A Purple Sky: The Artistry of Prince

Prince, the greatest musical artist to ever walk this planet, has passed away. The temptation when we lose such impossibly outstanding humans is to convince ourselves of their immortality. “He can never truly die.” “He’s one of those people I assumed would live forever.” But honestly, sometimes I did think about Prince’s death. I thought about it like you consider the mortality of the people you are closest to – the knowledge that you’re a quarter of century behind on your journey and likely to see the day their’s ends. Most of us never met the man, of course, but it doesn’t feel enough to live with his body of work alone. Without his presence, Earth feels that bit colder. A world once draped in a glittering purple and gold dream coat has been permanently disrobed.

I fretted about this day because Prince Rogers Nelson was just the greatest thing to ever happen to our world. A supernatural being who could somehow channel smouldering funk, gentle soul and raw eroticism and funnel it all through his own purple kaleidoscope into a three-minute pop song. His discography can’t be touched – the animistic sexuality laid bare on Dirty Mind, the snapping electronica of 1999, followed up by Purple Rain’s rich pop sheen and the sweeping psychedelic tapestry of Around The World In A Day. There was the broad think-tank of the greatest double album ever, Sign o’ the Times, the snarling dynamism of The Gold Experience, plus a dozen more classic albums. Mortal he may have been, but Prince’s super-human genius and impenetrable aura made him seem more Greek god than man.

There’s a snapshot circulating social media at the moment of the personnel who played on Prince’s 1978 debut album For You. It consists of just the man himself and some 30 instruments, everything from electric guitar and acoustic piano, to wood blocks and hand claps. But genius can’t be gauged by simply counting equipment. Instead, you’ll hear greatness in how he layered pocket symphonies like ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Baby I’m A Star’ with so much colour and flavour they sound like they’re about to burst. How he made ‘When Doves Cry’, a song about parental difficulties that doesn’t sport a bass line, one of the hottest club joints ever.

Prince 2 -Headstuff.orgImage Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

How he took four simple chords and made them the great chord progression in pop music history on ‘Pop Life’. You hear genius in his trembling falsetto on jazz club ballad ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore’ and the virtuoso guitar playing on ‘Purple Rain’. Prince’s arrangements knocked as hard as anything in pop history, but they also sunk deep into your DNA. And somehow, his hits have been impervious to growing tired. Listen to ‘Kiss’ right now. That compact clutch of sounds is still the funkiest thing ever. It all just seems so enormous that it could emanate from one being, and yet it did.

Prince’s eighties run is pop music’s greatest masterwork. In the decade of excess, he snatched the baton from the black music greats he’d grown up absorbing in Minneapolis, hopped into a flashy starship and took off into another galaxy. Releasing at least one classic album every year from 1980 to 1989, he constructed a new-age world of 17-hour nights, a dark purple sky and the greatest clubs you’ll never set foot in. It was a world built in his own image, where everyone was unshackled from sexual repression and nothing was taboo. Where fashion was glitzy, gaudy and gorgeous. A society of dance, music, sex and romance. “Let me take u to another world,” he sings on ‘Sexuality’. “We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race. New age revelation, I think we got a case.”

Prince cultivated an impenetrable, near-mythical aura. No musician has ever wielded a tighter grip on their legend. He seemed to travel in a lane parallel to celebrity culture. He climbed to the highest points of pop stardom without playing the promotional game that comes with being on a major label. All while he blurred the lines of not just musical genres, but gender, culture and sexuality. To pigeonhole himself would have been to stifle his creativity.

In interviews, Prince’s exterior was as steely as it was sultry. It was tough to read his eyes and impossible to picture what went on behind the curtain. It’s why Dave Chappelle’s famous sketch resonates so deeply. The comedian’s take on the Prince mythos tantalised the possibility that he actually lived in some sort of alternate dimension that looked exactly like the movie Purple Rain. Even as social media has brought down barriers between celebrities and their fans, it’s still impossible to associate The Kid with the mundane. He’s even use the internet to reinforce that image – the Facebook Q&A that only lasted one question, the numerous deaths and rebirths of his social media media accounts, and the difficulties fans experienced trying to find his music online. He was laughing at us all.

The end of the eighties is generally considered the end of Prince’s golden period, but what came after is still studded with great records and important moments. His long-running saga with Warner Bros saw him take up the moniker of an unpronounceable symbol and pull his sound into ever more experimental places as he tried to make himself as commercially unviable as possible. He’d give interviews with his face shrouded by a scarf and perform with “slave” written across his features as he pulled the industry that took advantage of so many of his black heroes deep into the trenches. But his pre and post-emancipation from Warner Bros also gave us everything from off-the-cuff rock (Chaos and Disorder), to wild jazz fusion (N.E.W.S), to dapper pop (Musicology). To just about everyone who saw Prince in the flesh, his was the best live show in the world. And as he engaged in an Ali/Frazier-like rivalry with the internet, what is sometimes forgotten is that Prince was a digital pioneer, releasing several online-only albums as early as 2003.

More so than any pop star, I remember Prince feeling dangerous and somewhat forbidden – an artist that rejected all the gender conventions and socio-cultural codes that were forcefully programmed into us as kids that I’d spend years trying to remove. When I was around six years old, I woke up one morning just before dawn. The television in the living room had been left on MTV and among the videos on the overnight rotation was ‘Sexy MF’. It was probably the first time I’d seen a man be that feminine and raunchy and beautiful, it left a deep imprint on my brain. When he played his gig at Malahide Castle in 2011, the only rain we got was a small shower during ‘Purple Rain’. It felt like he used his powers to do that.

I guess to be in his company felt a little magical. How could it not? The Purple One had the presence to match being one of the greatest songwriters, guitarists, producers, live performers and album makers we’ve ever seen. He was all that and the coolest man on the planet to boot – a neon-lit mastermind who spent his whole life bringing his spellbinding sorcery to the world, but who left us all too soon.

It’s why Prince stands alone as my favourite artist of all time. He always will.

You might also like More from author