Prince was the rare artist that could do everything well: sing, dance, write and arrange songs, produce music and lead a band.
An astoundingly prolific—and chameleonic—songwriter, he released dozens and dozens of albums throughout his nearly 40-year career. He also invented the "Minneapolis sound," an electric and eclectic funk/R&B/synthrock hybrid that became massively influential in the '80s and beyond.
In short, Prince ripped up music's rulebook and instead decided to create his own blueprint for success.
When Prince was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2004, he took part in a George Harrison tribute performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." During the song—which also featured heavyweights Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne—the Purple One unleashed a stunning, virtuosic guitar solo infused with fiery blues flourishes and squealing psychedelic rock licks. At the end of the song, Prince tossed his guitar into the air—and even the musicians onstage weren't exactly sure where (or even if) it landed.
Such was the nonchalant, effortless flash of the musician born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 to a pianist father and jazz vocalist mother. He possessed the charisma, grace and stamina of James Brown, but had the bandleader mentality of Sly Stone, making his concerts singular, mesmerizing marathons.
But besides being a ferocious guitar player and a magnetic performer, he was also a sonic omnivore: Prince devoured funk, R&B, rock, synth-pop, classic rock and blues—to name a few—and melded them into a singular sound that was defiantly, distinctly his own. Known colloquially as the "Minneapolis sound," this stylistic amalgamation eventually came to dominate pop and R&B in the Eighties.
In fact, it's not hyperbole to call Prince a musical genius. He was an expert guitarist, pianist, bassist and drummer by junior high, and formed the band Grand Central with pals Andre Cymone and Morris Day while still in high school. Business-wise, he was also wise beyond his years: when he signed his initial record deal with Warner Bros. in 1977, the six-figure contract stipulated Prince had control over production.
That self-confidence rarely wavered throughout his career, but it kept him especially motivated after his 1978 debut LP, the R&B-leaning For You, only spawned the minor hit "Soft & Wet." In the next few years, however, Prince stayed focused and flitted between warm funk, futuristic soul, electrified rock, electropunk and new wave. Along the way, Prince picked up a few hits—the pulsing disco-lite "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and the falsetto-driven jam "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?"—and earned a reputation for being sexually forthright.
Commercial and critical success finally aligned for Prince on 1982's 1999—home to the extended seduction "Little Red Corvette" and the title track, a funky dance strut about the end of the world—and 1984's Purple Rain. The latter LP heralded many firsts for Prince, including the debut of the Revolution—an eclectic band featuring the duo Wendy & Lisa and drummer Bobby Z., among others—and his first Number One singles ("When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy").
Purple Rain also functioned as the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, which starred Prince and was also a box office hit. In subsequent years, he would continue to dabble in films, starring in and directing 1986's Under The Cherry Moon and 1990's Graffiti Bridge. Neither of those movies were successful, although Prince's soundtrack to 1989's Batman was a smash and spawned the Number One "Batdance."
But even if films weren't Prince's thing, his music career continued to be red-hot. "Raspberry Beret," "Sign O' the Times" and "U Got The Look" reached the Top 3 on the singles charts, while the Time, Sheila E., Sheena Easton and Sinead O' Connor all had hits with Prince-penned tunes. In one memorable week in 1986, Prince's own "Kiss" kept the Bangles' "Manic Monday"—a composition credited to "Christopher," a Prince pseudonym—from hitting Number One.
Yet Prince's insistence on creative control would soon consume his career. The release of 1987's Black Album was canceled at the last minute, after copies had reportedly already been pressed. In the early Nineties, he waged a very-public legal battle with long-time label Warner Bros. over his contract. Prince changed his name to a glyph known as "The Love Symbol" and frequently wrote the word "slave" on his face to represent his feelings.
Once he and Warner Bros. parted ways in 1996, Prince once again started experimenting. He released albums not only on traditional labels, but also exclusively via his website, a 1-800 number, with concert tickets and along with The Daily Mail newspaper. As a result, many of his late nineties and early thousands releases can feel like hidden treasures, difficult to find unless you bought them originally or can find them in a used record store.
During the last decade, Prince experienced something of a career resurgence. His 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show appearance was a triumphant return to the spotlight that memorably saw the skies open up with "Purple Rain." Well-regarded tours and performances (including several guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and a Coachella headlining slot) kept his public profile high.
However, to the shock of the entire world, Prince died suddenly and unexpectedly on April 21, 2016, from an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl. At the time of his death, he was still actively recording and touring. He had found creative and live harmony in recent years with the trio 3rdeyegirl, and had taken to writing politically outspoken material such as the solidarity song "Baltimore."
For much of 2016, Prince had been doing pop-up solo piano shows where he was reinventing familiar hits and beloved covers in an intimate, casual fashion. After a career full of fresh starts and do-overs, this phase felt like yet another new beginning. That it was cut short is nothing short of tragic—although Prince certainly left fans with enough music and memorable moments to last several lifetimes.
Inductee: Prince Rogers Nelson (born June 7, 1958, died April 21, 2016)