The Music and Life of Prince: Beyond Category

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Prince in 2010. | Nicolas Genin

When news came April 21 of the death of Prince, the 57-year-old  rock-funk-jazz-soul ageless music dynamo through the course of the day and night, the response here in Washington, D.C., seemed especially electric and full of shock.

A Hispanic bank teller looked unbelieving and asked, “How, when, what happened?”  A black woman, pacing back and forth, replied, “Today, this morning . . . We’re losing our icons. He was an icon. I mean whom do we have left?”

As his name, given to him by his father, another Prince and musician, indicated, he performed from the get-go as some kind of special royalty — not in any kiss-the-ring fashion, but in a way that set him and his multitude of gifts apart. He was an original, who could play all the instruments that any sort of music required. He was a gem and something of a genius, a songwriter, a movie star in his own movie based on his life, a live performer who was brazen, colorful and full of color, a thin, small African American who cast a large shadow on America’s music.  He was a chameleon of independence. He changed bands, identities and clothes, styles and ways of walking and talking and writing.  

To America’s black funkadelics and soul-searchers, this was a hurtful loss because it seemed to come out of nowhere. The cause of his death — he was found unresponsive in his Minneapolis compound — has yet to be determined, although there have been rumors and speculations swirling that he had several days ago perhaps overdosed on the highly addictive pain killer drug Percocet and that he had been in serious pain for some time due to hip problems and the fact that religion forbids the blood transmissions required for such surgery.   Whatever the cause, the end result will be only sadder for all the loss.

To youthful and also memory- and music-driven African Americans, his death is a heavy blow, every bit as painful as the deaths of the legendary Whitney Houston — and perhaps more to the point, Michael Jackson. 

Prince embraced — and then often improved upon, and  certainly embellished just about every form of American pop music that he encountered.  He jumped into those waters gleefully, confidently, even arrogantly early on and just stirred and muddied the waters, singing with a certain rawness about sex and love, and also a adding a considerable amount of soul-searching content, especially in “Purple Rain,” which was the title of his best known album and a movie about himself in which he starred. The film grossed around $80 million — not a bad outing for the times and for what it was, plus an Oscar for musical score.

The youthful generations of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s embraced him, including young white people, while others were baffled by him and underappreciated him. That could include many of us who didn’t bother to explore the depth and range of the body of work which placed him — and continues to — in the top ranks of rock, pop, soul and jazz musicians.  Some folks scoffed at his attempts to put almost every kind of music into one album, or one song—but he did it anyway. Duke Ellington’s phrase “beyond category” appears created for him.

He pressed issues of his identity — including his much speculated-upon sexual identity. On stage, he managed to project a kind of direct, male sexuality that could also be at turn androgynous, driven by a feel for costume and style, and his forays into high-pitched vocals.  Girls — and boys — loved him. Boy George claimed he had an affair with him, but then so did some high-profile female sex symbols like Kim Basinger and Madonna. 

His appeal seemed to defy category, gender, ethnicity and race, while embracing all their aspects.

His younger self party-inducers were explicit. In his later years, Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness and toned himself down a little.  He seemed always to be searching: so much so that for a time he dropped the name Prince and instead went by his own love symbol symbols or as “the artist formerly known as Prince,” partly in a fight with his record company.

The musical beat this year has been darkened by sadness. The world has lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey of the Eagles and recently one of country music’s most authentic voices, Merle Haggard. And now, Prince, and doves cried.

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