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Five Years After His Death, Prince Is Still So Ahead Of His Time

by : Julia Banim on : 21 Apr 2021 17:55
Five Years After His Death, Prince Is Still So Ahead Of His Timeprince/Instagram/Warner Bros.

The year 2016 was a tough one for celebrity deaths, encompassing the sort of losses that made you stop in your tracks, text friends, listen to albums all evening long with a genuine sense of personal sadness.

In a few short months, we said goodbye to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali and Alan Rickman, icons within their respective fields with large, enduring fanbases. The sort of famous faces you feel you know, if only through some sense of common connection. A lyric or line in an interview.

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In April of that year, we learned of the death of Prince, at the age of just 57. An almost otherwordly, timeless individual who, for so many people, was the very epitome of always being one step ahead of the curve.

Wildly innovative and creative, Prince was a pioneering force throughout his lengthy career, reinventing himself over the decades in a way that made being and looking different look desirable, covetable.

Born in Minneapolis in the summer of 1958, Prince was raised by a pianist father and a jazz singer mother, and wrote his very first song when he was just seven years old, a track called Funk Machine.

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By the time he joined his first band at the age of 14, Prince had already mastered the guitar and drums as well as the piano, already showing signs of the extraordinary versatility he would one day be remembered for.

His prodigious flair was matched only by his curiosity, and when the time came to make his own way in the world of music, he chose to carve out a unique path, one which would continuously set him apart from his contempories.

As Prince himself once said:

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People who have no creativity, talent, or courage are the ones who follow the rules. Be brave, be bold, step up and make your own! The passion that lies inside of you means you do not need to follow the pack, because you transcend it.

Prince’s sound was unlike anything else music lovers had heard before, transcending genres and defying expectations in a way that would inspire musicians for decades to come. Opening up possibilities that showed people that you can be many things, and like many things.

During an interview with Vice, Outkast frontman Andre 3000 said:

Prince can do these funk jams, then these rock jams, then these beautiful ballads, then he can do these kind of piano songs — this is just about music. It’s not about, ‘I’m this type of artist and that’s all I can do.’ He showed me early on, whatever you’re into, do it. Whatever you can do, do it.

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A trailblazer from the start, Prince expertly mixed genres in a way that felt fun and thrilling, integrating funk, pop and jazz into his work alongside new wave, soul, synth-pop. His swaggering approach to such unchartered territory was infectious.

A pioneer of the Minneapolis Sound of the late 70s, Prince brought this funk rock subgenre to nationwide attention with his first big hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover (1979).

Although described by The Los Angeles Times at the time as a ‘restrained, carefully crafted funk exercise’, this early hit already saw Prince demonstrating his natural skills in showmanship, his flamboyant confidence and androgynous appearance dazzling those watching his perform on TV at home.

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Recalling the impact these early tracks had on him as a five-year-old during a 2015 interview with Okayplayer, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo recalled:

When that album came out, it was just huge. He really, literally, was the talk of the town. Everybody was wondering, ‘Who is this guy? Is he a guy? Is it a girl?’ No one really knew who it was.

I remember we had the album, and my brothers were just enamored by this guy. They told me, ‘He plays everything, he writes everything, he’s singing everything,’ so I was hooked from then on. I learned how to play every song on that album, note for note, at five years old.

Check it out below:

Known for his prolific output, Prince continually played around with genre and style, redefining and reasserting himself with each new album.

As one of the greatest style icons of all time, Prince married together the worlds of fashion and music with an effectiveness we’ve rarely seen before or since, using clothes in way that made every new release a sensation.

His ruffled blouses, penchant for glitter and all things purple are unmistakably him, and yet there were so many unexpected elements to him.

Here was an individual who left his audience compelled, whether rocking a sharp suit or feather boa. A person who paired high heels with a moustache and looked extraordinarily cool and beautiful while doing so.

Long before Harry Styles wore a dress for the cover of Vogue or Billy Porter wore a tuxedo gown to the Academy Awards, Prince pushed the boundaries of men’s fashion, showed that it was okay to feel masculine, feminine or everything in-between.

Following Prince’s death, Frank Ocean wrote a touching tribute on his Tumblr revealing how the Purple Rain artist had inspired him ‘to be more daring and intuitive’:

He learned early on how little value to assign to someone else’s opinion of you.. an infectious sentiment that seemed soaked into his clothes, his hair, his walk, his guitar, and his primal scream. […]

He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee high heeled boots, epic. He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.

Throughout the Reagan years of the 80s, Prince used his music and persona to touch upon issues of identity, delivering subversive, transgressive lyrics which wouldn’t look out of place today.

For example, in his 1981 track Controversy, Prince playfully asks the listener:

I just can’t believe all the things people say (Controversy)
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? (Controversy)
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? (Controversy)
Controversy (Controversy)
I can’t understand human curiosity (Controversy)
Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?

Peaking listeners curiosity at every turn, Prince kept them intrigued time and again, remaining a fairly mysterious, elusive presence despite his enormous fame.

And yet, despite exuding charisma and sexual confidence, he was known for eschewing interviews and left behind a multitude of unreleased tracks. He was an expert in maintaining the magic that poured from him like glitter when up onstage.

When it came to creative control over his sound, Prince also refused to be defined by others, famously defiant when it came to being comprised by the demands of record labels.

His hands-on approach to his music – producing and playing a multitude of instruments as well as singing and writing lyrics – meant Prince was able to shape his albums to his liking, to release something that was purely him and no one else out into the world. An ethos which appeals to this day.

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

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