Prince Rogers Nelson was a complicated man, filled with apparent contradictions. The 57-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who died Thursday at his home in Minnesota was a recluse who flourished in the spotlight, a free-spirited artist who was also a shrewd, aggressive businessman. He was as shockingly blunt when he sang about sex as he was singing about religion.
But Prince, the performer? Man, that guy was as straightforward as they come. An iconic genius, a virtuoso guitarist who combined rock and R&B to create something all his own. He had Jimi Hendrix riffs, Little Richard showmanship and James Brown dance moves all rolled into a 5-foot, 2-inch frame that also housed seemingly boundless creativity.
After all, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol after a fight with his record company, hence the “Artist Formerly Known As Prince” years. He changed how people talked, introducing the catchphrase “party like it’s 1999” into pop culture long before the turn of the 21st century. He changed how people wrote, substituting “U” for “You” in his song titles and lyrics, long before people were texting.
His movie “Purple Rain,” the fictionalized version of his life in Minneapolis, changed the way people looked, shaped 1980s fashion trends and even pioneered the use of makeup for men, long before the term “guyliner” was born. (He also won an Academy Award for his original songs in that movie.)
Oh, and there was always the whole purple thing.
Musically, though, Prince’s talents were never more on display than when he headlined the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show in 2007, playing the fiery “Purple Rain” guitar solo backed by string sections, dancers dressed as futuristic aliens, and, yeah, a massive Miami rainstorm that fell cinematically on him for all the world to see.
He moved effortlessly from his own hits, like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” to the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of Me,” before finishing with “Purple Rain” to create a set seen by many as not just the best Super Bowl halftime show, but one of the best televised live performances ever.
“The lord smiled upon his solo, gave him rain during ‘Purple Rain!’ ” actor Jack Black said of the moment. “That’s when Prince became king. Anyone who says different is just wrong.”
Yes, tastes vary and yes, music is subjective, but Prince’s skills in a live setting were basically undeniable. His skills were undeniable in other settings too, but throughout Prince’s legendary career, he felt there were also major forces that lined up to try to deny them.
His first single, the funky “Soft and Wet,” from his debut album “For You” in 1978, was seen as too racy for some radio stations. But the reaction only emboldened him, leading him to use some of his catchiest melodies to tell adult tales in such songs as “Erotic City” and “Darling Nikki.”
Prince racked up 16 Top 10 singles — including five No. 1s — “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” “Batdance” and “Cream” — between the release of the “Purple Rain” soundtrack in 1984 and his battle with Warner Bros. over money and artistic control over his music in 1993. That disagreement reached a fever pitch when Prince started appearing in public with “SLAVE” written on his face.
Once he left Warner Bros. in 1996 (he would return there in 2014 for “Art Official Age” and “Plectrum Electrum”), Prince had a hard time getting any support from radio stations, even though his music was as eclectic as it had ever been.
When he launched his own label, NPG Music Club, the interest dipped even further, though the quality was still high. It was an issue that weighed on him.
“When I first started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom — freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to,” Prince said when he accepted his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. “This world and its wicked systems becomes harder and harder to deal with without a real friend or mentor.”
His distrust of music industry systems continued for the rest of his life. In recent years, he fiercely guarded unauthorized use of his work on YouTube and pulled most of his work from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
However, he always remained interested in new ideas, giving the Tidal streaming service the exclusive release of his “HITnRUN” album last year.
“I embarked on a journey more fascinating than I could ever have imagined,” he said accepting his Rock Hall induction.
It was a journey even more fascinating for his fans.