Prince Rogers Nelson, a man who transcended musical genre and defied definition, was found dead in his Paisley Park complex in Minnesota on Thursday. He was 57.
Irreplaceably unique, Prince was a flamboyant, innovative artist whose songs were as varied and layered as his beguiling persona, which captivated audiences and music critics alike for nearly four decades.
Best known for his landmark 1984 album and concert film, Purple Rain, Prince leaves behind a cultural and musical legacy that spawned dozens of hit singles, including five No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts, and produced more than 40 albums, blending rock, disco, funk, soul and R&B.
Born in June 1958 in Minneapolis to musician parents, Prince was a musical prodigy. He famously wrote his first song at age 7, and later, in 1978, he recorded his debut album, For You, which featured the single “Soft and Wet” that made it to No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart. He would follow up the success of For You with the self-titled album Prince in 1979, his first platinum-selling record. It featured the hits “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and the gender-bending, breathy, falsetto track “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” on which Prince cooed how he not only wanted to be your lover but “your mother and your sister too.”
Prince’s gender fluidity marked many of his early albums, from Dirty Mind’s outré sexuality to Controversy, for which he sang on the title track, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” Throughout this period, Prince often performed in risqué outfits featuring fishnet stockings, motorcycle jackets, high-heeled boots and ruffled shirts. He wore eyeliner and put together a look that was sexy and tough, masculine and feminine, on his famously petite frame.
In 1982 Prince saw continued success with his album 1999, which sold 3 million copies and featured an anti-nuclear-proliferation track of the same name. It also included the hit “Little Red Corvette,” which became one of the first videos to be played by a black artist in heavy rotation on MTV. (The other was by an artist with whom Prince most competed for much of his career, Michael Jackson, and his hit “Billie Jean.”)
While his early albums were successful, it was Purple Rain that launched Prince into the national zeitgeist. Featuring No. 1 charting hits “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and selling more than 13 million copies, it showcased the depth of Prince—and his band the Revolution’s—talents, making the “Minneapolis sound” that they’d popularized a household hit.
But as popular as the album was, it was not without controversy. The content of some of the songs startled many, including the wife of future Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore, who famously founded the Parents Music Resource Center after overhearing the lyrics to the sexually charged track “Darling Nikki.” The group created the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label that became ubiquitous on album covers.
Purple Rain was accompanied by a semiautobiographical film of the same name, starring Prince as “the Kid,” an ambitious young musician with an outsized ego and a fiery temper. The movie also highlighted his band the Revolution and the careers of two of Prince’s side projects: funk band the Time, featuring Morris Day as lead singer; and Apollonia Kotero, who fronted her own trio, Apollonia 6. Purple Rain was a huge hit for Prince, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score and making $80 million at the box office. It would go on to become a cult classic, regularly shown on cable networks like VH1 to this day.
Prince would continue to rack up hit singles and hit albums after Purple Rain, including “Raspberry Beret” from Around the World in a Day, “Kiss” from the album Parade and his other cult-classic film, Under the Cherry Moon. He would disband the Revolution and put out the double album Sign O’ the Times, best known for hits including the title track, “U Got the Look,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
From the start of his professional career, Prince was signed to Warner Bros., a decades-spanning relationship that would later grow contentious as the artist sought more control and ownership over his music.
A few years after forming his new band, New Power Generation, and producing hit albums like Diamonds and Pearls and the soundtrack to the Tim Burton-directed Batman film, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, also known as the “love symbol,” in 1993. It was a combination of the symbols for male and female, and Prince—then called “the Artist Formally Known as Prince” in the media—would often perform with the word “slave” written on his face. It was all a statement on his relationship with Warner Bros. and how he wanted out of his contract.
Throughout the mid-’90s, he put out several albums in rapid succession in an effort to finish out his Warner Bros. deal. In 1996, Prince would release his final Warner Bros. album, Chaos and Disorder, to dismal sales. Later, after some time as an independent artist, he moved on to a deal with Arista. He wouldn’t change his name back to Prince until the year 2000.
Always creating, Prince was as known for his own music as he was for his side projects. He shepherded the careers of many, many female protégés, from drummer Sheila E. to actress-singer Vanity to the aforementioned Apollonia to model-actress Carmen Electra. He also helped buoy the careers of many greats, including singer Mavis Staples and Sly and the Family Stone guitarist Larry Graham. It was Graham who introduced Prince to the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, to which he converted in 2001.
Prince also mentored and aligned with many female artists, including musical heavyweights like Beyoncé, with whom he famously performed a medley of his hits at the 2004 Grammy Awards, and Alicia Keys. He also worked with emerging artists like Judith Hill. Prince actually married one of his acolytes, dancer and background singer Mayte Garcia, in 1996. They had a son who died one week after his birth. The couple would divorce in 1999. Prince got married a second time in 2001 to Manuela Testolini, but that marriage also ended in divorce, in 2006.
Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, but his reach went beyond music. He was also quietly known for his activism. After Hurricane Katrina, he produced two songs for disaster-plagued New Orleans, and shortly after civil unrest in the city of Baltimore, Prince came to the torn city to perform his #Rally4Peace concert in 2015. Proceeds from the concert went to various youth groups in the city.
There are so many more things that can be said of Prince: his ageless looks; his innovation in the music industry when, during his Musicology tour in 2004, he gave away copies of his album, with the concert tickets, to the now defunct NPG Music Club, which got fans in touch with his music, as well as exclusive concert tickets, online. He played his largest audience ever—140 million—in 2007 during Super Bowl XLI, where he literally performed “Purple Rain” in the rain. He was known for his pop-up, surprise, late-night shows when he would sometimes play his hits (and sometimes not). And never one to settle down, Prince was on tour shortly before he was found dead in his home. He’d been hospitalized prior to his death with “flulike” symptoms.
His sudden death shocked many who took to social media to express their grief, often mentioning how his death came years after the equally shocking deaths of his musical contemporaries—giants also—Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
Like his departed contemporaries, Prince leaves behind a legacy that is unlikely to be surpassed in this current environment of a music industry stymied by pirating and greatly diminished sales. He truly was a singular class act unto himself, an artist beyond all others, now beyond us materially, but forever with us in song.