On 21 April, as soon as confirmation of Prince Rogers Nelson’s death hit the Internet, YouTube became the illicit repository of his discography. The artiste had placed paranoid restrictions on the sharing of his work or any likeness of him on the Internet. For the better share of his career, Prince fought for the ownership rights of his work, and was an iconic proponent of the DIY ethic. It’s unfortunate that for an artiste who tried to preserve his enigma in the 21st century culture of oversharing, the floodgates for the online bootlegging of his catalogue opened even before his body was cold.

Prince was a Luddite—he claimed to not use phones—and purist, demonstrated by his enduring faith in the traditional format of the album and his aversion to being a presence on the Internet (even though he later acquiesced to joining Twitter with his new backing girl band 3rdEyeGirl). Technologically speaking, he never quite got along with the Insta-digital creed of the millennial. Yet, Prince’s consciousness is the reaper of some of this generation’s most cherished liberties, and the keeper of its wildest fantasies.

Today, the progressive conversation challenging the relevance of the gender binary, acknowledging fluid sexualities and celebrating radical self-expression, is in many ways indebted to iconoclasts like Prince.

A crowd pays tribute to Prince on 21 April in Minneapolis. Photo: AP
A crowd pays tribute to Prince on 21 April in Minneapolis. Photo: AP

The artiste as revolutionary

Prince was part of the heralding of a renaissance—during the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s—of individualism and flagrant sexual identity in pop culture, already set in motion by the likes of The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Prince was a composite of disparate musical attitudes and influences, congealed by his peculiarity and innovation, into something singular. He was a product of the zeitgeist, but challenged the culture to transcend and fearlessly flaunt the self.

There are various touchstones that spring to mind when thinking of Prince’s persona: the profane lyricism and sexual deviance of Serge Gainsbourg, the pronounced androgyny of Bowie and Mick Jagger, the bodacious stage presence of Freddie Mercury, the blistering guitar bursts evocative of Jimi Hendrix, the bold, camp-y portrayals of sexuality in the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

It is well established though that Prince’s early musical influences principally aligned with Motown, funk, R&B and soul—he took the baton from James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Sly and Clinton also guided his vision of forming a racially diverse group with both male and female members. Prince would become known for championing female artistes—from Wendy & Lisa to Sheila E.—as his band members, proteges and fellow collaborators.

The multi-instrumentalist’s influences also include the likes of Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell—who made him appreciate sparsity and pauses in a song, essentially the sound of silence. His admiration for The Beatles birthed Around The World In A Day. Although he never fit the mould of hip hop, his dark thuggish monologue on “Bob George" (The Black Album) is a stunning revelation. Other than the enticements of the blues-inflected Cream, watching him break into If I Had A Harem during his Lovesexy Tour (1988-89) has had me wishing for a bona fide blues record from Prince. Listening to his cover of Mitchell’s A Case Of You, which also features on his latest album HitnRun Phase Two, offers another moment of awe at his profound appreciation of the vast spectrum of music. Prince could wear any sonic suit, and each would be a flattering fit.

The reign of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, which relayed blues hits to white artistes like Elvis Presley, marking the inception of American rock ‘n’ roll, left a void for black artistes, who essentially formed the original template. In some part, it feels like Prince reclaimed that territory, even creating a space for rock musicians like Lenny Kravitz and Slash.

Breaking the mould

Prince was the ultimate purveyor of delectable perversity, the secretly-yearned-for raunchiness that can only be satisfied in song. This aspect of Prince’s music was unabashedly owned—on the track Soft And Wet—with his debut record, For You, and his commitment to themes of sexuality didn’t waver thereafter. In fact, he only upped the risqué factor.

Arguably, Prince’s first hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover (Prince, 1979), sold sex in the rich velvet of his falsetto. The third studio album, Dirty Mind (1980), made a blatant push for eroticism with songs like Head and Dirty Mind. But Prince’s ability to write an epic love ballad, and for articulating the literary affectation of a broken heart, was also unmatched.

When You Were Mine displayed his lyrical ingenuity, and is still probably the coolest break-up song for a jilted lover. Other hits like Purple Rain, When Doves Cry, Nothing Compares 2 U and Little Red Corvette were famous for his masterful exploration of emotional vulnerability. But the thrilling indecencies always took precedence in Prince’s repertoire. At the end of a performance of When You Were Mine at the Ritz in 1981 in New York City, he asked the audience: “Does everybody feel all right? Is everybody wet?"

Prince’s disregard for labels and traditional roles adopted in heterosexual relationships was a prominent theme in his songs. Songs like If I Was Your Girlfriend or the lyrics—I am not a woman, I am not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand—of I Would Die 4 U, while suggestive of homosexuality or gender fluidity, also implied liberation from stifling heteronormative conventions in relationships.

He also broke the mould in the sartorial choices he made. Dressed in women’s underwear and a trench coat, or in a tight crop top and crotch-grabbing pants, or playing the part of a svelte pimp or adopting the baroque majesty of Amadeus with Victorian cravats and lace-hand gloves. Prince’s self-styled wardrobe was just as expansive, fantastical, and sensual as his musicology. He toyed with different elements—flamboyance, defiance, cabaret, S&M, camp—but the visual drama was always underscored by carnal instincts.

The politics of Prince

As an artiste, it has seemed to me that Prince could have been more assertive about his politics but chose to rein it in. Controversy (1981), which came early on in his career, was an evidently political record, with songs—like Annie Christian and Ronnie, Talk To Russia—about gun violence, race and the Cold War, particularly addressing US-Russia relations during the Ronald Reagan administration. The album’s title made it obvious that Prince believed the political was more controversial than any expression of scandalous sexuality.

The next album with which Prince gave fans a glimpse of his political leanings was Sign O’ The Times, where he emphasized his views on entropy and race issues on tracks like Sign O’ The Times and The Cross. Prince’s actions in real life often countered these flashes of compassion. Like infamously not showing up for the collaborative recording of Michael Jackson’s We Are The World for African famine relief, and scoffingly relishing a lollipop instead of singing on stage during the 10th anniversary performance of the song at the American Music Awards in 1995. Such flippant behaviour has often simply been attributed to Prince’s famous braggadocio that can probably only be rivalled by Morrissey.

Prince returned to the political realm once again, making quite the statement with The Black Album (1994). Songs like Bob-George, Dead On It and 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton offered commentary on the African-American community and revealed a very different musical side to him, especially as a response to the recent invasion of hip hop. But the album was recalled after a short while on the shelves. The real reason for Prince retracting the album is still a matter of speculation. The artiste hasn’t been an active voice for the black community, with the exception, very recently, of the Grammy’s, where he showed support for the “black lives matter" campaign.

In his earlier years, it is alleged, the artiste embraced racial ambiguity. Both of Prince’s parents were African-American but it is reported that in his initial years he didn’t completely own up to his roots, and was all right with being labelled a mulatto.

Even though Prince is often cited as an icon by the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, it’s been more a case of co-option than his wilful support for it. He consciously distanced himself from the movement. Prince’s lack of political valour, as some might perceive it, was actually a testament to his honesty as an artiste. The fact that he was sincere about his motivations, the celebration of hedonism, steering clear of the pretence of caring about world politics and human rights that often comes with celebrity. Even though he didn’t like it, the personal was political. And Prince most certainly makes for a fascinating study in identity politics.

But through his entire career, with his unapologetic scream for individuality, he made the grandest statement about the singularity of the human condition, redeeming it of racial, sexual, classist and other categorizations.

In that vein, the world just lost an original. Nothing compares 2 Prince.

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