Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#9)


We keep getting closer to the top, but first let's check out who landed at #9.

Prince Rogers Nelson is a freak. I don’t mean the kind of freak who’d jump at the chance to grind with Nikki and her plethora of devices, declare, “My camera's gonna get you when you get it good and wet, you oughta let me come and pet you so it lasts, baby,” break out twenty-three positions prince1in a one night stand, pen an ode to oral sex called “Head” (also an ode to cuckolding and ejaculating on wedding dresses), sing, “I only do it for a worthy cause—virginity or menopause. You'll have an instant heart attack if I jack you off,” and “sincerely want to f-ck the taste out of your mouth,” though he’s certainly that, too. But I’m talking about being a musical freak—that truly rare breed who can be extraordinarily bold, adventurous and experimental yet still crash the mainstream as one of pop music’s biggest and most celebrated draws.

Political correctness has trained us to “tolerate” those around us and strive not to offend by ignoring all attributes that make so and so different. But what made Prince different is part of what made him so memorable, and he did all he could to call attention to his flashy bravado, unusual individualism, and oversized appetites. He takes the whole “guitar as phallus” thing to whole new levels. He writhes and gyrates all over the stage as if he’s got enough mojo to still be horny after marathon sessions with an entire harem. He’ll smolder your pants off and if you upset his integrity or reserved rights he’ll then sue those pants back off. He simulates sex with objects on stage (or is that “stimulates”?). He swathes himself in jheri-curls, crushed velvet Edwardian jackets, high-heel boots, frilly panchos, skin-tight pants (“Game…blouses”). And to prove he’s not a complete hedonist, he’s also a vegan and converted to Jehovah’s Witness. Who would have figured that fellow 80s pop champ Michael Jackson, with his eccentricities unraveling and ballooning into grand new heights of the oddball, would find a way to purloin the “freak” spotlight from this cat?

prince2But it’s his freakiness on the guitar and in the studio that we’re concerned with. He’s eternally underrated as a guitarist—if you need “flashy” proof, watch his solo at the Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison—and it’s easy to forget in these programmed times how unbelievable it is that he plays almost all of the instruments in studio by himself. That sort of synthesis of intent doesn’t usually create spontaneous fits of in-the-moment brilliance, but it did practically spawn a whole new language in modern R&B. It took several years for the other major players to catch up to the innovation, and more often than not, made it either seem too tame or so obvious that it was impossible not to describe it as “a Prince-style sex jam.”

He called it the Minneapolis Sound, and it must have been named so because of his fondness for his home because nothing else in Minneapolis (or Minnesota, or the world) sounded like it. An early influence was Pepe Willie who moved from Brooklyn to Minneapolis in the mid-70s and formed the funk band 94 East, which Prince participated in as a teenager (Willie’s wife was also Prince’s cousin). The style is best described as a fusion of funk and synthpop/new wave. Everything that funk was traditionally known for—fat bass, big drum, horn section, etc.—was pared down or replaced entirely with machines and synthesizers, and then the live stuff was piled on top. The dense chemical sound became wintry minimalism, driven by urge as much as instrumentation, and Prince’s kittenish falsetto fit into the spaces perfectly. As he grew as an artist, all of his various influences and references began coalescing into a heavier, more reckoning force. But rather than limit himself to one specific (albeit large-scope) attack, he’d keep changing things up by slashing and shimmying prince3through modern takes on psychedelia and soul; then he’d jump onto the vessels of his contemporaries and “one up” them with intrepid but graceful confidence—especially the new jack swing craze as the 90s was ready to kick off.

In the late-70s/early-80s, it was extremely uncommon for an artist angling for worldwide domination to be taking such risks. Prince had just jumped up to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 with his hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover” when he went back-to-back with Dirty Mind and Controversy, aptly-named both, that’ve hardly lost any of their salacious shock. But if the entire world wasn’t paying attention then, they would a few years later when everyone was getting down to “Darling Nikki” and Tipper Gore decided that the line needed to be drawn. She clearly wasn’t a student of human psychology, though—when people first saw that sticker showing up on record cellophane (especially kids), it just made them want to hear it all the more. What scandalous nastiness and giggle-worthy profanities could lie within?

And if all that Prince did was aim to ruffle feathers and get the party girls wet, he’d be an entertaining character, but perhaps not a legend. Instead, he displayed versatility as a musician and complexity as a person. Though he’ll always be best known for his let’s-freak-on-the-dancefloor funky rockers, he also did soulful ballads, spiritual examinations, sweaty minimalism, genuine romances, instrumental exercises, sound manipulations, and more. He didn’t just want raunchy sex, he also wanted to be your girlfriend (er, boyfriend…right?). He didn’t just want to treat your body like a temple and reach orgasm, he also wanted to find his own temple and reach prince4transcendence. He didn’t just want to play with the music he absorbed as a kid, he wanted to push the envelope and invent his own vibe. He didn’t just want to be a master of attention-building controversy, he wanted to be a superstar.

1982 (or rather, 1999) was when people really started paying attention. Disc one-side one may be fifteen-and-a-half straight minutes that he’s never topped, and all three tracks not only scorched up the charts (Top 20 hits all) but remain classics of his creative peak. Nevertheless, he was still a star on the rise two years later when he became the star of his own film, Purple Rain (which despite claims to the contrary, is a loose, romanticized and heavily “Hollywood-ized” autobiography). And just like Michael Jackson had done two years before in turning the goodwill and good sales of Off the Wall into a mega-blockbuster like Thriller, Prince conquered the world with that soundtrack; he even topped the King of Pop by managing an album that was start-to-finish spectacular, which Jackson never did—but Jackson’s album has reportedly sold more copies than everything Prince has ever released, so he’s got that, um, consolation.

It seems rather senseless to compare Prince and Michael, but it was just as ubiquitous in its time as Beatles or Stones, Zeppelin or Who, Hammer or Ice, Oasis or Blur, Whitney or Mariah, Biggie or Pac, Backstreet or 'N Sync, Strokes or Stripes in each of their times (if not more so). But I’ll just simply leave it at this: arguments can be made over quality but not quantity. Prince may have struggled with consistency as all R&B stars inevitably do, but he gave us so much of it that he was rarely lacking in a fine gem here and there. If three double albums and two triple disc releases (three if you count his Hits/B-Sides package) aren’t enough, he just dropped three albums at the same time in 2009—LOtUSFLOW3R, MPLSound and Elixer (the latter featuring vocals from his prince5latest protégé and plaything, Bria Valente). He had more worthy major league pop hits in the 80s than any other artist by a wide margin. And unlike Jacko, he actually dropped the occasional solid outing after his peak years had passed—that “love symbol” album certainly springs to mind (minus those segues, of course).

Although he once humorously said, “You can always renegotiate a record contract. You just go in and say, ‘You know, I think my next project will be a country-and-western album’,” that didn’t prevent him from venomously taking on Warner in the early 90s. When battling a label over control, rights and interference, changing one’s name into a symbol that no mortal aesthete could pronounce isn’t exactly the most devastating blow to the opposition, but it was certainly memorable; I didn’t know much at all about Prince in 1993 but I vividly remember everyone talking about it when it happened (and these were the days long before the internet explosion). But that’s Prince for ya—why do something small, simple and normal when the world’s your gaudy, glittering stage? Songs of his like “Kiss” and “When You Were Mine” are so wonderful and fascinating in large part because they weren’t dense, raucous jams with an extra spoonful of “the sizzle.” But if he had remained as slyly silent and demure onstage as he was in his offstage persona, he wouldn’t have wowed crowds wherever he went. Prince was an electrifying spectacle to behold—he out-sexed Madonna, out-rocked Van Halen, out-funked prince6Kraftwerk, out-sold P-Funk, and out-acted…okay, he was a pretty ridiculous actor, but Purple Rain is still worth watching just to hear the soundtrack (but no songs could have saved Under the Cherry Moon).  

There will always be a mysterious allure to the question: How does a small, svelte, androgynous man transform into one of the era’s biggest sex symbols? He sang on “U Got the Look”: “If your love is good, let’s get to rammin’—you got the look,” but he might as well have been describing himself; when he plays, he’s got that confident, “pouty eyelid smirk” gaze that suggests the moment his eyes meet those of a female stranger, he’s already “wetted” and bedded her in his mind. That’s the sort of visual power that you just can’t teach other performers. Every R&B star in his wake (and many of those in funk, rock, dance, and more) tries to emulate him in some way, but none can match his presence. He deserved an upgrade in that royalty title of his decades ago, but thanks to him, being a “prince” is a lot cooler than being a “king” now.

I Wanna Be Your Lover
Dirty Mind
Do Me, Baby (edit)
Little Red Corvette
Erotic City
Raspberry Beret
If I Was Your Girlfriend
U Got the Look
Gett Off
Sexy M.F.
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
P Control
...and the album Purple Rain

Also endorsed: The Time, Terence Trent D’Arby, Grand Funk Railroad

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
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Matt Medlock


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