When we saw him, we knew where it came from. During his early appearances it was clear he wasn't the tallest of men, but he had intense charisma. The dots were connected. His voice belonged to the right person: A handsome man on the more masculine side of androgyny where decades of teen idols and sex symbols resided. Prince's look and style was transformative and his sex appeal would proved very interesting as early '80s were trying to roll back into the '50s. Prince made the R&B singing groups and bands of the day look old-timey and the corporate-era rockers seem especially ugly. Oddly enough they all seemed to fade away as Prince ascended--he had the coolest looking band, one more in step with where America was going.
The later work delivered on the R&B/rock on the flash of 1979's Prince. His talent was too much to contain. He was always the maverick, a genius and contemporary R&B wasn't enough to hold him--although his synth styles soon became the bedrock of the '80s R&B sound. For Prince, a blend of the styles seemed more fitting and seemed to harness some of his artistic muse. 1978's "Soft and Wet" (from Prince's 1978's For You) gave way to a mindset that was full-on sex in short order. It was fine, the best move--Prince was brilliant at writing about sex. Songs like "Dirty Mind," the riotously lewd and hilarious "Head" soon followed. His label Warner Brothers didn't try to convert him into a more accessible and cleaner act, they couldn't.
During this era, Prince was known for being scantily clad and often performed in concert wearing bikini briefs. For a lot of men, especially black men who could barely cough without being put in handcuffs during Reagan's '80s, it was liberating to see him in action. He wasn't broken-down and constantly perturbed like the first population of rappers and Prince didn't become neutered like established R&B acts trying to erase their manhood for radio airplay. 1982's Controversy was the anti-everything with its questioning and oddly pretty title track, the blistering and gleefully unsettling "Anne Christian," and the pure, up to the minute synth jam, "Let's Work." The humorous, "Jack U Off" closed the album with not only a laugh but a howl.
The pop charts soon caught on. 1999 was an early opus in even if the album was too much for some devotees, songs like "1999," "Little Red Corvette" and the deranged rockabilly of "Delirious" were as good as other artists careers. Prince truly hit the public consciousness with Purple Rain, the film and movie. It's so rare that an artist as talented as Prince actually hit even bigger with some of his best work. "Let's Go Crazy" coalesced the pure rock and funk that artists like his nemesis Rick James and Michael Jackson couldn't quite attain. The film captured Prince at a precise time and made him immortal like pre-army Elvis Presley in the '50s or Little Richard a day before he ran away to the church. Those images and times don't last long and Prince had moved on even as his work was being played in arcades, high school dances and on Beta players as his fans committing lines and riffs to memory. The soundtrack sold 10 million copies and spun the instant classics "When Doves Cry" (#1 pop) and "Let's Go Crazy" (#1 pop) and "Purple Rain" (#2 pop.)
Throughout 1984-1985, Prince and the Revolution were recording Around the World in a Day. The album was a drastic departure for them and the best thing for him and the era when many fans left him. It was too much and too weird even with gorgeous songs like "Condition of the Heart" and the pop confection of "Raspberry Beret." By this point, Prince followed his muse with a dizzying pace with Parade, tours and a movie. Prince jettisoned band members and before we knew it, he was back to being "Prince" and offered Sign of the Times with the gorgeous title track that blended ancient to the future bluesy riffs as tackled tough subject matter with a Joni Mitchell like rhyme scheme and starry-eyed cynicism.
Although albums like Lovesexy, the Black Album and Graffiti Bridge might have disappointed, Prince remained himself and Batman commercially sustained him--but often being a Prince fan meant that you were in for a lot of disappointments and got caught in the whirlwind of seeing ballyhooed albums turn into smoke and ash. Like all great artists, there was always some song to keep us hanging on, "Get Off," "Cream," the always poignant, "Money Don't Matter 2Night" or "My Name is Prince" and or "Damn U."
For a while a bit of acridness crept into his act due to his battle with Warner Bros. It wasn't enjoyable to see him performing with "slave" written on his cheek like it wasn't fun to see him stumble with rap or to see him with assless pants or performing without Wendy, Lisa or Sheila E. In the middle of red tape and label shenanigans, Prince was capable of great work like 1995's The Gold Experience, an album filled with raunch, funk and as well as his gentle hit ballad, "The Most Beautiful Girl in The World." That effort all but epitomized his label plights as it stayed unreleased for a year and how Warner Brothers co-opting it after the fact. On the other hand, Prince's new label NPG didn't have the muscle to promote it--and they probably didn't care, Prince had moved on to the next thing. This era seemed to be where Prince couldn't seem to navigate through labyrinthine corporate dealings and even his ever-changing musical direction caused problems as well.
By the mid '90s, he wrestled away from Warner Brothers and released Emancipation on EMI. 3 CD's of Prince at that point was too much but this era gave us a chance to see him in interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, etc. It was still great to see him. But it was hard to catch up to him in the era between labels and album and great songs like "Dinner With Deloris," "Pussy Control" all came and went. And 1996's Emancipation was so sprawling that many might have missed "Soul Sanctuary" and "One Kiss At a Time."
Like many artists of Prince's stature, he often went for grand gestures like in 1999 when he signed with Arista and delivered Rave U2 the Joy Fantastic. It was a perfectly acceptable album, but no Purple Rain Part 2 as it was tacitly presented to be. Still songs like "Silly Game," and "So Far, So Pleased" were fine entries to his theme. Prince continued to earn raves for his live performances but his albums, the sheer amount, the output--was too much to take.
By the 2000's, Prince couldn't quite replicate the commercial highs of the '80s and his greatest gift for a lot of his fans just "being" performing on the road, still recording albums. The later work had flashes of brilliance but he seemed to often be stymied within expectation and it's likely that a lot of people ever caught up to Art Official Age and HITnRUN Phase One, HITnRUN Phase Two despite of him making congenial appearances on television to promote the albums.
As Prince's natural incandescence couldn't translate to great songs, the expectation of great work and the new classics never diminished. If anything, his life, performances became the main entertainment in the best way. His fans loved it when he made an overture online or in public. A few weeks before his death, Prince was on stage and dedicated the concert and the set list to his ex-girlfriend Vanity who had recently past away. His fans just went crazy. Who would guess he'd follow her a scant few weeks later with fans, friends wondering another batch of "how's"and "why's."
Prince's death has brought a flood of tributes from a cross-section of fans and artists. That's the mark of Prince's talent and influence.