One man, one name, one unmistakeable voice in music and culture. The death of Prince at age 57 is one of those grossly unfair, unbelievable developments that defy explanation or any immediate, intelligible commentary.
Music lovers of all stripes and tastes are hitting pause, breathing deeply and letting this one sink in. And even as they do, it's still too much. Anyone who's seen Prince perform live or on screen in recent years will tell you he wasn't close to even retiring -- he provided more energy, richness and thoughtfulness as a performer in his 50s than fellow hitmakers half his age.
We owe the musical giant our thoughts and remembrances for days, months and years to come. What has Prince contributed to the world at large? It's a question we can only begin to approach here, as all those songs play on a loop inside our heads.
Prince built his signature sound steadily and deliberately after signing to Warner Bros. as a teenager in the '70s. From 1978's For You (with its single "Soft and Wet") through the 1979 self-titled LP, 1980's Dirty Mind and '81's Controversy, he established a heady brew of funk, R&B, pop and rock 'n' roll that hadn't been offered up before. That had much to do with his auteur-level control over his recordings. He conceived it all and played most of the instruments, which makes some of today's pop-by-committee seem positively pathetic by comparison.
Household name status greeted Prince when he put out the chart-topping smash album 1999 in '82. Each new album and movement after broadened his scope and strengthened his position at the top of the pop food chain -- Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Sign o' the Times and Parade were just a few of the '80s works that deserved listeners' ears from beginning to end. His guitar genius suggested he could've been just fine as the second coming of Jimi Hendrix, but Prince had so much more to offer in variety of styles, in lyrical themes that jumbled up the sexual with the spiritual and in melodies that are impossible to shake.
Corresponding with the flawless album of the same name, the 1984 film Purple Rain gave Prince the kind of acting debut that accentuated his particular personality and talent. It left a lasting impression, unforgettable not only for its musical moments but for its emotional (if somewhat melodramatic) story. Its sequel, 1990's Graffiti Bridge, was written and directed by the star. That was Prince's last big film affiliation apart from his wonderfully odd 1989 Batman soundtrack. But by that point, MTV had already burned plenty of Prince visuals into young and impressionable brains thanks to classic music videos for "When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," "Little Red Corvette," "Kiss" and many more.
Prince, ever comfortable with bending both genres and genders in his work, transformed himself in a way that confounded even fans in 1993. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in a show of protest against Warner Bros., the record label with which he'd become increasingly frustrated throughout his ballooning stardom. Unable to print the glyph that now represented him, the media took to calling him "the artist formerly known as Prince." The fracas and name change (which was later reversed in 2000) certainly slowed down sales and momentum on the charts, but it didn't stop Prince from continuing to make highly worthwhile music. He probably found more contentment and personal satisfaction doing things the way he wanted -- artistry trumped everything else.
The concert god
You'll read countless stories from fans -- famous and otherwise -- about seeing Prince live, about his nonstop commitment to producing a good time for all, about his ability to mix originals and cover tunes in meaningful and surprising ways. Yet for some of us who never had the opportunity to sit among his concert faithful, we have plenty of archival opportunities, from the "comeback" appearance with Beyoncé at the 2004 Grammys, to his medley at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction that same year, to 12 or so televised minutes in 2007 for one of the greatest Super Bowl halftime shows of all time. Seriously, it rained on him as he sang "Purple Rain."
The far-reaching influence
As it was with David Bowie, one would be hard-pressed to find a successful musician today who doesn't hold the highest regard for Prince or consider him a musical hero.
He's greater than the total package, a singular performer and cultural visionary whose endless talent and conviction regarding his own work inspire anyone trying to make their own mark.
To say he'll be missed just doesn't cut it. The shock has yet to wear off. Only the music can help at this point.
Hunter Hauk on Twitter: @hausofhunter
- Pinch-me moments from Prince fans in Dallas-Fort Worth
- 2-26-2011: Prince $1,500-per-ticket concert canceled
- 'It ain't bragging if you can back it up': Revisit Prince's 1997 show at Reunion Arena
- 8-10-1997: The Ex-Prince throws a memorable royal gala
- 8-8-1997: With new records and a new tour, Prince makes another grab 4 the pop throne
- Music legend Prince has died at 57, publicist confirms