It wasn’t that long ago that I sat down to write a little something about an artist whose music changed my conception of what music can be, an artist with one song in particular that expressed perfectly my feelings about love, an artist we’d never hear from again. Posts like these should be few and far between. Four months later is too soon. But any amount of time would be too soon.
Much like my relationship with David Bowie, my relationship with Prince’s music is largely shallow. I could name some of his albums and recognize plenty of his songs, but my tightest connection to Prince is through Purple Rain. I remember trying to work through some of the most well-regarded classic rock albums in pop history near the end of high school. When I got to Purple Rain, I remember being unsure. Honestly, it had everything to do with Prince being black. Most of the rock music I had been exposed to thus far was from white guys. My experience with black music was sadly limited to Motown, or Michael Jackson, or rap, and that was all I naively expected from black artists. I clicked on “Let’s Go Crazy”, and heard something altogether different.
It wasn’t pop music like Michael made; there was too much rock and roll in Prince’s delivery and the guitars were too heavy. It wasn’t just rock music though; some songs had such a reliance on synths and a syncopation I associated mainly with R&B. “When Doves Cry” sounded like it would be a rock song at first, then shifted to something between funk and R&B. And “Purple Rain”, which has soundtracked many of my relationships’ ascents and descents, floated out of my computer’s speakers like a gospel song. I wasn’t listening to the simple mixing of genres. No, this was Prince defying that your expectations should even exist.
Prince wasn’t the first artist to combine or even transcend genres. Elvis was mixing country and rock back at rock’s genesis. The Rolling Stones had been incorporating blues into their rock and roll from their start. Even some of Michael’s biggest hits could be considered rock songs. Sly Stone might be the closest thing to Prince’s genre defiance that pop music has, but Prince was the first artist I experienced for whom genre had no boundaries. He was the first one whose inability to be categorized upended my expectations and altered my perception of what music was for. Michael was the King of Pop, but Prince was the king of everything.