I know I always say I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start when I write these things, but I’m at a loss at where to start with this. Everyone knows by now. The world has been reeling for the past few days, but things are supposed to get back to “normal” by now. Everything that can be said has already been said, a lot more eloquently than I could say. All that’s coming out is a long, rambling, incoherent mess that means nothing to anyone except me.
But for me, I’m still having a hard time dealing. I’m still prone to random crying spells and unable to think about anything other than his music and how much it’s been a part of my entire life.
When I say Prince’s music has been a part of my entire life, I mean that I was born the same year as his discography. I saw a great meme explaining who Prince is to someone who somehow may not know. The explanation: he’s the guy who helped your parents fuck you into existence so he’s 33% your father. I joked that it may be true if that first album dropped around (or before April). As it turns out For You was released on April 7, 1978…
I can’t claim to having vivid revelations when it comes to Prince because childhood memories are fuzzy and run together. Things that were happening when I was four or five seem the same as things that happened when I was ten or twelve. So I can’t say I remember exactly the first time I heard “Controversy” but remember it was on a record player. So was “Tambourine” and “Erotic City.” I also remember “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” (while they still played the six-minute+ version) on the radio. I feel like I heard all these songs before I ever heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” definitely before I finally saw him perform it on American Bandstand and drove Dick Clark up the wall because he barely spoke.
However, I do know for sure my first visual image of Prince came via music video. I’m sure “When Doves Cry” was released ahead of the release of Purple Rain. I had to be about 5 at the time and I spent much of the day watching MTV or listening to music, immersing myself in the music. But this was the first time I had an image of Prince. And I can say that at that age the full weight of that image did not hit me.
But I knew I liked it.
I liked everything about him. His hair, his clothes, his dancing, everything. Perhaps it’s because of him, seeing androgyny and effeminate masculinity never seemed “wrong.” I also didn’t see it as daring but in hindsight I understand the subversive nature of his image. I can also place it in line with images of Black men like Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Dodson of The Bar-kays, and The Ohio Players. I see it continued with men like Andre 3000 (whom I never found attractive until the “Skew It on the Bar-B” video). Honestly, I don’t think hypermasculinity for Black men became the “norm” until gangsta rap went mainstream, but it didn’t become cool until Prince.
But even during that time, we had Prince and his own form of masculinity that went against everything Black masculinity was supposed to be. (Incidentally if you’re paying attention you’ll notice he’s actually a big hip-hop head himself.) I remember the MTV Music Awards in 1991 during his yellow years. He showed up to perform “Gett Off” in a latticed yellow outfit – that had no ass. And he rolled his big ass round this way so everybody could see it. And he wore assless pants for a while. He had that same look in “Thieves in the Temple.” I do remember that vividly.
His blatant sexuality caused some distress during my Jojoba Witness phase. Well he didn’t cause it: my own inability to read subversiveness and understand sexual autonomy did. Interestingly, since I grew up seeing his pretty openly sexual display, I came to expect it and it wasn’t anything of a surprise. I think the most impressive thing about him was that no matter the image he displayed, it always came back to his music.
Over the past few days, I’ve done something I have only done with one other music artist: I’ve gone through Prince’s music catalog from the beginning. If there is ever any artist who has shown progress, evolution and growth in his work, it’s Prince. This is something I feel was lost on me for a long time, especially during my hotep years when I tried not to like him for various reasons. (I failed in that by the way.)
However, even during that time (mid to late 90s), I would still hear songs I thought everyone had long forgotten within the trajectory of his career: “Face Down,” “The Morning Papers” and “Dinner with Delores” all came and went after I’d seen videos only once. I vaguely remember a performance of “Dinner with Delores” on David Letterman, but Prince, then known as The Artist, left the stage right after the performance without even acknowledging Letterman. I also remember loving the sound of “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” (as well as that title).
I don’t think I fully came back to him until the mid-2000s. A couple of reasons for this. 1) “Musicology.” I still regularly listened to the radio then and had access to VH1 Soul about once a week when my free preview channel played the station every Tuesday or Wednesday. The single “Musicology” was in regular rotation and I could even hear it on the radio. I think that was when I realized Prince wasn’t going anywhere and he still had it in any decade. I mean the man shouted out Chuck D and Jam Master Jay and told you not to touch his records.
2) Downloading. This is where I have to admit I’m a bad fan and explain why I sometimes feel like I’m not doing fangirling correctly. While I regularly bought CDs and things at the time (including the soundtrack for Girl 6), I also discovered downloading and had access to my own computer. I tended not to buy music from people I listened to as a child. It wasn’t “oldie” enough for my taste and often came with memories of the past, not all of them I liked. But I was more willing to retrieve this music when I could just download it and maybe remember MTV.
And I have to say here, not only did Prince end up with his own CD once I transferred files but some other songs of his ended up on another CD that somehow transferred into MP3s instead of WMA on the disc. Actually, the first song of his I downloaded went at the end of an earlier CD I compiled, intentionally so because I wanted to find it easily. That song: “Batdance.”
There were a couple of other songs on one of the first CDs I made: “Kiss” and “Tambourine.” However, when I put the CD together exclusively with his music, I intentionally started it with what is probably still my favorite song of his ever: “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night.” (I also loved when it came up on my Windows Media Player because the cover art displayed The Very Best of Prince and I loved the visual compilation from the cover art. Don’t ask. I’m weird.) I think the rest of the CD was arranged randomly:
- Money Don’t Matter 2 Night
- The Arms of Orion
- I Would Die 4 U
- Sexy M.F.
- The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
- When Doves Cry
- U Got the Look
- Gett Off
- Little Red Corvette
The MP3 CD was most definitely random since I didn’t get to arrange it all. It starts with “Computer Blue” but not all Prince songs are found together. “Baby I’m a Star” is close by but does not follow consecutively. But I do have a good block later in the CD starting with a song that both terrified me and fascinated me simultaneously:
- Pop Life
- I Wanna Be Your Lover
- Sign ‘O’ the Times (which has also simultaneously terrified and fascinated me)
- Around the World in a Day
- Paisley Park
Interestingly, this block consists of most of the songs I actually went to when I found out about his death. I think there’s something about the Around the World in a Day/Parade period that resonates with me. Also, Around the World in a Day was the album I spent hours listening to because my sister had it on cassette. And “Pop Life,” “Mountains” and “Anotherloverholeinyohead” are all songs that make me sad because they end. Of course, I had no idea that these albums were departures for him. I always took art as it came with no regard to what the artist wanted to express at the time. I would just decide whether or not I liked it.
And this is another reason I feel like a bad fan at times. While I’m glad to see that Prince is among the artists who has sought after bootlegs and sometimes cult like favorites with fans who can trace the trajectory of his sound, I’m not really among them. Sign ‘O’ the Times came out when I was 8 and I definitely wasn’t buying music at the time. By the time I was, I usually couldn’t afford to get his work because they were double albums and box sets. I also don’t think that much of the earlier stuff was issued on CD yet either. And if I’m being perfectly honest, he was one of those artists whose work I wanted to grab all at once because it wasn’t worth having only one or two albums of his and not the rest.
So his full influence was lost on me for some time, which is mostly why I feel like I’ve failed in my fangirling. I didn’t even realize he was essentially a rock guitarist until a few years ago when I finally saw the footage of him slaying the solo for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the George Harrison tribute in 2004. I wondered how he ended up on stage with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood then found out he got himself in the lineup to shade Rolling Stone for failing to mention him as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. I was deep into Hendrix by then so I damn near passed out at that performance. It was then I remembered I’d only ever heard Wyclef Jean acknowledge him as a master guitar slayer.
But anyway I’ve been giving myself a lesson in Prince’s discography for the past week. I can’t give a complete breakdown of all the changes and trajectory of his music career. I’m not versed well enough in music vocabulary to do it justice. But I hope someone does. I don’t mean a look at how his life influenced his career but just give a look at his sheer genius in creating. I want someone to look at the “Batdance” video and see how it is demonstrative of his full capacity as an artist, especially one facing a major challenge in his career at the time. Seriously, I don’t remember any other video that shows he could be a one-man band if he wanted.
(No for real. At 10, I was in love with this whole thing. It didn’t occur to me that critics speculated that this would end his career. All I know is I saw Batman and the Joker (and Vicki Vale) doing an interpretive dance with Prince as the Joker/Batman composite, a character I later learned was named Gemini. It all made sense to me. Perhaps because I already associated purple with Cesar Romero’s depiction of The Joker in the 60s TV series. And seeing Prince, the Purple One, in this scenario was not a big deal. Neither was the fact that he made a funk/rock soundtrack to an almost campy comic book film. In hindsight, this was pretty genius.)
I will say that my ear is letting me discern changes in style that began with Controversy before a complete departure of the Minneapolis sound in Around the World in a Day. I can see why DJs always take deep cuts from the first four albums in their mixes because they are great for deep funk. I can see why Sign ‘O’ the Times and Batman simultaneously went back to that funk but updated it a way that made his albums eclectic but not sonically jarring. And I most definitely see how rap and hip hop became a major influence in his 90s work as he stayed with the times instead of lamenting the past. In fact, that embrace of rap and hip-hop seemed apt at the time, considering his battle with his record company and he found a great outlet to express his anger.
And don’t get me started on the famous Crystal Ball bootleg. Acoustic Prince album is something I didn’t know I needed until I got it. Neither is jazz Prince album in the form of The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale and Rainbow Children.
His sheer prolificness is impressive in and of itself, especially considering he had about 39 authorized albums during his 37-year career. However, I’d make an argument that he was the single most important creative genius of the modern music era. Yes even more so than the precious Beatles and I’ve studied their career and influence for years.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Beatles fan and according to music critics so was Prince. However, listening to the Beatles evolve from boy band to psychedelic art rock can in no way shape or form compare to Prince from 1978 to 2016.
You see Prince never started off as a pale imitation of his influences. He easily incorporated rock, funk, jazz, blues and other styles from the very beginning. Unlike the Fab Four, he had a connection to and respect for the music that’s rooted in the DNA of this country’s sordid history, his DNA. In fact, he had to wait until he was 19 to make his album because he was not allowed to produce himself at age 15. And For You did cement him as a wunderkind of the time.
So to hear him take chances and stay so closely connected to his roots (literally and figuratively since he never left Minnesota) is an amazing feat. His struggle for creative control later came to a head during the 90s as he changed his name to that symbol, which eventually and ironically gave him the apt moniker The Artist. And I starkly remember him having a press conference the day he announced he would go back to his original name Prince and being impressed that this was such a big deal that it merited a press conference.
With this moment in mind and what I now remember about his fight for creative control, I would make an argument that the defining song of that era is “My Name Is Prince.” The opening track of the album now known as The Love Symbol was a noisy declaration that probably most effectively demonstrates the influence rap had on his musical output at the time. And if I’m not mistaken, he was no longer recording under the name Prince (or soon would not be), so to declare my name is Prince was definitely a message to his record company.
The song includes samples from his own music and the effect his music had on his listeners (“when you hear my music, you be getting down”). It also reminds us of his roots in funk. I also think of the video. Every time I saw it, I looked carefully to see if the man behind the chain mask was really him. (It is. He shows his face in the end.) Hiding his face in the video was actually a slap in the face to the record company as well, especially considering they recut the Spike Lee-directed “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” to include footage of Prince performing when the original cut did not include him at all.
Anyway, back to his roots. The way the man proudly expressed his blackness was always cool with me. I think that’s part of the reason Musicology brought me back to him: he proudly celebrated Black music, musicians and traditions with the title track, not just his own funky soul. I think it was that homage that endeared him to me from then on.
It was definitely this willingness to see greatness in other artists that has made me see many of his other contributions over the past couple of years, especially since I started the Black Swan Collective. I realized that many of the women I featured on the show had ties to him whether they worked with him or he collaborated with them in other ways. And as many people are finding out, he generously reached out to Black women in music to amplify their voices.
As Didi said on our show BlackGirlSquee, he was so drawn to #BlackGirlMagic. This was evident from the beginning when he wrote “I Feel for You” for Patrice Rushen and she taught him to use synthesizers. I’ve also learned that his song “Dionne” is about Dionne Farris. Not to mention other women like Sheila E., Támar Davis, Andy Allo, Judith Hill, Janelle Monáe, Angie Stone, Rosie Gaines and KING among others who received mentorship, resources or other pushes from the man himself. Even Toni Braxton stated that he invited her to tour with him when she went bankrupt. And I’ve also seen that he financially took care of Lauryn Hill’s family when she went to jail for tax evasion.
But I think one of the best examples of his love for #BlackGirlMagic came in 2010 when he went to the BET Awards (yes he forever stayed connected to Black media and outlets) for the celebration of his lifetime achievement. At the time, I remember seeing tweets about it including someone joking that Prince had to sit and watch people “murderlize” his music. Apparently, he really did hate people covering his songs. Except when we get to Patti LaBelle.
Miss Patti performed possibly his most beloved composition, “Purple Rain.” His subtle facial expressions and body language said everything without any words. He blushes when she enters the stage. He gets his life from her performance. Then Patti did the thing that even those of us who have never gotten to see her live knows she does at her shows – she kicked off the shoes.
Then Prince walked right up to the stage and grabbed one of those shoes.
This was the moment my friend Didi chose to commemorate his passing on her blog. And it was perfect. As someone who aims to spread the joy of #BlackGirlMagic in my daily life, I saw this as what male support of said #BlackGirlMagic looks like. A man who by any definition of the word showed true genius but deferred to the Black woman he grew up listening to and later worked with in her career. (I wondered why I thought I heard his voice on her song “Yo Mister.” Turns out he wrote it.)
I found another subtle nod to his love of #BlackGirlMagic as I watched his performance when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. His set actually begins with cues from two songs that ended up in the hands of Black women and became associated with them: Sheila E.’s “Glamorous Life” and “I Feel for You,” written for Patrice Rushen but most famously covered by Chaka Khan.
There’s a lot to be said about his personal relationships with women and his use of their bodies along with his (which was why I tried not to like him during the Jojoba Witness phase), but I’m not focusing on that now. I feel like (cisgender) men are fucked up given the allowances we make for them in this society. He was definitely no exception.
But that still doesn’t make this loss any easier. His is the only music I can think of that was just always there since the beginning, without me having to go back to dig for his earlier stuff or coming around during some other formative years in my life. His music was my life.
And I hope the critics and gatekeepers do justice to his legacy. I want the same for him that his white male contemporaries and others throughout have gotten regarding the reverence of their work. I hope there are debates not only on his cultural impact but also speculation about lyrics, dissecting of how he created a specific sound and all those things we get about the Beatles.
I would be remiss to explain that I want the same for the many Black women I try to honor with the Black Swan Collective. If the past week has done anything, it has shown me that I want to renew my commitment to writing about women in music, especially those who step outside genres designated for Black women. Just as I want the world remembering what Prince gave, I want the same for these Black women as well.
I want this for Imani Coppola.
I want this for Betty Davis.
I want this for LaBelle.
I want this for Chaka Khan.
I want this for Angie Stone.
I want this for Patrice Rushen.
I want this for Janet Jackson.
I want this for Erykah Badu.
And yes I want this for Beyoncé.
Right now I’m still wishing the world would just stop instead of trying to go on as usual, like we didn’t lose this generation’s most unique creative force. I sometimes feel silly for feeling this way. The man didn’t know me and truth be told I didn’t know him. But my world is different because of him. This world is different because of him.
I already know I won’t mourn or grieve for another artist like this ever again. I didn’t cry about Michael Jackson until the memorial. I came to terms with Whitney Houston not too long after her passing. I accepted David Bowie’s passing within a couple of days. But this loss feels different. As my friend Sharon from Cinemosity said, Prince had “it” in every way and never lost it. Nothing got in his way of being the best at everything he did. He always did Prince and every action he took said fuck the naysayers. And finding out about his generous nature this past week has not helped dull the emptiness that’s come over me.
I’m sure I’ve said nothing important or groundbreaking about the man. I’m simply trying to get to the point where I’m not obsessing about his music, going to sleep in tears because I remember he’s gone and waking up with his music first thing on my mind. I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t hate myself for failing as a fan, never getting to see him live or spending hours hunting down material online no matter how impossible that feat is. I’m just trying to get to the point where this doesn’t hurt so damn much anymore.
So I guess that’s what this whole long, rambling ass post is about, my own personal healing and why I feel such a sense of loss for someone I never met in the flesh. Weird how these strangers become your closest friends in your loneliest days and darkest hours. So that loss is real. Music is my aeroplane and Prince Rogers Nelson’s death made me realize he was the pilot.
And P.S. for TPTB: I will most definitely pay for a complete Prince video collection and the Sign ‘O’ the Times concert video. Get on it.
And also, close. the. fucking. vault. That is all.