By Chris Anderson
Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)
I remember the first time I heard Prince. I was 10 years old, in summer camp, and “When Doves Cry” came on the radio. I immediately thought it was the best thing I’d ever heard. It just dripped with cool, but didn’t sound like a put-on. I never bought any of his albums then, but I loved everything I heard on the radio. But then I discovered U2 and pretty much lost interest in anything else for a few years, as those who knew me would attest.
By the time I came to, Prince’s music had gotten dark and funky. That wasn’t where my head was, at the time, and I couldn’t get into it. One exception was in 1988, when my friend scored the then-unreleased Black Album. It was a terrible copy but we were blown away. Maybe it was because we weren’t supposed to hear it; maybe it was because it was so fresh. Either way, it left quite an impression.
It wasn’t until college, when I snagged a cheap copy of the “Symbol” album, that my love for Prince finally took root. My appreciation of all things funky was at a high, by that point, and songs like “My Name Is Prince” and “Sexy MF” knocked me out, while others like “Morning Papers” proved that he could still write songs.
Soon after, I was given a tape of an unreleased project called Welcome 2 The Beautiful Experience. I played that tape to death and, to this day, it’s my favorite Prince bootleg. After that, I soaked up every Prince album and bootleg recording I could get my hands on. Early albums such as For You and Controversy, where he played most of the instruments, were inspiring. Later albums like the instrumental N.E.W.S. showcase Prince as a hell of an improviser, while Musicology and Planet Earth prove that age only made him better.
My favorite Prince album is 1996’s Chaos And Disorder. The final album released by WB to end his contract, he made it clear that it was recorded “for personal use” and delivered under duress, and he refused to promote it. Too bad – this album is amazing. The opening combo of “Chaos And Disorder” and “I Like It There” borders on metal while “Dinner With Delores” is as tender a song as he did. “The Same December” is among his greatest songs EVER and that leads right into the slammin’ gospel of “Right Or Wrong”. “Zannalee” is silly but man does that guitar smoke – no one could shred like Prince. His piano ballads are always a welcome breather and “Into The Light”, with its tender verses and epic chorus, is one of his best. Closing the album, the somber “Had U” was perhaps the best middle-finger he could have given to WB. It’s unfortunate that this album is a footnote – had it been released and promoted properly, this could’ve been his biggest hit of the 90’s. It’s common to find used copies for $1 so if you ever come across it, pick it up.
Another overlooked gem is The Truth, which is an acoustic-based album he threw in as a bonus on the Crystal Ball box set. By far his most unique album, songs like the bluesy title track, the dark “Don’t Play Me”, and the classic feel of “Dionne”, in their stripped-down simplicities, reveal even deeper layers of an artist who could strike gold even when no one was looking. Good luck finding this but if you ever do, it’s worth whatever they’re asking.
A consummate workaholic, Prince maintained a low public profile, spending the majority of his time in his studio at Paisley Park. As prolific as his official output was, his vault is where most of his work remains – there could still be “new” Prince albums fifty years from now. It’s a testament to his commitment that he died at his studio. Then again, if he didn’t work so hard…
One of the things I admired about Prince was his dedication to his craft. It’s because of artists like him that I have almost fifty of my own albums. Prince taught me that it’s okay to be self-indulgent and he taught me that it’s okay to stockpile recordings. Sure, his records sound much better than mine, and he certainly was capable of far more focus than I ever have been, but he was inspiring nonetheless.
I also admired his subversion to the Man. Sure, he went about it in odd ways – writing “slave” across his face, changing his name to a symbol, etc. But he stuck it to the corporations. Despite Emancipation being a lackluster album, what it represented – Prince breaking free from corporate pressure and making music on his own – was a massive breakthrough in the industry, inspiring countless artists to follow suit.
What I admired most about Prince, however, was his persona, and the command he had over it. Prince was slick, cool as all hell, a perfect balance of head-in-the-clouds and feet-on-the-ground. He didn’t play a character – he was a character. Prince didn’t care what anyone thought about him. He didn’t need to. No one looked, talked, or acted like Prince. One of the most unique individuals to ever be in the spotlight, he stayed true to himself, all the way to the end.
Fortunately, Prince will always live on in his music. He was the Mozart of our age and his music will be studied for the remainder of human civilization. And, like Mozart, Prince has a body of work that will keep us all busy for a long time.