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3 May 2016

Despite the endless masks and reinventions, Prince was always himself

Yet Prince was overtaken by a revolution he had partly created.

By Ed Smith

Prince had millions of fans, but I may be the only one who transferred an allegiance directly from Geoffrey Boycott. Out with one heroic ideal (obdurate defence, cloth cap, buckle pads) and in with another: chasing a young Kristin Scott Thomas around the French Riviera, on small boats and large motorbikes, as Prince did in the awful film Under the Cherry Moon that yielded the majestic soundtrack Parade. There is something lost as well as something gained in every transition, but I was pretty happy, on balance, with Plan B.

In 1988, my older sister – to my lasting gratitude – had passed me her WalkMan in the back of the car, playing Prince’s album Purple Rain. I was eleven, too young to understand many of the sexual overtones, but old enough to be hooked.

Pop music became an early expression of cultural snobbery. When everyone else was lost in Take That, I was exploring Prince’s B-sides and bootlegs, already fixated on his famous, Wagnerian album sign-off: “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince.” Whatever I was missing, I certainly picked up on the confidence of an artistic control freak.

In writing about Prince, dead at 57, I must try to avoid hypocrisy. After the death of David Bowie, this column sounded a gently sceptical note about overestimating innovation. Why should we judge an artist in terms of influence rather than just excellence? So instead of exploring what made Prince so innovative and influential (he was both), I will ask a simpler question: what made him so good?

Of the four albums he released between 1984 and 1987, three are classics: Purple Rain, Parade and Sign ’O the Times. From an odd starting point, they get progressively weirder, and yet their eccentricity seems intrinsic. This is “high” Prince, a highpoint that ended when he was still in his twenties.

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Instead of layering on depth and richness, Prince stripped it all back. At its height, Prince’s musical confidence expressed itself as pared-down simplicity. The freshness of Parade and Sign ’O the Times, just as evident today, is the impression that he’d laid down those spare beats in one take, as the mood took him. The best technique, as always, is about finding the simplest way, so much so that the technique seems to disappear. The crisp, almost naïve sound of those records contributed to an underlying mood of jauntiness and playfulness, as though a childlike sense of wonder was directing the creative process and, of course, it was.

Prince’s music had a dizzying set of influences: soul, funk, rock and all the rest. But the interesting thing is that he found his truest voice using the medium of his own time: pop. In other modes, Prince could sound like merely a gifted ventriloquist. Expressing himself through pop, he was always unique. Prince’s prodigious musicality elevated a genre that was often predictable and cloying.

Immersed in a much wider set of musical traditions, Prince distilled them into perfect pop, as no one else could. Prince seldom resisted throwing dissonance into the musical mix. So even at his most radio-friendly catchiness, Prince songs are rarely dull or saccharine. Like a master storyteller subverting expectations, he thrived on melodic surprise.

Secondly, Prince was a genius of the curated album, rather than just a jumble of songs, something to be experienced in the right order. Tempo, cadence, shock, adjacency: he mastered them all. As with a great magazine editor, you never knew what was coming next. A Prince album was a one-stop house party, rotating between the dance floor, the bedroom and the playground, never staying too long in one place or losing a sense of playfulness (for all the explicitness). It was like you walked into Prince’s world and followed wherever it led. Perhaps the decline of the album as a medium for listening to music deprived Prince of a central artistic advantage.

Superior musicianship is now held up as Prince’s point of difference, a link with rock’s great tradition, otherwise held to have petered out in the 1970s. In later years, however, Prince’s musicality was made to carry too much weight. You could see he was impossibly good, but that clarified the concern that he’d run out of things to say. The virtuosity was all too obvious. He started to talk about the lost art of musicianship, too, as though it was a manifesto. Once, he had shown us rather than told us.

There is something else, though, that made it increasingly difficult for Prince to stand apart. In his early days, Prince’s intrinsic ambiguity – on pretty much every spectrum – led him naturally to break taboos, just by being himself. Today, if there are any taboos left to break, I’m not sure I want to know about them.

Prince was overtaken by a revolution he had partly created. The mainstream got sexualised; he got old. He was left with nowhere to go. Just as Woody Allen’s films progressively replaced muses with hookers, the libidinous vulnerability that powered Prince’s best albums gave way to a predictable (and unconvincing) lecherousness.

Coming back to Prince this week, especially those golden mid-80s years, I’ve realised how much I missed during my teens, especially his troubled insecurities. Prince was a famously enigmatic man – deliberately so – but as an artist he was a deceptively open book. It’s all there, when you revisit the music with adult ears.

Odd, brilliant, restless and unsatisfied, I think we got to know the real Prince pretty well. Far from being a genius of re-invention, as legend has it, Prince was actually always himself. There were many masks, but none provided escape from the search for authenticity.

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