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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Case for Prince

By appreciating just how good the Purple One was, we see what music can be and ought to be.

Until recently, I had no idea just how good Prince was. I knew he was good, but I didn’t realize Prince was probably the greatest musician of all time. If I thought about Prince at all, it was as an above-average ‘80s pop artist with five or six memorable hits, though none that I listened to regularly. When I was in middle school and Napster was new, some of the first files I downloaded were a cappella covers of Prince’s songs “Starfish and Coffee” and “Raspberry Beret.” This meant I had a certain special nostalgic fondness for Prince. But I couldn’t tell you the last time I put on “Little Red Corvette” or “Let’s Go Crazy.” 

I knew that some people were Prince obsessives, but every major artist has their superfans. My editorial colleague Eli Massey seemed to never shut up about Prince, and had been a lifelong devotee—Eli wore a purple velvet pinstriped jacket to his bar mitzvah as a tribute to The Artist. But I took this for mere eccentricity. I did not investigate further to see what the Prince fans were on about, or whether they knew something I didn’t. 

I have now investigated further, diving deeper into Prince’s vast catalog than I have ever been before. And my findings have shaken me. Prince was not just great, he was greater than I ever could have imagined. Nobody can compare.

I want to make the case to you that Prince is seriously underrated. This may seem odd considering that Prince is one of the best-selling artists of all time, an eight-time Grammy winner who is ranked No. 33 on the Rolling StoneGreatest Guitarists of All Time” list. His death in 2016 was met with a global outpouring of grief for a man with “limitless talent.” 

But it’s easy to say phrases like “limitless talent” without actually appreciating what this limitless talent meant. You can know that he played all the instruments on many of his records (on his debut album, released when he was 19, he played 27 instruments, and is credited on “all vocals, deep breaths, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, bass synth, singing bass, Fuzz bass, electric piano, acoustic piano, mini-Moog, poly-Moog, Arp string ensemble, Arp Pro Soloist, Oberheim four-voice, clavinet, drums, syndrums, water drums, slapsticks, bongos, congas, finger cymbals, wind chimes, orchestral bells, woodblocks, brush trap, tree bell, hand claps and finger snaps.”) But if you listen to the records, you won’t necessarily have your mind blown, because the result sounds natural and the talent doesn’t make itself conspicuous. My case is that until Prince has blown your damn mind, you’re missing something. 

If you already know the truth about Prince, I apologize for telling you something you knew long before I did. And I apologize for not listening. But if you don’t know, if you think—as some of my friends did when I asked them for their opinion of Prince—“Oh, yeah, Prince, he’s alright,” let me try to show you that Prince should be considered the greatest musician of all time. 

Let me start by showing you Prince doing something extraordinary. Here is Prince in the early ‘90s performing a song called “The Question of U.” It’s not one of his greatest songs, but watch as he does something incredible. He begins at the piano, then around two minutes in, when it’s time to do the guitar solo, he leaps on top of the piano, revealing that he had his guitar strapped to him the whole time, and then does one hell of a guitar solo. Then he dances, and he’s a fantastic dancer too. 

I start with this clip because it shows some of Prince’s range: piano, singing, guitar, and dancing. But let’s focus on his guitar playing for a bit, because it’s perhaps his single most dazzling skill. When Rolling Stone first released its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” Prince did not even make the list. Now he is in the top third (barely), but still ranked below The Edge, Johnny Ramone, Tommy Iommi, Angus Young, Derek Trucks, and Neil Young. This is objectively erroneous. 

Here, for example, is Prince playing “Just My Imagination” at an aftershow in the Netherlands in 1988: 

The first couple of minutes are fine. Nothing to rival the Temptations’ original. But then, at 2:30, the guitar solo kicks in, and it’s one of the single greatest performances on the instrument I’ve ever heard. The only thing I can think of to rival it for the combination of skill and emotion is Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.” 

This was not a fluke. Whenever Prince decided he felt like shredding, he would do it better than anyone has ever done it. See, for instance, this famous performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Beatles’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prince is performing alongside Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, and Jeff Lynne, but he makes these famous rockers look like mediocrities when, three minutes in, he does the guitar solo.

Eric Clapton, who did the solo on the Beatles’ original, was said to have once been asked how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitarist, and alleged to have replied, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” The quote is a myth, but it’s certainly what Clapton ought to have replied if he was ever asked, because it’s correct.

Another: here’s Prince performing “Motherless Child” on Spanish TV in the ‘90s. The cool guitar stuff starts around four minutes in. 

It is one thing to be able to play a good guitar solo. But Prince could put on a full hard rock concert that was heavier than Led Zeppelin (Prince could rock a Zeppelin cover, too.). Here he is in Montreux, Switzerland in 2013 performing a concert with all-female rock group 3RDEYEGIRL that will surprise those who never thought Prince could be “metal.” 

But it is a testament to Prince’s versatility that he can do a heavy rock show one night, then turn around and do a full James Brown-style funk performance. Here is a different 2013 Montreux show in which Prince performs with a 20-piece R&B band: 

Good music just poured out of Prince spontaneously. Check out this tape from 1984 of him noodling around on a piano, a tape so rare and so unlike Prince’s famous sound that for a long time it was not clear it even was Prince playing. Here he is at age 19 in 1977, performing a spontaneous funk jam with a small band. It’s just a jam session, was never intended for release, and also sounds nothing like his hits, and yet it’s as tight as anything George Clinton was putting out at the same time: 

Prince could bring the funk, and a Prince show was not just A Lot Of Good Music, it was a party at which it was impossible not to dance. Witness, for instance, this performance of his popular song “1999” during an end-of-year celebration at his Paisley Park studio in December of the actual 1999. 

One striking fact about Prince’s live performances is how varied they are, and how he reworks his hits so that they sound completely different, from the super-funky “1999” to the slowed-down, fuzzed-out “Let’s Go Crazy” in the 3RDEYEGIRL, Prince could make his old songs sound fresh in half a dozen new ways. Contrast the studio version of “Cream” with this completely charming stripped-down acoustic performance: 

In fact, a good way to appreciate Prince’s raw talent is to hear his music in its simplest form, as on this acoustic demo of his early song “I Feel For You” or the solo piano songs on the recently-released rehearsal tape “Piano and a Microphone 1983.” Prince’s final concert tour was just him at the piano, and while recordings of it are only currently available as low-quality bootlegs, they’re magical. They show his incredible rapport with an audience that adores him and wants to sing every line with him, but they also show his inventiveness, as he creates a seamless piano medley of “Little Red Corvette,” “Dirty Mind” and (somehow) “Linus and Lucy.” It’s beautiful and pure and it sounds nothing at all like the pop singles he is known for. 

I have my theories about why it’s easy not to notice just how immense Prince’s talent was. First, as I say, knowing that an artist “did all the instruments” on their record doesn’t make the record sound any different, and you don’t actually see them in action to realize what this means. It wasn’t until I saw and heard the live performances that I realized Prince was a genius, and many of the best live performances are somewhat hard to come by. Prince released few original live recordings in his lifetime, preferring to release more carefully produced and polished studio recordings. Two official live video performances, “Live at the Aladdin” (2002) and “Rave Un2 The Year 2000” (2000) are out of print. Prince was notorious for carefully policing his copyrights, tightly restricting recordings at his shows, and even removing his music from Spotify (it returned after his death), which meant that a lot of stuff was heard by far fewer people than might have heard it if it had circulated freely. After Prince’s death, the New York Times put together a list of five phenomenal Prince live performances everyone should check out. The Times warned that people should check out the performances while they were still online, and now in 2021, sure enough, all the links are broken. I hesitate to link to my own favorite performances in this article, knowing that some of them will surely disappear from the web as soon as I reveal them. There are hundreds of incredible Prince performances that have never seen official release, and the best stuff can appear anywhere, like that track from ‘90s Spanish television. Personally my favorite recording of “Purple Rain” is not the studio recording, but a live performance from Milan in 2010 that I’ve never been able to find in great quality. 

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Then there’s the fact that even Prince’s official catalog is immense, and it’s not always easy to find the gems that really showcase what he can do. He released somewhere between 29 and 48 albums (depending on how you count) and there’s plenty of forgettable stuff on them. My Prince-obsessed colleague Eli helpfully made me a 7.5 hour playlist of his own favorite highlights from the discography, which helped, though I keep finding stuff I like that didn’t even make it to Eli’s highlight list. (Including, I confess, the ridiculous novelty numbers “No More Candy 4 U” and “Jack U Off.”)

Prince’s stuff consistently resists categorization. It’s not clear what genre of music he played, it’s just “Prince music,” mixing R&B, funk, pop, hard rock, disco, blues, gospel, jazz, and even some folk and psychedelia. (Prince was a huge Joni Mitchell fan and a patron of L.A.’s underground psychedelic rock scene.) Many commentators have noted his mixture of the hyper-sexual and the hyper-religious (Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness) and it can be very jarring to hear the mixture of explicit masturbation references and tributes to the everlasting father. Prince was so filthy that he single-handedly caused the foundation of the Parents Music Resource Center after Tipper Gore was scandalized to hear what Darling Nikki did with that magazine, but a lot of his stuff also has a certain good-time innocence to it, and is just about how dancing is fun or rock and roll is alive. “Starfish and Coffee,” one of the first Prince songs I ever heard, is based on the story of a little girl named Cynthia who liked to make up surrealistic nonsense, and Prince performed it on the Muppet Show. Perhaps Prince is underappreciated in part because he’s just so damned unusual that it’s difficult to know what to make of him. The music is not like anybody else’s—sometimes a Prince recording sounds like something Michael Jackson might have done, until Prince hits you with that heavy metal guitar. (Prince’s pop singles are more complex than they might first seem and once I understood his genius, I went back and found new things to appreciate in songs that had become over-familiar through endless radio play.) 

But whatever explains why a certain part of Prince’s talent lay “buried” from public view, I am hopeful that as the Prince estate slowly releases stuff from his legendary Vault over the next years, and people are dazzled by what they hear, it will lead to a critical reappraisal that gives him his rightful due. (And to those in charge of the Prince estate, I’d say: for the love of God, put out all of his best live stuff officially.) The lowlier Prince makes the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and even the King himself, Elvis Presley, look like above-average karaoke singers.

Why does it matter if Prince ever goes from “extremely popular and well-regarded” to “universally considered the greatest artist of all time”? It doesn’t much; more important than giving him his proper place on the “Greatest Guitarists” list is giving people the joy and amazement they could experience if they dived a little deeper into Prince. I found my journey through Prince’s music thrilling and I want others who overlooked him to be encouraged to experience this wondrous and special music. I also think Prince developed wholly novel sounds and that new music will be better to the extent that his achievements are widely heard (it’s already the case that there is Prince in places you might not know—there would be no “Uptown Funk” without the Prince-written “Jungle Love”). Prince’s music was also a fitting apex for 20th century music generally, because it synthesizes so many genres, bridging gender and racial divides (Prince nearly released an entire album as a feminine alter ego called Camille). And as far as the musical meritocracy goes, there’s something satisfying about having the eccentric Black gender-defying Prince finally eclipse the dozens of white mediocrities (and racists) who are wrongly hailed as rock’s top heroes.

I don’t believe in having gods, but I can’t help it. I have been converted. There was no one else like Prince. He was better at everything than everybody else. He could sing funk as good as James Brown, play piano like James Booker, dance (almost) as well as Michael Jackson, and shred the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. He was everything in one package, and I am now a permanent evangelist. Ask yourself: do I love Prince enough? And if there is any chance you don’t, you need to listen to some more Prince.

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