2016 has been brutal for music fans. Today, we add the artist usually known as Prince to the list of recently departed pop music greats.
Prince’s impact was certainly felt by all fans of rock and pop music: Not only is he a favorite of the VH1 nostalgia crowd for having released some of the most quintessentially 80’s tracks, but his credibility among guitarists and other rock musicians allowed him to transcend the banal and superficial top-40 scene — credibility earned through sheer musicianship and focused dedication to the craft of music, a concept that seems increasingly novel in today’s produce-by-numbers environment. His stage performances were inspired by those of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown without being derivative.
Prince and the Revolution were a major component of the soundtrack of my youth. I played the 1999 cassette until it squealed from wear. I often cite “Lady Cab Driver” and other songs of the era as my earliest lessons in funk guitar. Some music we enjoy because it is objectively well-made; other music sparks in us a thrill. The albums of Prince’s psychedelic funk-pop era (1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times) accomplish both for me, to this very day. Prince’s urban soul, tempered by the feminine influence of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, was a sound wrapped in a mystique, a unique aural sensation that had never been heard and may never be replicated. You cannot listen to Sign o’ the Times without hearing lyrical and musical themes that the R&B community would mimic for decades after.
Few artists can be credited with the invention of a completely new style. Prince is one of the few. His Minneapolis Sound updates the James Brown template with jittery 16-note figures against a pumping bass and drums, and was probably best represented in the pop charts by “Baby I’m a Star.” This groove would be further explored and refined by Prince’s colleagues, including Morris Day and Sheila E. For me, a classic early example is “Let’s Work,” from Controversy. If any track captures the exuberance of his early years, it is this one:
Prince left us at age 57, in the midst of a career resurgence. He would have had many years ahead of him. When some legends pass, it is unfortunate but unsurprising. Prince’s passing is tragically surprising, and he will be missed all the more for it.