by Sam Buntz
I discovered Prince in the Paddock Music Library at Dartmouth College in 2010. Of course, I’d heard of Prince before then, and am sure I’d listened to “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette,” but for some reason, I hadn’t experienced any albums in full, nor had I granted his music my complete or even mostly undivided attention. I don’t know why I was so late to the game—I suppose I’d received, somewhere along the line, the severely misguided impression that Prince was a very poppy pop star. I didn’t even realize that he wrote his own songs, let alone that he was essentially a Mozartian prodigy. My illusions, however, were ripe for puncturing.
The librarians and student workers at Paddock greeted my selection of Purple Rain with extreme and enthusiastic approval. Expectations ran high, and the atmosphere sizzled. Across the greater Upper Valley, dogs perked up their ears, startled by a sudden change in the earth’s electromagnetic fields.
They knew that someone’s mind was about to be blown.
Back at my dorm room—breath bated, hands clammy—I inserted Purple Rain into my laptop and adjusted the speakers. In the understated words of T.S. Eliot describing the birth of the Christ child, “It was (you may say) satisfactory.”
Of course, it was more than “satisfactory.” For some reason, the first song I listened to was “Take Me with U,” and its orchestral fullness immediately grabbed me. (I don’t know why I didn’t listen from the beginning: “Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening track, might be my favorite Prince song, and some critics consider “Take Me with U” the album’s weakest track—not me, though). It conveyed a sense of movement, of someone actually taking someone else with them. Now, I know that sounds stupid, but if you’ve heard the song you’ll realize how precisely accurate it is. (I liked the breakdown with the toms too.)
A few months later, I was immersed in Prince’s music. I had a particular affection for Dirty Mind—it seemed to be the necessary dash of Yang in my Yin-overloaded life—but Purple Rain still remains, for me, at the canonical center of his output. I love Sign o’ the Times almost equally, and am more than willing to admit it might be his masterpiece, but find myself continually returning to the concentrated power of the earlier work.
Now, Prince has passed from our shadow-lands to a realm of eternal day—voyaging across some metaphysical gulf to “the afterworld” where “you can always see the sun, day or night”—in the words of “Let’s Go Crazy.”
He was a figure who managed to incarnate numerous contradictory impulses and divergent cultural tendencies—harmonizing, synthesizing, unifying, reconciling. The most obvious duality is that of his blatant sexuality and earnest religiosity, two pieces of the psyche that many people would consider to be totally opposed. But this is deep, deep in the American grain—what is it but an extension of the blues man’s love for the Blues and for Gospel, for the Sacred and the Profane, for the tension necessary to add adequate seasoning to life? Prince’s compulsive horniness routinely baited him into an awareness of something greater than himself; it’s an essential aspect of his project.
Indeed, there was a wholeness to Prince’s music; black and white, Bible and Kama Sutra, masculine and feminine, rock and pop—the double-consciousness of American experience was fully present within him. He would sing about a girl named Nikki who “you could say […] was a sex fiend,” before asking us if we could “bear the Cross,” in the same concert. He’d swing between the tender, balladic, avant-pop anthemics of “Purple Rain” to the graphic sex-funk of “Head” with no real feeling of radical disruption, because he was expressing the swirl of feelings that quarry in almost every human breast—raw lust, true love, spiritual longing, the concoction of all of these and more. And he expressed those varied feelings with an unbelievable array of talents: he could play guitar as well as Hendrix, compose melodies like McCartney, and funk-it-up with the attitude of George Clinton.
In our current age of hits written by twenty or more people, simply observe the songwriting credits to Sign o’ the Times: out of sixteen tracks, thirteen were written and composed entirely by Prince himself (he played a ton of the instruments to boot). On a double-album that renowned, this is a level of individual accomplishment perhaps akin only to Stevie Wonder’s on Songs in the Key of Life.
A kind of Tantric Christian, Prince combined the sex god deification of early MTV with a spiritual journey, a quest that led him from his childhood as a Seventh Day Adventist to a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of those denominations, fittingly, began here—like their illustrious adherent, they’re American Originals, manifestations of the way the Holy Spirit comes to dance in the New World. While expressing the religiosity of our own climate, nothing remained foreign to Prince—he was “at play in the fields of the Lord,” bounding across the full terrain of musical experience, from hip-hop to the Beatles-esque melodies of tunes like “Raspberry Beret.”
Considering his career’s trajectory, you can draw an insane parallel between Prince and the poet William Wordsworth—they both had a great decade (in Prince’s case, that basically means the ’80s, including a few years prior and after) before gradually becoming less radical and less artistically successful, with Wordsworth converting to orthodox Anglicanism and Prince to the Witnesses. But this is not to say that Prince either burned out or faded away. He continued to express his social conscience—consider his Baltimore Concert after Freddie Gray’s death. Additionally, his impact on contemporary music is impossible to overstate: plenty of last year’s biggest hits, like “Uptown Funk” and The Weeknd’s chart-topping songs, owe a major debt to His Royal Badness.
In an era of cheap satisfactions and empty calories, Prince reminds us that transformative musical genius is a real thing, and it can’t help asserting itself through all the white noise that regularly assails us. After all, that’s what Prince evidently was—a genius—and in the wake of his passing, it’s what we’ll be remembering and celebrating.