by Ed Biggs
So, the Purple Reign is over, with the sudden and shocking death of the unique pop icon Prince on Thursday last week (April 21st). At the time of writing, what is known is that he was discovered in an elevator at his sprawling Paisley Park home / studio complex that morning, with his publicist confirming his death just a few hours later. He had been hospitalised less than a week earlier, with his private plane making an emergency landing in Illinois after the artist had been suffering from what is described as a “bad bout of flu”. His autopsy has been performed, but it may be weeks until the cause of death is released.
Prince leaves behind him an extraordinary legacy and reputation, for being arguably the hardest-working artist in pop music and, for several years in the ‘80s, probably the best. From resplendent pop fantasias such as the diamond-selling Purple Rain and his mainstream breakthrough 1999, almost absurdly lusty paeans to sex itself like Dirty Mind and LoveSexy, to socially-aware masterpieces like Sign ‘O’ The Times and neo-psychedelic trips like Around The World In A Day, there was more than one kind of great Prince album as he blended pop, funk, soul, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll into a distinctive musical compound. It’s sometimes forgotten that he also recorded under other names, making his discography truly vast, and that’s not even taking into account tracks like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, which he wrote and donated to Sinead O’Connor who turned it into a massive hit.
Then there were the singles. ‘Little Red Corvette’; ‘Purple Rain’; ‘Let’s Go Crazy’; ‘Raspberry Beret’; ‘Kiss’; ‘Gett Off’… these tracks are nothing less than the gold standard for American pop hits, and his imperial phase lasted for over ten years as he racked up total worldwide sales of more than 100 million albums. Aside from all that, he was a prolific producer, working with artists as big as Madonna, Chaka Khan and Kate Bush in addition to comparative newcomers like Janelle Monae, and sometime movie star with ludicrously self-aggrandising, but surprisingly watchable, blockbuster biopics.
Increasingly, as his commercial peak receded further into the past, he would write and record an album and, having finished it, simply move onto another project. This is why much of his later material simply didn’t get played on the radio, as such a breakneck creative mentality couldn’t cope with the comparatively boring process of promotion as the usual cycles of the music industry dictate. Having bought his freedom from that method of working, famously turning himself into an unpronounceable, meaningless symbol in order to escape his recording contract with Warner Bros. in 1993, his pace sped up further, releasing six albums between 2003 and 2004 alone.
Witnessing him being mourned in the social media age is odd, since his own online presence was actively fought to be kept as minimal as possible, and his back catalogue is more or less entirely absent from the most popular streaming sites. Indeed, with no legitimate YouTube clips to share, this very article therefore looks rather plain, but it’s difficult to decorate it with anything for this reason. As Pitchfork’s senior editor Jillian Mapes has pointed out, people have been unable to share their favourite Prince songs, performances and videos as a result of his relentless war on keeping his product monetisable in the era of ‘everything is free’ internet ubiquity. Who knows whether this will change after his death, but the albums from his aforementioned imperial phase, from 1980’s Dirty Mind to 1991’s Diamonds And Pearls are all worth owning and treasuring. Except Batman…
Truly, Prince is a tremendous loss, to music fans as well as music itself. His willingness to play around with his own image was Bowie-esque (ironically, in 2016 of all years…) and inspired many to feel proud to be different and stand out from the crowd. Though he became increasingly bound to the studio, Prince kept himself in the public eye with occasional tours and the odd public spectacular, such as the 2007 Super Bowl half-time show in which he risked electrocution during a rain-sodden performance to remind everyone of his brilliance.
Sadly, because of his relationship with the internet and streaming, there is no way to construct a playlist for the uninitiated listener here. But 2001’s The Very Best of Prince or 2006’s double-disc Ultimate Prince, containing remixes and B-sides, are both excellent places to start.
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