The most enthralling—and often most frustrating—aspect of being a fan of Prince was this: No matter what, you were never going to figure him out. You’d never be able to fully decode all of his intricate, ornate, mischievous lyrics. You’d never quite understand the reasoning for some of his sideways-twisting business and personal-life decisions. You’d barely even be able to keep up with his musical output, a gargantuan-sized, decades-spanning collection of music that ranged from popping synth-funk numbers to scorching guitar anthems to delicate, lights-dimming R&B ballads (and those are just the songs we heard; who knows how many hours of unheard material still sit in his infamous Paisley Park vaults). Prince, who died today at the age of 57, was never going to let anyone fully into his world. At best, we got small glimpses from time to time. The rest was left to our imaginations.
But the parts of that world we did get to see were like nothing else. In his earliest years, as he workshopped and woodshedded within the R&B and funk scenes of his native Minneapolis, he was one-part funk disciple, one-part ’70s guitar-god; his first truly great album, 1979’s Prince, was pure alchemy, a record that brought together dancefloor come-ons like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and heavenly axe-shredders like “Bambi” so smoothly, it was as if those two sounds had always existed in the same space. But those early efforts were also, by Prince standards, relatively tame—like so many first-timers, he seemed nervous, almost endearingly so.
And so, we followed him, no matter what: We were his dearly beloved, he was our revolutionary leader, and even if we couldn’t fully understand where he was going, it was always going to be someplace new.
Then came Dirty Mind, an exquisitely sexed-up punk-funk masterpiece that solidified Prince’s reputation as a malleable, constantly-in-motion force that would be forever impossible to predict. Listen to the spare, aching bass of “When You Were Mine”; the whirling, kaleidoscopic keyboards of “Uptown”; or the touchingly horny lyrics of the title track: “I just want to lay ya down/In my daddy’s car/It’s you I really want to drive/but you never go too far.” This was a more forthright, dance-up-in-your-face Prince than just the year before, and he’d emerge again with 1982’s aptly titled Controversy; whether Prince had been holding himself back before, or whether he was simply growing up in front of the audience, was impossible to know. Really, who was this guy?
Amazingly, even as Prince (and his sound) got bigger—as he moved R&B and funk past the nearly all-white boundaries of rock radio—that question was never answered. He was always full of contradictions: A guy who sang about sex with alarming, turn-the-dial-before-mom-hears frankness, yet who somehow never seemed crass nor déclassé. An image-aware provocateur who dressed like this, yet retained an aura of shyness and vulnerability. A rock god who worshiped Joni Mitchell.
By the mid-’80s, Prince aspired to (and achieved) the kind of Top 40 infamy that very few of his contemporaries could manage. At the same time, he seemed to detest so much of the machinations of fame—particularly interviews, which he either dodged, canceled, or conducted with maddening vagueness. This became especially true when he’d reached the upper-stratosphere heights of pop stardom that came with 1982’s 1999 and 1984’s Purple Rain—two records that incited (and downright encouraged!) countless make-out sessions and slow-dances and shotgun-seat air-guitar riffs. (Quick sidebar: Perhaps because he was such a compelling frontman, it sometimes gets lost that Prince was one of the most remarkable guitar players ever, especially live; watching him burn through the opening the maelstrom of “When Doves Cry” was like seeing … I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it. But if Prince were here, he’d be able to do so with a cozy, succinct one-liner that would put the rest of the room to shame.)
And so, we followed him, no matter what: We were his dearly beloved, he was our revolutionary leader, and even if we couldn’t fully understand where he was going, it was always going to be someplace new. In 1987, he released Sign o’ the Times, a record that would be his most personal and political album—and, among diehards, forever rank as his best, a two-disc extravaganza that found him addressing everything from social blight (the title track) to gender roles (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”) to religious epiphany (“The Cross”). On Sign, he was telling us more about himself than ever before, but he was also copping to confusion—about God, about sex, about who he was. Even Prince didn’t fully know Prince.
Even Prince didn’t fully know Prince.
By then, Prince had also become as much of a social icon as he had a musical one, albeit quietly. Who knows how many lonely teenagers, regardless of sex or race or gender, took inspiration from this soft-spoken, Midwestern boy who wore and sang whatever he wanted, who mixed with genres that had normally been kept in separate silos, and apologized for none of it? Prince, much like David Bowie or Madonna, bestowed upon his fans a giant permission slip, one that allowed them to be as strange or outrageous as they wanted to be. With Prince, experimentation was never taboo; it was simply a sign o’ the times.
Which is why, as the ’80s ended and Prince’s off-stage adventures became just as intriguing as his on-the-record work, he remained as vital as ever. There’s plenty to be said about his ’90s albums, some of which were phenomenal—especially 1991’s Diamonds and Pearlsand 1992’s Symbol (or whatever we’re calling it these days)—and some of which found him either struggling to keep pace with hip-hop or letting his passion for prolificness get the best of him. But even then, he was a pop-culture progressive: Embracing the web at time when most other artists thought it was a scam or a fad (though, being Prince, he’d reverse his opinion on this many times); taking on the record industry and demanding his rights as an artist, even though the big labels were still superpowers; and adopting a D.I.Y. attitude, both in his dealings and his music, that most big-name contemporaries wouldn’t have dared.
Did he always make it easy to love him? No. Did we ever stop? Of course not. In recent years, his concerts—full of medleys and solos and just general good times—were glorious to behold: Here was Prince, within our sights and our grasps, playing as though he were 30 years younger, still this beautiful and thoroughly unknowable force. You could pick any face out in the crowd, and ask what Prince they loved. For some, it was the sly funkster. For others, it was the stadium-commanding rocker or the spiritual inquisitor. We all dug our own picture of Prince; he could be whoever we wanted him to be, because of who he was—a smirking mystery open to interpretation, and a perpetual tease whose flirtations weren’t always consummated. Now that he’s gone, I’m guessing there’s nothing that would delight him more than knowing we’ll be spending the rest of our lives trying to figure him out—analyzing every song, testing every theory, and still talking about … Prince. That’s what he’d want. So let’s go crazy.