Prince's Genius Can't Really Be Measured in Earthly Terms: RIP to More Than a Legend

Like David Bowie, the prolific artist meant an infinite number of things to different people and his name didn't belong in the same sentence with the word "convention"

By Natalie Finn Apr 21, 2016 7:08 PMTags
Prince, 2011AP Photo/Polfoto/Jakob Joergensen

If David Bowie was one space oddity, perhaps too much for this earthly realm in the end, Prince was another.

In what is turning into one of the most depressing years for pop music since Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, we have now lost Prince at the incomprehensibly young age of 57.

The enigmatic artist, who was from Minneapolis but seemed most of the time as though he couldn't be from just a major American metropolis, died at his home after an as yet undisclosed illness.

And of course we're at a loss as to where to really begin.

AP Photo/Doug Pizac

Prince Rogers Nelson was more than a musician, more than a songwriter, more than a Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar winner.

He was a genuine craftsman, his music a hybrid of R&B, soul, funk, rock and hip-hop that didn't sound like anything else that came before. Rather, who came after—from Justin Timberlake, The Weeknd and Miguel to St Vincent, Muse and IZy—couldn't help but draw comparisons to Prince. And gladly at that.

Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 was almost a rote honor for the artist, who won seven Grammys yet somehow didn't end up with an Album of the Year statue. Not that that would have interested the man who stole the show in 2015 with a patronizing sneer at the pomp and circumstance before presenting Album of the Year to Beck.

"Like books and black lives, albums still matter," he offered the adoring crowd.

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His 1984 opus Purple Rain, the soundtrack for the moody but visually exciting cult-classic film of the same name and widely considered to be one of the best albums of all time, has sold over 22 million copies.

Through the years he was beyond prolific but struck a perennially fascinating balance between reclusiveness and electric outspokenness that pretty much guaranteed that his fellow artists and fans alike hung on his every sonorous word when he deigned to speak—but famously never into a recorder. His rule against print reporters taping their interviews was legendary in its own right.

His no-nonsense basso profundo also made him a target of much reverent parody, most notably from Dave Chappelle, whose "shirts vs. blouses" sketch on Chappelle's Show is easily one of the best comedic impersonations ever.

"Have you been away, I guess is the question," Matt Lauer inquired of the artist upon the release of Musicology—his 28th studio album—in a 2004 Today interview, noting how we hadn't seen much of him in a few years.

Prince, looking impeccable in a light blue turtleneck and a white disco-cut suit and white high-heeled boots, shades on, considered the question and, smiling slightly, said, "Not at all.

"We've been touring extensively for the past five years, really." Asked if he read reviews, he admitted, "I sort of love the concert reviews, I really get into those."

Perhaps because the reviews usually contained words such as "incomparable," "transcendent" and "hypnotic."

Or, as Los Angeles Times music critic Randy Lewis described a 2014 show at the Hollywood Palladium in March 2014: "masterful-on-multiple-fronts."

Talk to almost anyone who saw Prince live and they had just witnessed one of the best concerts they'd ever seen. The strains of "Purple Rain" and other classics from a private Prince show at the Mondrian hotel in West Hollywood after the Grammys one year wafted into my apartment courtyard and that was one of the best sounds I'd ever heard.

Prince was known for switching it up onstage, performing hits (good grief, so many classics), including "Kiss," "1999," "Raspberry Beret" and "Little Red Corvette" but sometimes scrapping the expected and doing something weird (or just "Prince-like") like performing in the dark or just popping up unexpectedly somewhere and giving the stunned audience the show of their lives.

In mid-March Prince did an intimate, hour-long set at Avenue in New York, the crowd, which wasn't overwhelmingly A-list, surely feeling like the biggest VIPs in the city that night. And he was performing until the end. Last Thursday night he sounded "amazing," according to someone who attended his show in Atlanta. "He was energetic and the crowd went crazy."

But health issues that were more dire than anyone dared fear forced him to cancel the next two shows on his Piano and a Microphone Tour.

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Prince also told Lauer that day in 2004 that he did not, however, pay too much attention to album reviews, not thinking much of mainstream criticism. Subsequently, he was infamous for not being particularly effusive with his praise, though he wouldn't necessarily have agreed with that characterization.

Asked in a 2011 interview with The Guardian if he tried to put people at ease upon meeting, he said, "I do that pretty quick. I'm real easy-going. You're not intimidated, are you?"

Excuse us while we try to shake our own goose-bumps.

With regard to his larger-than-life persona, Prince said, "A lot of that comes from other people. The press like to blow things out of proportion so this person becomes bigger than they are. The sooner this thing called fame goes away, the better. We got people who don't need to be famous."

That couldn't be truer, but Prince could have stopped after Purple Rain—already his sixth studio album in 1984—and remained one of the greatest pop artists of all time, fairly sharing list space with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson on lists of singers who dominated the 1980s.

The Guardian noted that Prince's interview "guidelines" asked that they not discuss the man's "views on the Internet."

But he said anyway, "I personally can't stand digital music. You're getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can't feel anything. We're analogue people, not digital."

That opinion doesn't differ too much from the likes of Neil Young, who came out with his own iTunes-rivaling Pono system to deliver what in his view was more authentic, album-reminiscent sound to digital listeners.

Prince, who was actually an early adopter of the web as a sales device for his albums, even closed his website,, in 2010, calling the Internet "completely over."

He announced last August, however, that his next album would stream exclusively on Jay Z's Tidal service. And so he clarified his "completely over" declaration to The Guardian in November.

"What I meant was that the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that," he said. "Tell me a musician who's got rich off digital sales. Apple's doing pretty good though, right?"

Ironically, he also noted that the Internet had made music critics a little more palatable to him.

"See, everybody knows when somebody's lazy, and now, with the internet, it's impossible for a writer to be lazy because everybody will pick up on it," he said. "In the past, they said some stuff that was out of line, so I just didn't have anything to do with them. Now it gets embarrassing to say something untrue, because you put it online and everyone knows about it, so it's better to tell the truth."

Neil Lupin/Redferns

Not that everything he did equaled him at his rapture-provoking heights, but here's hoping Prince didn't fault the critics too much for taking a stab at understanding all that he was trying to do and failing. He did too much to be truly understood. The truth is, you just can't paint a picture of Prince—or, now, his legacy—using pedestrian words like "prolific," "iconic" or even "genius."

The other truth is that, like David Bowie, Prince—at any phase of his inimitable career, through any one of his 37 studio albums and countless other recordings, via his role as "The Kid" in Purple Rain or because you wanted to drink in every Prince sighting possible if only to hear him speak and see what he was wearing—meant an infinite number of things to different people.

In fact, perhaps the one thing that everyone wanted from Prince was more Prince. And that is the only thing he's not going to be able to give us.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson