When an artist owns the entire top 10 songs on iTunes, it can and does only mean one sad, sad thing. Prince always seemed like he’d live forever, you know? He was (I can’t believe I’m using past tense) a life force unlike any of us, not a mere mortal but something more. At least, that was what we thought. And for those of my generation (generally 40-55, now) especially, we’d grown up with him in our lives; “Little Red Corvette” became his first top 10 pop single when I was 12 years old. Prince was the music of my adolescence. Losing Bowie hurt, of course. But this feels achingly personal.
Prince was, hands-down, the baddest motherfucker in music: at his peak, he was the best songwriter, the best producer, the best performer, and throughout his entire career was one of (if not the) best singers and guitarists, period. I compared his impact today to John Lennon’s, but really, that doesn’t even start: it’s like John Lennon + Jimi Hendrix + Quincy Jones + James Brown all rolled into one. And now, all of him is gone.
His run from 1982’s 1999 through 1988’s then-scrapped The Black Album is pretty much underheard-of ridiculousness. For me, the weak link in that chronology is 1985’s Around the World in a Day, but even that flawed album includes such brilliance as “Pop Life” (a perfect pop single), “America” (a perfect protest single), and closer “Temptation” (as sexy and audacious as the album-closer that came before it, the one about the girl in the hotel lobby that you may have heard of). And that stretch also includes what are arguably his three greatest album-length statements: the soundtracks Purple Rain and Parade and the tour de fucking force Sign “O” the Times.
But there are gems scattered all the way through his catalog, from the jazzy “Crazy You” on his 1978 debut For You through to the grown-folks R&B of last year’s “1000 X’s & O’s” from HITNRUN Phase One. And that’s not even saying anything of the body of work he wrote, produced, and/or played for so many others: the Bangles. Sheila E. Sheena Easton. Vanity/Apollonia 6. The Time. Tevin Campbell. The Family. Plus the family tree he gave us via the Time: Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, not to mention their original lead singer, Alexander O’Neal. He wrote Kate Bush’s “Why Should I Love You.” He played uncredited keyboards on Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back.” And of course, there’s the two biggest cover versions of his songs:
To be certain, this version is nothing if not for O’Connor’s incredibly powerful, impassioned, tear-jerking vocal. But it’s also nothing without Prince’s song in the first place.
I actually find Prince’s original of “Nothing Compares 2 U” a bit pedantic; that can’t be said of his version of “I Feel for You,” which crackles and pops with new wave energy. It took Arif Mardin, of all people — with assists from Grandmaster Melle Mel, Stevie Wonder, and of course Chaka Khan herself — to find the funk at its core and unleash its rainbow spray on the world. Chaka’s take on “I Feel for You” is pure, unalloyed joy, and never fails to make me smile.
I have so, so many favorites, many of which I’ll be writing about in the days ahead, both here and for a special tribute we’re putting together at The Singles Jukebox for publication this Sunday. This one really hurts. The word I’ve used all day is “shattered,” because that’s how I feel. Prince taught us so many things (well, before his conversion to JW — forever blame the overrated Larry Graham for that), including how to let our freak flags fly and to not be afraid of our sexuality, in whatever form it might take. And he showed us so much of himself through his art, while keeping so much else hidden. But we should, we must, always be thankful for what Prince Rogers Nelson gave us, because it will be with us forever. Rest In Power, Prince. Your name was Prince, and you were, more than anything else, funky.