Leonard Pitts Jr

Prince: One of the greatest pop music innovators of all time

The story goes that John Mellencamp was onstage in Tulsa when he started raving about this new artist he’d just heard. He got so excited that in the middle of his own concert, he produced a boombox and put a microphone up to it. “You’ve got to hear this,” he told the audience. He pressed play.

And Prince started singing Little Red Corvette.

Prince Rogers Nelson, who died suddenly, unexpectedly, absurdly Thursday at just 57 years of age, had that effect. He turned peers into fans. And he turned fans into true believers.

In the nearly 40 years since he first announced himself to the world, he more than earned that tired music industry trope, “legend.” He is one of the greatest pop music innovators of the last half century.

But Prince never became a marble man, never contented himself with resting on who he was and what he once did. From beginning to end, in feast times and fallow, he was precisely what he had always been: a discoverer questing in search of the next.

This appreciation, you should know, is being written to the accompaniment of Prince tunes blaring from desktop speakers. When Doves Cry, played a moment ago, opening with that iconic, carved-from-the-rock guitar solo. He is singing the elegiac anthem Purple Rain from his 1984 movie of the same name, as these words are written. Up in a few minutes: the naughty, insinuating and deeply addictive Sexy M.F., the propulsive end-times bacchanal, 1999, and the retro rock fable, Raspberry Beret.

Soft and Wet will be somewhere in there, too. This was the song that introduced Prince to the world. He arrived at a time when change was bubbling under the surface of pop music. Disco, in all its safe plasticity, was still at its zenith in 1978, but the Sex Pistols and the punk movement had just arrived on American shores. The first rap hit would come at the end of the next year. New Wave and MTV also stood on the near horizon.

Into that cacophony of change came this diminutive man with pressed hair and a foppish little mustache singing a synth funk trifle larded with sexual come-ons that on first listen, sounded like nothing we hadn’t heard before from any of the other R&B lotharios of the age. On the one side was Teddy Pendergrass groaning about foreplay (“Close the door, let me rub your back where you say it’s sore”), on the other was Eddie Levert of the O’Jays vowing superhuman stamina (“I won’t stop till you ask me to, tell me to, beg me to”). So when Prince sang, “I got a sugarcane that I wanna lose in you,” it seemed at first like business as usual.

Then came the second line — “But can you stand the pain?” — and you realize this is not business as usual at all. This is daring. This is kind of kinky. This is something here we truly haven’t heard before.

Even so, the song was a slight one in an era of slight songs and one-hit wonders, and most people probably would not have been shocked if they had never heard from him again. But Prince returned on his eponymous second album with the hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover, which found him pushing the barriers again: “I wanna be the only one that makes you come … running,” he sang.

Then Prince took his clothes off. The black-and-white cover of his third album, Dirty Mind, finds him with coat open, stripped to his bikini drawers, posed against what looks a grid of … are those metal bed springs? The song titles — including the title track, Head and Do It All Night — point to the most libidinous celebration since Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, seven years before.

By the time Prince’s fourth album arrived, you knew there was no danger of never hearing from him again. People talked about this guy. People wondered about him. And people got no answers to their questions. Prince disdained pretty much all interview requests, except that he apparently had a crush on Cynthia Horner, then the editor of Right On! a black teen magazine and, as she used to tell the story, he would just … call her out of the blue to talk.

But though he declined to speak to most other journalists, he did offer a wry observation on public fixation with the mystery of him. He called the fourth album Controversy, and its title song reflected his amusement with the questions he had stirred: “I just can’t believe all the things people say. Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God, do I believe in me?”

Eventually, we would get a few answers. He was the son of a Minneapolis jazz pianist named John Nelson and a jazz singer named Mattie Shaw. He was a musical prodigy, a self-taught drummer, guitarist and pianist. He was doe-eyed and shy. In 2009, he told Tavis Smiley about being teased as a child because of epileptic seizures. “Early in my career,” he said, “I tried to compensate by being as flashy and as noisy as I could.”

In insecurity, then, was the genesis of a once-in-a-generation career. As a guitarist, he was searing. His name joins those of Hendrix and Clapton on any survey of the greatest players on that instrument. As a performer, he was riveting, commanding the stage with an authority that dared you to pull your eyes away. As a singer, he could run up the scale from a baritone to a piercing falsetto squall, often in a single breath. As a songwriter, he brought a sexual frankness to popular music that, while it appalled Tipper Gore, liberated every lyricist who came after him, albeit not always with salubrious effects. But as a lyricist, he was more than sex. He was also a meditation of faith (God), the angst of love (How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore) and the weight of the world (Sign O’ The Times).

But all the things Prince was as a performer were predicated on a restless need for reinvention that permeated everything he did. You heard this in a musical oeuvre that moved seamlessly between rock and funk and disco and piano balladry and minimalist R&B. His eclectic mix of music was mirrored in his eclectic mix of hair and clothing styles, from Afros to perms to rococo suits to bikini drawers. In the late ’90s, in a contract dispute with Warner Bros., he even changed his name, adopting a glyph that could not be pronounced.

Madonna is also frequently cited for her capacity for reinvention, but with her it has always seemed a marketing ploy. Prince, on the other hand, went from style to style with an earnestness befitting a man who always seemed eager to reach the next.

By the way, the desktop speakers continue to pulse as these words are written. The author may have even played a little air guitar when Prince sang Let’s Go Crazy. That song, of course, opens with a famous monologue: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

Thursday, Prince Rogers Nelson did just that. Thursday, he finally reached the next. And the last.

But in the 57 years it took him to do it, he left us a body of music that will still sound fresh and electric when all of us are long gone. And in the end, the music is what it’s all about.

If you are looking to honor the man, then, you will be hard put to do better than what John Mellencamp did almost 40 years ago: Press play, crank it up and tell somebody:

“You’ve got to hear this.”

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