RIP: Prince (1958–2016)

It's snowing in April.

Prince, the icon who reshaped popular music and bent pop culture to make room for the freaky and pan-sexual, has died at his home in Paisley Park, just outside of Minneapolis. The cause of death is not immediately known, but he was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in Moline, Illinois, on his way home from a concert in Atlanta last week.

It’s impossible to sum up any life in a few paragraphs, but doing so for Prince, who began his career as a flirtatious cipher and only became more mysterious from there, seems particularly futile. There are the facts: he was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, and he dropped his debut album, For You, a mere twenty years later. In 1980, he’d make his first TV appearance on Midnight Special in a pair of zebra-print bikini bottoms and thigh-high stockings, cooing “I Want to Be Your Lover” and shredding the twinned guitar lines of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” earning the praise of a cowboy-hatted Dr. Hook. Between 1979 and 1982, he released a string of albums that didn’t so much push the boundaries of funk, rock, soul, and R&B as expose their falsity. Then, in 1982, he released 1999. Then, in 1984, he released Purple Rain. From that year until the day he died, his celebrity transcended music and culture.

But what good are facts when it comes to Prince? In an industry built on myth, legend, and individualism, he stood out in a way few other musicians—if any—ever have. He outflanked all hyperbole. Hidden behind nothing but a pair of tiny briefs, he remained an unknowable, (mostly) benevolent presence for the entirety of his career.

If you or I were to find ourselves standing next to, say, Keith Richards, it’s likely that his magnetism or charisma or, for lack of a better word, star power would leave us stunted and baffled. Prince is the only musician I can think of who had that same effect on other musicians. See him here soloing in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and reducing Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (and the song itself!) to mere props, then tossing his guitar into the air and out of frame with no concern for where it would come down.

That solo and the toss that caps it is perhaps the tidiest metaphor possible for Prince’s relationship to the music industry and the world at large. It’s flashy, defiant, and undeniable, and it’s driven by a strange brand of cockiness that’ll only exclude you if you have the audacity to not recognize the truth of its greatness. He was the wrecking ball that cleared the way for so much of what our world looks like. There will never be another Prince; we have a democracy now. FL

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