Prince arrived on the scene in the late Seventies, and it didn’t take long for him to upend the music world with his startling music and arresting demeanor. He rewrote the rulebook, forging a synthesis of black funk and white rock that served as a blueprint for cutting-edge music in the Eighties. Prince made dance music that rocked and rock music that had a bristling, funky backbone. From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative. His colorful image and revolutionary music made Prince a figure comparable in paradigm-shifting impact to Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton. While 1999, Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times remain Prince’s best-known albums, the artist’s deep discography is full of funky treasure.
To understand Prince, one must appreciate the extent of his musical obsession. He has always been a willing servant of his tireless muse. “There’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can,” he claimed in a 1985 interview. “Music is what keeps me awake.” Because he is a workaholic, it’s difficult to keep track of all he’s recorded for himself and others in his orbit. There are reputedly hundreds of unreleased songs in Prince’s vault. In 1998, he unveiled some of these leftovers on the five-CD set, Crystal Ball. That leviathan followed Emancipation (1996), a three-disc set of new material. The single discs Chaos and Disorder (1996) and New Power Soul (1998) also came out during the same time frame. That’s 10 CDs’ worth of music in a three-year period – much more material than most artists manage in a lifetime – and it doesn’t even include albums by Chaka Khan (Come 2 My House) and Graham Central Station (GCS 2000) on which Prince played a major role. Given such prolific output, it doesn’t take long to realize that Prince isn’t just a musician but a force of nature.
One must also accept the fact that Prince is a genuine American eccentric who defiantly marches to the beat of his own funky drummer. Consider that in 1993 he changed his name from Prince to an unpronounceable cipher: a hybrid of the symbols for male and female. He was thereafter referred to (at his own suggestion) as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” or simply “The Artist.”
“I follow what God tells me to do,” Prince explained. “It said, ‘Change your name,’ and I changed my name to a symbol ready for Internet use before I knew anything about the Internet.” In May 2000, he went back to being Prince. Although his motivations may sometimes seem mysterious, Prince is never uninteresting and always capable one more hit record or a return to stardom.
Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Batman, and Diamonds and Pearls have sold more than 2 million copies apiece. Purple Rain alone sold 13 million copies and topped the album charts for nearly half a year at the height of Prince’s reign in the mid-Eighties. As Rolling Stone contended in 1989, “Perhaps more than any other artist, Prince called the tune for pop music in the Eighties, imprinting his Minneapolis sound on an entire generation of musicians both black and white.”
Prince Rogers Nelson was born and raised in Minneapolis. He was named after his jazz musician father. The product of a broken home, Prince found refuge in music. By his early teens he’d mastered multiple instruments and was fronting his first band, Grand Central. A demo tape by the young prodigy resulted in major-label interest, and an 18-year-old Prince signed to Warner Bros., insisting on the right to self-produce. His first two albums, For You (1978) and Prince (1979), unveiled a budding genius and one-man band. For You included “Soft and Wet,” an early glimpse at Prince’s uncensored sexuality, while the latter produced Prince’s first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (Number 11). Interest in the youthful rising star was further kindled by Dirty Mind (1980), a provocative and sinuously funky album that appeared like a directional marker at the start of the Eighties. The jittery, New Wavish “When You Were Mine” became a club hit, yet Dirty Mind largely proved too hot to handle for radio. Still, the rising buzz about Prince continued when he opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1980-81 tour. Prince’s fourth album, Controversy (1981), was highlighted by the pulsing title track.
Prince’s breakthrough was 1999 (1982), a self-produced double album made at his home studio. He’d toned down, if not entirely tamed, the hardcore sexuality, and the longish, danceable tracks appealed to disco and New Wave fans alike. Whereas many saw divisions in the culture – in terms of everything from musical preferences to skin color – Prince forged a party-minded unity around the various audiences’ shared interests in “dance, music, sex, romance.” Those were the priorities outlined in “D.M.S.R.,” one of 1999’s key tracks. The album launched three major singles: “Little Red Corvette” (Number Six), “1999” (Number 12) and “Delirious” (Number Eight). As Kurt Loder wrote, “ marked the point at which Prince’s seamless fusion of white rock and roll and black dance-funk became commercially undeniable.” The way had been paved the way for Prince’s stratospheric ascent with the album and movie Purple Rain.
One of the defining releases of the Eighties – along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. – Purple Rain (1984) elevated Prince from cult hero to superstar. The movie, loosely based on Prince’s life story, was set in Minneapolis and his real-life hangout, the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Club. Prince wrote the treatment and played the lead role of “The Kid.” The film included electrifying performances by Prince and the Revolution – his racially and sexually integrated band, which included guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. Purple Rain also showcased other acts under his umbrella, most notably The Time, who were fronted by Prince’s extroverted foil, Morris Day. The film grossed $80 million and the album, which won Prince an Oscar for Best Soundtrack, rained hits for a year: “When Doves Cry” (Number One), “Let’s Go Crazy” (Number One), “Purple Rain” (Number Two), “I Would Die 4 U” (Number Eight) and “Take Me With You” (Number 25). Even Prince’s non-LP B sides from the period, such as “17 Days” and “Erotic City,” achieved a certain popularity.
For any other artist Purple Rain would have been a hard act to follow, but Prince already had another album, Around the World in a Day, in the can. A tour de force of psychedelic soul released in 1985, it became his second consecutive Number One album and the first to appear on his own Paisley Park label (a Warner Bros. subsidiary). With Prince-mania in full effect, the album generated two more Top 10 hits: “Raspberry Beret” (Number Two) and “Pop Life” (Number Seven). Even a bad film, Under the Cherry Moon – Prince’s first real miscue – couldn’t halt his momentum, as the accompanying soundtrack, Parade (1986), included the classic “Kiss,” his third Number One single.
Prince hit an artistic peak with Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987), his first album since 1999 not to be co-credited to the Revolution. A double album that was trimmed down from an intended triple, Sign ‘O’ the Times was Prince’s most musically expansive and lyrically incisive album. On the sobering “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (Number Six), Prince enumerated a catalog of social ills (AIDS, crack, gang violence) over a skeletal funk track. Other hits from the album included “U Got the Look” (Number Two), a duet with Sheena Easton, and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (Number 10). Paisley Park – a 65,000-square-foot multimedia production facility, with three studios and a soundstage – opened for business that same year.
Around this time Prince talked of dueling identities within himself, conjuring characters that represented his good side (“Camille”) and dark side (“Spooky Electric”). The latter had its say on The Black Album, a controversial, hardcore set that was aborted shortly before its intended release. In its place came Lovesexy (1988), which contained the terrific “Alphabet St.” (Number Eight). Commercially, Prince found himself back on top in 1989 with his soundtrack to the first Batman movie. Prince’s dense, tangled funk meshed with film producer Tim Burton’s dark, gothic vision, and his Batman album and “Batdance” single both shot to the top of the charts. A year later, Prince made another of his own movies, Graffiti Bridge. Although it was panned, the double-album soundtrack – with performances by Prince, a reunited Time, Mavis Staple and Tevin Campbell – was compelling, particularly the impassioned “Thieves in the Temple” (Number Six).
In the early Nineties, Prince assembled a backing band, the New Power Generation. They debuted on Diamonds and Pearls (1991), Prince’s most accessible and hit-filled album since Purple Rain. Everything about it was elaborately conceived, including the holographic cover. The album returned Prince to radio with a string of funky, upbeat hits: “Gett Off” (Number 21), “Cream” (Number One), “Diamonds and Pearls” (Number Three) and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (Number 23). It would turn out to be Prince’s biggest album of the Nineties. It was followed in 1992 by an album that marked the first appearance of the symbol that Prince would formally adopt a year later as his name. Ironically, the disc whose title was a symbol – and therefore referred to as The Love Symbol Album - opened with a song called “My Name Is Prince” (Number 36). The numerology-minded “7” peaked at Number Seven, but Prince’s most infectious funk workout, “Sexy MF,” proved too profane for radio.
Still, Prince seemed to be on a roll. In August 1992, he signed a contract extension with Warner Bros. for six more albums (at $10 million apiece), and he acquired the title of vice-president with the label. By mid-decade, however, relations would sour as he began appearing in public with the word “SLAVE” scrawled on his face while agitating to get off the label.
In 1993, Prince’s greatest hits were released in two volumes – The Hits 1 and The Hits 2 – and as a deluxe package that appended a third disc, The B-Sides. All three configurations went platinum, though the three-pack charted highest (Number 19). The artist’s final album as Prince, Come, appeared in 1994, as did (for a limited time) the long-shelved Black Album. That same year, Prince launched an independent label, NPG Records, with a various-artists compilation, 1-800-NEW-FUNK. His next single – “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (Number Three), which also appeared on NPG – marked a return to hitmaking form.
Meanwhile, relations with Warner Bros., to which he was still contracted, were deteriorating badly. The release of The Gold Experience (1995), which contained “I Hate U” (Number 12), was delayed while he squabbled with the label. Disenchanted with what he saw as an unfairly one-sided relationship between label and artist that rendered the latter a “slave,” Prince was let out of his contract with Warner Bros. in 1996. His last album of new music for the label was Chaos and Disorder (1996). “The problems I had with so-called majors,’ he later said, “were regarding ownership and long-term contracts.” Liberated from such concerns, he quickly resumed his prolific ways. Emancipation (1996), a three-disc set, attested to the artist’s creative explosion after being granted contractual freedom.
Subsequent releases have included New Power Soul (1998), an earthy album credited to New Power Generation; 1999: The New Master, a re-recording of “1999,” plus six remixes; and Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999), the most visible of Prince’s later discs. Distributed through a special arrangement with Arista, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic gave Prince the best of both worlds: artistic ownership of his work and major-label distribution. The album was notable for its production credit: Prince, which marked the first time he’d reverted to his old name (and not the unpronounceable symbol) in six years.
It was followed by a series of releases that were largely marketed via Prince’s website, including The Rainbow Children (2001), a mystical and spiritually themed suite, and One Nite Alone Live (2002), a three-disc box set. NEWS (2003), an album of lengthy, jazz-funk instrumentals, garnered a Grammy nomination for the ever-resourceful artist known formerly and forever as Prince.