Sunday, November 12, 2017

Prince's Versatility and Influence

Prince's untimely death is still difficult to accept for those who appreciate his rare genius and who mourn for the loss of the great music he never had the opportunity to create because his life was cut short. Prince's combination of productivity, creativity, ingenuity and high-level multi-instrument proficiency may never be seen again.

Rob Sheffield recently wrote an insightful tribute to Prince and the enduring influence of his 1999 album. Sheffield notes that many artists from diverse genres influenced Prince but he took music to another level:
But as any of these artists probably would have conceded, Prince topped them all, creating his own kind of nonstop erotic cabaret. Instead of just overdubbing instruments to replicate a live band, he built the tracks around a colossal synth pulse, which made 1999 one of the decade's most influential productions. "Little Red Corvette" became such a massive pop hit, it's easy to overlook how radical it sounded at the time. All through the song, you can hear the machines puff and hiss, as if Prince's engines are overheating, with his studio as a Frankenstein lab full of sparks flying everywhere. It's sleek on the surface, but the rhythm track keeps sputtering and threatening to blow up. It's the sonic equivalent of George Lucas' breakthrough in the original Star Wars movie--he figured out that the way to make droids look real was to make them dusty and dented, as if they'd gotten banged around on the job.
Joe Levy's May 4, 2016 remembrance of Prince takes an even broader view: "As with so many visionary artists, there was a period in Prince's career--almost all of the 1980s--when he seemed able to look around corners, when his music seemed to live in the future, and then assemble that future around us."

Levy observes that the divorce of Prince's parents when Prince was around eight years old had a lasting influence on the budding music superstar: "...his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. 'What if everybody around me split?' he said to Rolling Stone in 1990. 'Then I'd be left with only me, and I'd have to fend for me. That's why I have to protect me.'"

Prince's ability to play multiple instruments was largely the result of intensive self-education. After Warner Brothers signed him to his first recording deal in 1977 when Prince was 19 years old, the label intended for Earth, Wind and Fire's Maurice White to produce Prince's first album but Prince immediately shut down that plan: "Nobody is producing my album," Prince declared, and then he proceeded to prove that he was more than capable of handling those duties. Levy reports that Lenny Waronker, Warners' A&R chief at the time, was suitably impressed. Waronker recalled, "He put down a guitar track and got it right. Then he put down the drums--wow. You could just tell--the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him."

Prince then embarked on a staggering outburst of musical creativity, as recounted by Levy:
Prince began work on his fifth album, 1999, in early 1982. He was 23 years old and entering a golden period: For the next three years, it seemed like every waking moment yielded a song, and every song was a hit. He now had three groups: his own band, the Revolution; the Time; and a trio of women in lingerie he called Vanity 6. Before long, he would also be creating music for percussionist Sheila E. He was ceaseless, sometimes working for three days straight without sleep. "Do I have to eat?" he mused in Rolling Stone in 1985. "I wish I didn't have to eat."

By the end of 1985, he had made 15 albums in seven years--seven under his own name; three by the Time; two from Sheila E., and one each from Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and the Family. Those albums generated 13 Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The Minneapolis sound--that synth-driven blend of funk, pop and rock which Prince pioneered--was everywhere, especially after Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Prince had fired from the Time, began producing a string of hits for artists like the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx and Janet Jackson. Then there were the Prince songs that became huge hits for Chaka Khan ("I Feel for You," 1984), Sheena Easton ("Sugar Walls," 1984), and the Bangles ("Manic Monday," 1986).
Prince had gone after all this, but on his own terms. No one would have predicted that he'd break through with singles about the End Times or a sexually voracious woman, or that he could increase the power of his burgeoning fame by refusing to do interviews. Yet that's exactly what happened with 1999.
Prince's career peaked in 1984, when he became the only artist other than the Beatles to simultaneously have the number one album, number one single and number one movie in the United States. That feat is obviously a tall order to match commercially or artistically but Prince remained relevant as a song writer, musician and live performer until the day he died, inspiring a wide array of artists to push the boundaries of their creativity.

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