When a well-known, highly acclaimed popular musician passes away, we’re often told there was “no one like” that artist. In reality, few musicians are truly that unique.
But there was no one like Prince.
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This truth might not be immediately evident to those young enough to have missed the heyday of Prince Rogers Nelson, who was found dead Thursday at his estate in Minnesota. Prince, who was 57, kept recording songs — hundreds of them, many still unreleased to this day — long past the time he was a dominant force on radio, in clubs, and on MTV (a massive force itself at the time).
But his refusal to play ball with the music industry, along with his penchant for releasing oversized albums stuffed with experimental tracks (and sometimes releasing more than one album in the same year), didn’t make it easy for casual fans to stay engaged in the new millennium.
Regardless, at the height of his powers and his popularity, Prince was unstoppable. He’s utterly impossible to classify as an artist — another cliché that’s not a cliché when it comes to Prince.
He made popular music with melodies and hooks that resonated on the very first listen, but he could be fiercely experimental. He could as easily construct a devastating hard rock track as a breathtaking ballad, a groovy dance cut, a sprightly bit of bubblegum pop or a driving funk attack.
He could have cornered the market on pop, or dance, or R&B, or rock. But his talents and imagination were far too broad for that. He wanted to do all of that. And he usually did just that, turning every album into a sprawling showcase for his creativity.
Everyone knows “1999” and “Purple Rain,” of course, but everyone should know “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” a masterwork that marries some of Prince’s best songwriting with atypically raw, gritty production.
In the 1980s, you could hear Prince’s music regularly on virtually any popular music radio format outside of country. (Although he did write a soft ballad, “You’re My Love,” for Kenny Rogers!) Even rock stations played “Let’s Go Crazy,” and they played it a lot.
It’s astonishing to realize the same man who wrote and performed that song provides the cooing falsetto over the disco-pop of “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Or the gritty dance-funk of “Dirty Mind,” or the electronic stomp of “When Doves Cry,” or the insane rock guitar runs on “I’m Yours,” from his first album, “For You.”
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And that’s to say nothing of the stunning variety of Prince-composed songs made famous by other artists: “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinead O’Connor), “I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan), “Manic Monday” (The Bangles), “Jungle Love” (The Time), “When You Were Mine” (Cyndi Lauper) and “The Glamorous Life” (Sheila E.). He even co-wrote the timeless track “Stand Back” with Stevie Nicks.
Additionally, Prince was one of the best pure musicians to also become a superstar performer. He’s constantly listed as one of the greatest guitarists in the history of popular music, owing not only to his astonishing ability but his versatility. But Prince could play virtually any instrument you’ll hear in any pop/rock/funk/R&B/dance song, and he often did.
While he performed with a variety of other musicians and sometimes collaborated with them on recordings, most instruments you hear on a Prince song are played by one person: Prince. On his 1978 album, “For You,” he composed, arranged, and produced every song while also playing all 27 instruments.
In his private life, Prince was married twice and romantically linked to many actresses, including Madonna, Kim Basinger, and Sheila E. He was not married when he passed away. He and wife Mayte Garcia had one child, a boy born in 1996. He died soon after birth.
Prince will be remembered for many things, from destroying the barriers between pop music genres to destroying Charlie Murphy’s team on the basketball court as recounted in a legendary “Chappelle’s Show” episode. He also gave us one of the best Super Bowl halftime performances in memory, rocking through a rainstorm and working in covers of Foo Fighters and Bob Dylan (by way of Jimi Hendrix) alongside his own songs.
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He will also always be known for changing his name in 1993 to a symbol and calling himself “The Artist Formerly Known As.”
But all of that is just a blip on his resume. It’s his music that will forever be his legacy. And ultimately, he should be remembered as one of the most imaginative, talented, and prolific musicians pop music has ever known.