Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Year Later: Even After His Death, Prince Remains the GOAT

Collage courtesy
I suppose it's appropriate for a new Prince-related site to launch with a simple sentiment of great significance to the purple faithful. And that sentiment is:

Welcome 2 the Dawn.

As I compose this post, we're closing in on midnight, bringing us to the one-year anniversary of the icon's transition to "the Afterworld," as he termed it in the indelible intro to "Let's Go Crazy." Celebrations of his life and legacy abound in Minnesota, locations all over the world, and on countless media outlets across the dial.

BET is blowing up its various platforms to pay tribute. Minnesota radio station The Current is devoting practically its entire weekend to his recordings. And of course, his devoted fam worldwide will be pulling out their favorite (or even least favorite, it's all good) albums and blasting them from the car speakers at maximum deciballs.

I got that last out of the way with a couple of runs through Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic earlier this week. Calling Rave, or any album, his weakest--more on that in time--is like calling Martha Hunt the least attractive Victoria's Secret Angel. You're still not going to find too many pieces of superior work on God's green purple Earth.

The hard part about evaluating one's favorite artist is finding the desire to avoid hyperbole, lest you come off as a slobbering fanboy/fangirl. I have a friend who considers 311 the greatest band of all time, a position which strikes me as exceedingly difficult to defend, but you do you, right? The thing with Prince is that I always refer to him as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time, for the acronym-challenged), and to my mind, that position is extremely easy to defend.

The purpose of the Purple Power Project is to do exactly that: defend the position of Prince as the greatest pure musical force in rock 'n' roll history, while simultaneously maintaining the self-awareness to point out those moments when he dropped the ball. Even Babe Ruth struck out from time to time, and Prince was a man much more concerned with prolific production than exhaustive quality control.

My second favorite artist of all time, George Michael (yes, 2016 TRULY sucked in terms of vanishing idols), was quoted after his passing as saying that Prince "didn't know how to edit himself." It sounds fairly harsh, but doesn't it occasionally ring true? Say, on the middle third of Chaos & Disorder?

That prolificity, however, is the very quality that separates Prince from all the other pretenders to the summit of rock's Mount Olympus. Think about this one simple test: How many individual musicians throughout history could you lock in a studio alone on a Friday night, then let them out on Monday morning and be handed a fully written, recorded and produced album?

John Lennon? Quite possible. Same with Paul McCartney.

Bob Dylan? Maybe.

Bruce Springsteen? Sure, but the album may just be stark acoustic guitar (see Nebraska).

Elvis? Shiiiiiiiiiit, no. He's on the Mount Rushmore of performers, but it took a village to build his extensive catalog.

Madonna? Michael Jackson? Not hardly.

For all the shit that hip-hop artists catch for not being "real musicians," Kanye West could damn sure crank out an album from scratch over a weekend, but even in such a producer-centric genre, he's an outlier. Maybe current performers like Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran could one day reach that level of productivity, but none of them will ever crank out genuinely interesting work with the staggering regularity that Prince managed in his prime.

Perhaps that's what hurts most in knowing that he died at such a comparatively young age. It took the Grim Reaper to dam that waterfall of sound.

We can't look forward to a potential collaboration with Kanye, Bruno or Kendrick, or a true studio duet with Beyonce.

We have to look backward, wondering what other scraps are in The Vault (capital letters deserved) and how they compare with the pieces that he did deem worthy of inclusion on some of his 32 (or 39, or 42, or even 51, depending on how broad your definition of the term "Prince album" may be) official releases.

"Not what I meant by Pussy Control, Donnie."
We can only imagine how a man who was already legendary for throwing epic shade would have aged into that unfiltered, zero-fucks-left-to-give state that makes you an asshole if you're under 70, but amusing once you pass it.

And perhaps most intriguing of all: How in the world would the sparingly political Prince have reacted on November 9 to the news that "President Donald Trump" was officially a thing?

As a white guy from Indiana who's pushing 40, I tend to get asked why I identify so intensely with Prince, as opposed to, say, fellow Hoosier homeboy John Mellencamp or Michigan neighbor Bob Seger.

It can't just be my age, because all three were doing yeoman work when I was coming up during the '80s, albeit with Seger on the downslope of his mainstream popularity. Besides, it may sound truly odd, but the song that first smacked me across the face and said, "PAY ATTENTION, DAMMIT!" wasn't "Kiss" or "Sign o' the Times" or even any of the Purple Rain behemoths, although I was well aware of and enjoyed all of those tracks.

Nope, it was this one:

Don't ask me why the MTV world premiere of "My Name is Prince" was the moment I knew I had to race to the mall and start snagging cassettes that following weekend (and yes, I started with the Love Symbol album). I thought the accessories were cool, especially the gun mic. The track remains slammin' to this day (although I now have enough knowledge of good hip-hop to realize just how, um, underqualified Tony M. truly was).

The true music junkie discovers every artist through one particular song, sort of like the other kind of junkie stumbles in through a "gateway drug." And "My Name is Prince" was my gateway drug. From there, the highs kept coming. Given that I was 14 at the time--and already thinking about getting laid approximately 4,794 times per day--the frank way in which Prince approached sex was shocking, titillating and addictive all at the same time.

First came the unedited version of "Sexy MF," which made me dream about entering a school talent show with some benign pop ditty, then switching that out at showtime for some true nasty. On other albums, tracks like "Let's Pretend We're Married," "Sexuality," and "Darling Nikki" melted my synapses in a totally different way than they did for people like Tipper Gore.

Then we reconcile that with his more spiritual bent, which lends balance to all the lust and ably sums up the struggle inside all of us--you know, the one that our more evangelical brethren fight their hardest to disavow.

"And God Created Woman." "Thunder." "The Cross." "The Ladder." Even "Temptation," which put the chaste/sinful dichotomy on full blast, up to and including the inner dialogue with the Almighty. Only Marvin Gaye or perhaps Leonard Cohen (seriously, fuck 2016) have ever managed to straddle the extremes with effectiveness approaching Prince's. (If you're not quite familiar with Cohen's freak flag, read this.)

I've never been a man of any spiritual denomination, having absolutely no use for any form of organized religion. But the way Prince brought the church home to his listeners on tracks like "The Cross" made God sound like the coolest, most loving cat in all the cosmos. The sex was the sugar helping the gospel medicine go down.

Toure broke it down for us thusly:

"This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex."

Most artists can only handle one niche, whether it be raunchy sex songs, chaste love songs, "uplifting" self-empowerment anthems or strident political songs. The trick is to find the sweet spot enough times and mine it for all the sales one can generate before the public catches on that you're simply saying the same things over and over again. It's bound to happen to Kelly Clarkson sometime soon, right?

Prince had no such concerns, bouncing between concepts like a Superball and hitting all of them at least once on nearly every album. The politics may not have always sounded convincing (see "Baltimore"'s naive rhetoric about "[taking] all the guns away"), but dammit, it was 10 times more effort than Bruno Mars was putting in, and I mean no disrespect to Bruno whatsoever.

Finally, the sheer breadth of musical styles blew me away. Even on Symbol, the pounding funk of "My Name is Prince" and "Sexy MF" gave way to the artful power balladry of "The Morning Papers," the torchy seductiveness of "Sweet Baby" and "Damn U" and the gospel-drenched soul of "The Sacrifice of Victor." Now, the less said about misguided hip-hop like "The Flow" or the overwrought cabaret of "3 Chains o' Gold," the better, but again, they were still risks worth taking.

What, CNN, run out of room to mention Bernie Worrell?
It didn't span the globe the way Sign o' the Times did, but neither has ANY OTHER ALBUM IN HISTORY. (Yeah, I said it. Fight me.) Soul, rock, funk, R&B, electro, French chamber pop: Prince made at least a pit stop in nearly every genre short of Norwegian death metal or soul-food opera (whoops, forgot "Wedding Feast"). Who else could spin you around so often in so many ways? David Bowie (thanks again to 2016 for being the rampaging bitch of years) was one of rock's greatest true chameleons, but he changed from album to album more than song to song.

Even songs that haven't aged as well as the evergreen Purple Rain classics are still, at the very least, fun to listen to in the right mood. And in the end, that--and not some quest for mythical depth and significance--is what music needs to be about.

NEXT: So what's this blog about, then?

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