”
Prince’s musical legacy is so rich and his persona is so indelible to contemporary pop culture, that his death felt like someone suddenly erasing a chunk of a musical map. Him being gone leaves a massive void where musicianship and mystique converged in one artist who became a standard for the former while never relinquishing the latter. He was uncompromising and unafraid. Even as times changed, he kept his integrity. Prince became an unpronounceable symbol in more ways than one.
All the while, he never lost sight of what it meant to be a Black artist in an industry that routinely marginalizes and devalues Black art. In that Rolling Stone interview, he admitted his frustration with awards shows. Sharing the same frustrations that many contemporary Black artists have voiced, Prince made it clear that he watches other acts win awards knowing that he could do what they do — but they couldn’t come close to him.
“‘I don’t go to awards shows anymore,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. I played La Crosse, [Wisconsin], growing up, I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ “
If you think that’s cocky, then maybe it’s justified. Prince was always a superstar who still seemed to have much of his talent obscured or dismissed. It’s like the critics began to take for granted this musician who could seemingly play everything and who churned out albums, singles and side projects at a dizzying rate. His guitar skills were unheralded for years, and the work he did with artists ranging from Stevie Nicks to Kenny Rogers was barely mentioned by mainstream commentators while being championed by die-hard fans.
But Prince’s enduring legacy isn’t just directly tied to his musicianship. His frustrations weren’t always limited to awards shows. Prince fought the savage music industry tooth and nail for years, battling for the right to own his art. And that part of his legacy is as significant as any music he recorded and released. The scrutiny on his label had already begun in the 1990 interview (“You can always renegotiate a record contract. You just go in and say, ‘You know, I think my next project will be a country and western album,’” he mused.) and it would foreshadow his defiance of Warner Brothers and commitment to control.
Almost a decade-and-a-half later, Prince again spoke to Rolling Stone about what it means to inspire the next generation of artists — and he didn’t just mean musically. Prince wanted to be sure that young artists understood the industry and knew their worth. When he famously spent half of the 1990s publicly battling Warner Bros. and being mocked by commentators for what they saw as megalomaniacal behavior and grandstanding, he was really fighting to make sure the corporate powers-that-be aren’t allowed to exploit the artists they already make millions from. And he loved that so many younger artists understood the lesson.
“The respect of young artists — I love that,” he said in 2004, as he was re-emerging on the pop charts with Musicology. “Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people. Alicia Keys gets it. All these hip-hop artists, the first thing they do is start their own label and lock their business down — we had a lot to do with that.
“One advantage of writing ‘slave’ on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything,” Prince added. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.”
Do we really understand all that we’ve lost? Do we fully know how to celebrate him?
Madonna’s tribute to Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards got a cold reception from fans of the iconic musician. While many argued that she wasn’t musically qualified, wasn’t closely affiliated, had a mixed history with Prince himself, or was too self-absorbed to ever honor Prince properly (and all of those criticisms were valid), the chatter really only leads to one question: Are we really ready to say goodbye to Prince at all?
Of course, it doesn’t matter if we are ready to say goodbye. He’s passed from this world on to the next, and we’re left to figure out what we learned and what we missed from Prince Rogers Nelson. In a perfect world, he’d be just as enigmatic in death as he was in life. We’d still be trying to “figure him out” for decades to come. Of course, the insatiable media and the commitment of fans likely means that we’ll have more Prince questions answered than perhaps we ever wanted; but that doesn’t quite feel like Prince. Not that it matters. We will still give him as much love, respect and adoration as we did when he was with us.
Because he gave us so much.
Story by Stereo Williams
Cover illustration by Kareem Kenyada