The Purple One

Black or white, straight or gay, rock or R&B, male or female—Prince transcended every category.

Prince performs onstage in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, on Nov. 14, 2010
Prince performs onstage in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, on Nov. 14, 2010.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jumana El-Heloueh/Reuters.

Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist known as Prince who Thursday became “formerly” with a devastating finality at only 57, was so gifted it barely can be believed, let alone described. Thankfully, it hardly needs to be, because anyone who wasn’t frightened off by his flagrancies and ambiguities could tell that this was a talent of the kind that rearranges what culture can do and what a human can be—the kind possessed, for instance, by two artists who predeceased him, his contemporary Michael Jackson and his elder by a dozen years David Bowie, and a very short list of other figures in pop-music history.

He was one of the finest ever pop singers, one of the most incredible guitarists (the anecdote in which Eric Clapton once replied to the question “What’s it like to be the greatest guitarist alive?” by saying “I don’t know, ask Prince” is probably apocryphal but, on a higher plane, definitely correct), and one of the most indelible songwriters, most influential producers, best wearers (and removers) of clothing, and most electric semiotic manipulators.

He didn’t merely combine R&B, rock, electro, funk, jazz, singer-songwriter folk, orchestral pop, and his other influences; he catalyzed them into a new chemistry, a periodic table of Prince elements that countless artists who followed would employ. The word “crossover” never seemed appropriate, the way it did for Jackson, because rather than moving astride genres, he made them come to him, pulled by his own magnetism—the intersection ran directly through his pelvis. And of course that was a pelvis we often saw displayed in black lingerie, nearly bared beneath fur and feather garments, enhanced with visual double-entendres as he straddled his brightly colored and curlicued guitars (or in phallic silhouette at no less straight-acting an occasion than the NFL Super Bowl halftime show, in the pouring rain, as if the heavens themselves had gone moist between the thighs), and a thousand other variations. He wasn’t just a hybrid creature musically but sexually and sociologically, an evolutionary leap in the same kind of complete way.

When he emerged in the late 1970s, few people were talking about defying “the binary” in the manner people do in 2016 around trans issues, but Prince embodied the concept. He was a sexual revolutionary who nearly on first sight prompted the eminent Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau to write in 1980, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.” As he sang in “Controversy,” Prince luxuriated in not conforming to any easy classification as male or female, black or white, straight or gay—and as his career developed, we might also add secular or sacred, fanatically insular or generously outreaching, commercial or uncommercial, keenly knowing or compulsively chaotic. In every zone, as Bowie had done the decade before, Prince queered the pitch, majestically neither red nor blue but purple.

This was partly of necessity, as a black artist from heavily white Minneapolis, where black music was marginalized on radio and segregated in the clubs, and as a small, delicate dude trying to play a hunky loverman. To realize the dream he’d conceived from a very early age, he had to translate his disadvantages into assets, and sidestep unfair rules by making up his own game. Fortunately, he came along at a moment, after the seismic disarray of punk and in the flamboyance-positive dawn of MTV, when those spaces were briefly unusually open.

I recall the disorienting feeling of seeing the video for “When Doves Cry” for the first time, that overwhelming erotic saturation and gender-identity blur—yet the startling creature on the screen wasn’t utterly out of place beside the androgynous stars of the British synth bands, such as the equally confusing Boy George. A few years further into the Reagan-Bush era, most of that New Wave sexual and stylistic flexibility had been foreclosed on. It was mostly down to Prince (along with Madonna) to keep ambiguity and difference in play. He did it, of course, across a flabbergasting run of 1980s albums that refused to repeat themselves.

This doesn’t mean that he could be relied upon politically or for really any sort of stable alliance, whether with collaborators, business partners, or fans. To love Prince was to feel betrayed by Prince somewhere along the line, whether because of his willful caprices or due to his own frequent attempts to defend himself against betrayal (a wariness going back to his general abandonment by his parents). His stand against his Warner Bros. Records contract in the mid-1990s in many ways was essentially righteous: Seeking ownership of his master tapes and more control over when and how he could release music (because he produced far more than any marketing department could handle), he wrote “SLAVE” on his face in eyeliner and changed his name to a gender-blended glyph, until he finally achieved that unbinding. But this turn baffled his mass audience and wrong-footed his career at a moment where his stylistic dominance was already being challenged by the rise of mainstream hip-hop, and as a hit-maker he never really recovered.

Still, along with the independent musicians and labels in the rock underground, he was pointing toward the savvy that artists would need to survive when the old industry began to implode. He likewise was fascinated by the internet and its potential as a music medium early on—but later frustrated online fans because he militantly policed against his music being posted on YouTube and spurned all streaming services save the artist-friendly (and especially black-artist–friendly) Tidal. Then of course there is the paradox of the pansexual polymorph of the 1980s and 1990s becoming the devout Jehovah’s Witness of the 2000s who chided people for swearing in his presence and started talking about Jesus all the time. The gospel cry for salvation and the cry of the petite mort have always been intimates in soul music, but Prince (along with his aesthetic godfather Little Richard) must present some kind of limit case, and for queer listeners in particular this was a disappointment.

But in Prince’s life and art it’s just not possible to disentangle the freaky liberator and the solipsistic control freak. He drew his model of a musical ensemble from the 1970s funk of Parliament and especially Sly and the Family Stone—large, multiracial stage groups with leading roles accorded to women—from the great 1980s examples of Sheila E. and Wendy & Lisa through the 3rdeyegirl trio that backed him on his 2014 album Plectrumelectrum. But ultimately this image of community was always subordinated to the way that each collaborator had to double as symbolic subjects of the utopian glyphdom of Prince’s ever-advancing imagination; they were partners but also tools. And yet, who would really have it any other way? Because it was Prince’s ability to soak every angle of a song—and when he performed, every molecule in the room—with transcendent Prince-ness that made him so exhilarating.

Dig if you will this sonic picture, from the middle of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” the extraordinary short work of cinema for the ears that closes the first side of 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times: The singer has just been invited to climb into the tub with the title character, who most sources say was not intended to be a reference to the Algonquin Round Table writer (although it’s then quite a coincidence that Prince sings, “I needed someone with a quicker wit than mine/ Dorothy was fast”). The background vocalists sweeten the request: “Do you wanna? Do you wanna?” Prince hesitates—“bath? Oh …”—but then yields, his voice breaking into an unusually nerve-wracked version of his signature erotic falsetto: “I said, ‘Coooool! But I’m leaving my pants on/ ’Cuz I’m kinda goin’ with someone.” (We’ve learned in the first verse that he’s just come from a lovers’ quarrel “in a violent room.”)

As a fatback bass burbles like water filling a basin and keyboards glisten like floating bubbles, Dorothy cocks an eyebrow and drawls, “Sounds like a real man to me/ Mind if I turn on”—drumroll (turn what on?)—“the radio?” Then she squeals, “Oh!” It’s her favorite song: “It was Joni singing, ‘Help me, I think I’m fallin’…” Here Prince and the backing vocals quote the melody of the 1974 Joni Mitchell hit, only to be interrupted by Prince mimicking the ring of a telephone: “Brrring!” Dorothy flirts: “Who-ever’s calling/ Can’t be as cute as you.” And then the groove stops briefly while Prince mutters, “Right then and there I knew I was through,” answered by the song’s Greek chorus, “Dorothy was cool!” By dint of his own virtuosity and ventriloquism, Prince has been willfully, joyfully unmanned.

The upshot of this sung-in-tongues bathroom farce is that the pair never gets down to business, never dirties up the water—instead Prince takes his would-be lover’s lessons back to the “violent room” and repeats the bathing-in-his-pants routine, which works to resolve his relationship squabble. It’s like the lovers in a Shakespearean comedy returning from enchanted transformations in the Forest of Arden with their romantic harmony restored. The punch line: “Next time I’ll do it sooner/ This is the ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

As many listeners have noticed, in a sense this is Prince’s version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” another will-they-or-won’t-they drama in which the singer’s encounter with a wryly self-possessed stranger is mediated by a bathtub—and another breakthrough moment in which a pop song discovered a brand new tone demanded by more sophisticated socio-sexual fantasies and realities. John Lennon’s arch vocal is doubled by the sitar that’s being played a little like a banjo, and the lyrics are capped by a bitter whiff of arson (“This bird had flown/ So, I lit a fire …”) But Prince doesn’t achieve his ironies by creating distance. Instead, his musical and intellectual tentacles slip inside all the characters, attitudes, and sounds, inhabiting and half-twisting them to set in motion an erotic economy in which everyone comes out ahead, especially—distinctly unlike a Lennon song—the women.

This is merely one particularly vivid example of the kind of divine cubism, the everywhere-at-once musical point of view in so many Prince songs. One could surface similar motifs from “When You Were Mine” through “Little Red Corvette,” “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Starfish and Coffee,” “Kiss,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Alphabet St.,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and so on—an open-ended orgy of donning and doffing disguises, switching positions, envisioning an otherwise. One also has to think of his alter egos, whether that’s in the groups he assembled to play his unused material such as the Time and Vanity 6, or his anonymous jazz band Madhouse, or his femme vocal persona Camille. Funk and rhythm aside, the two traits that embed him most clearly in the heritage of black thought are that multiplicity and his both cosmic and practical future-mindedness—his constant forward motion stylistically (casting aside anything he didn’t have time to finish) and his commitment to studio technologies as engines of self-creation.

Like most people other than hardcore fans, I mostly lost track of Prince’s recorded output in later decades aside from a few highlights (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Black Sweat,” “Breakdown”). There was so much of it, and then there was also so much Prince to listen to in other artists, from Outkast (when looking at André 3000, one should never forget how much permission Prince’s very existence gave to young black nerds and sissies and other nonconformists) to Missy Elliott to D’Angelo to Miguel to Janelle Monáe to Frank Ocean to Kendrick Lamar (think of all the multicharacter polyvocal dialogue in To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered) to almost anyone else you care to mention. As with Bowie, you will hear Prince tributes coming from some improbable quarters this week, and while they may seem unearned, they won’t be insincere. (His passing also occasioned an all-time-great Onion headline, “Nation Too Sad to Fuck Even Though It’s What Prince Would Have Wanted,” which honors Prince’s hybrid aesthetic perfectly by being the funniest joke that’s ever made me want to cry.)

What I did follow was Prince’s renaissance as a live performer of almost unequaled stamina (only Bruce Springsteen and, say, South Asian Qawwali singers come close in their continuous hours on stage) and intensity. He blessed fans with frequent tours, followed by surprise afterparties that would turn into complete shows in themselves. Yet I must admit with great regret that I never managed to see him live—discouraged by high prices and huge venues and quick sellouts, I always figured there’d be another show, and now I’ll always rue how wrong I was. I missed my last chance because I was far away from any of the stops on his recent solo-piano-and-voice tour, but the rare documents on YouTube and SoundCloud are transfixing, including a cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” that is doubly heartbreaking now. Reports of his shows always reinforced how suffused he was with musical energy, a flow of sounds that seemed to approach infinity.

Aside from the anguish of the loss and the as-yet unexplained reasons mortality took this mostly clean-living artist at this age, the other issue that Prince’s death brings up is inevitably the fate of the fabled thousands of hours of songs, videos and other creations in “the Vault”—reportedly a literal physical vault crammed to bursting with tapes at his Paisley Park complex just outside Minneapolis. Is anyone in a position to sift through them and select what can be released, without too much profiteering vampirism (of the kind that’s been wrought on the wraith of Jimi Hendrix, for instance, for decades)? And ethics aside, how can listeners possibly hope to absorb them?

But those archives will be a gift to history, since one cannot understand the music of the late 20th century without understanding Prince. The tapes should illuminate connections we never understood at the time, when he was always miles ahead. But there will be more that eludes us, more than anyone can fathom. As His Royal Badness put it, “U were so hard 2 find/ The beautiful ones, they hurt U every time.”

Read more from Slate on Prince.