Prince is gone. Honestly, I’m still tongue-tied.
As is the case for most musicians I know, Prince has been an unwavering pillar of my musical life. Maybe the only one, in fact. For my wedding, all my friends recorded themselves singing “Purple Rain,” which my sister- and brother-in-law mashed up with the real song and printed on vinyl for us. One time in college we made a short film about an inter-species love story set entirely to “Do Me, Baby” (no animals or humans were harmed, I promise). My first band’s first-ever show involved a cover of “When You Were Mine.” Simply put, his music has always been there, with its ineffable funkiness, smoothness, soulfulness, and unpredictability.
At this moment, fans around the world are celebrating and remembering Prince in their own ways. We’ll let others comment on his undoubtedly enormous cultural impact and overall legacy. Instead, we at Soundfly thought we might contribute our own humble memorial by highlighting some of the times Prince totally destroyed our conception of what’s possible in popular music.
Prince’s innovation, bravery, and mastery in music — through the music he made, the artists he fostered, and the world he inspired — changed us, and music, forever. These are some of the top moments when Prince completely blew our musical minds. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments below. We know you got ’em. — Ian[Ed. note: Last year Prince pulled all his music off of all the major streaming services and made his catalogue exclusive to TIDAL, so below we’ve linked to iTunes, where you can preview individual tracks to get a taste of songs discussed, or sign up for a free one-month trial of TIDAL to stream all the Prince you can fit in 30 days. But for more, you’ll have to do just what Prince fought so hard for, and pay for his music.]
Ian Temple: “Darling Nikki”
We used to watch Purple Rain about once a week at university, dreams of purifying ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka running through our heads. Obviously, there are so many musical moments in the film that blew my mind (the operatic guitar solo in “Computer Blue” teased on the piano, the absurd but joyful squawking of “The Bird,” that moment when Doctor chimes in on “Baby, I’m a Star”), but I think maybe the song that sits with me the most is still “Darling Nikki.”
It’s this crazy dystopic synth song that’s constantly colliding with some head-banging rock out. What genre are we in? The verse has some melodic minor, some chromaticism, conveyed with basically no instrumentation and a whole lotta weird. And then the chorus is a straight up metal riff. Of course by the end of the song, you don’t even care. Prince is humping the stage, and you’re probably jumping around the room in the sort of manic sexual frenzy that literally inspired Tipper Gore to launch an entire music censorship movement. It only gets better by the end, with a barrage of pulsing 16th notes accompanying the guitar solo and then a multi-Prince-voice a cappella breakdown that would make Meredith Monk proud. I can see why Apollonia had to flee the club.
Ian Temple (again…): “When You Were Mine”
The first time I heard “When You Were Mine,” I thought it was so juvenile! Right out of the gate you’re clobbered by the main melody played by an over-bright synth and cheesy guitar together, which is then immediately repeated by the vocals with the guitar. That same pattern basically just continues with the occasional chorus interlude for almost four minutes. The chorus itself is just these big unadorned chords, the sort that a beginner guitar player could hash out. Even the solo is mostly just one uncomplicated synth note held for about 20 seconds.
So why is this song almost permanently rocketing around my inner listening station? Maybe there’s something about the unabashed honesty of the instrumentation in this song that’s just stuck with me. Or the fact that every time I hear it I imagine three additional Princes singing backup, a sassy, attitude-driven version of the Pips sucking on lollipops and admiring each other as they sang. In an oeuvre full of interlocking arrangements, epic guitar solos, and forward-looking technology, “When You Were Mine” bucks all of that to showcase just a great simple song.
Jeremy Young: “One Nite Alone”
When I write about this song I’m also writing about the entire album that it lives within. Here, in a way, was Prince at his best, his most intimate, and most left to his own devices. One Nite Alone (2002) is a collection of songs that feature Prince playing solo piano and singing. Sure there are vox overdubs, patchy synth and drum tracks, but the instrumentation is nothing compared to pretty much any of his other albums. There are no stand-out hits, although there is a Joni Mitchell cover dedicated to his father, John L. Nelson. It’s just a special quiet moment to share with one of history’s most ambitious songwriters. I kind of feel like this came out at a time when tons of artists were doing these VH1 acoustic albums and TV specials, and this was Prince saying, “nah if I’m gonna make an intimate album it’s going to be with my pet doves, at home, by candlelight and sitting at the piano, not on TV!”
But why do I love this album? We all associate Prince as being one of the greatest guitar-players of rock history. Well, as it turns out he’s one heck of a piano demon as well. One Nite Alone is just him on the piano, and he freaking nails it. It’s gospel, jazz, soul, and heartfelt singer-songwriter style piano all rolled into one, his phrasing virtuosic, and his timing against the syncopated lyric delivery is as soulful as any of Prince’s other albums. It’s everything I love.
There’s a scene in Purple Rain where he sits down at the piano and pounds out the opening chords to Wendy and Lisa’s demo version of “Purple Rain” for the first time. He’s beginning anew, putting back together the pieces of his life, and quietly, passionately, playing for himself. That fire, burning inside someone put on this Earth to deliver music in its purest, most vulnerable and passionate form, is what burns quietly here on One Nite Alone. Prince on the verge of breaking out in tears, for nobody else but himself. Bear in mind, this album never really made it to the market. It was released digitally by his personal subscription-model web platform, NPG Music Group in 2002. The first time I heard this album, it didn’t even sink in that here he is sitting at the piano the entire time until the second listen. Who does that? Did Eric Clapton ever do a solo piano album and tour?
Speaking of which, his One Nite Alone… Tour which followed the release of this album, an international tour consisting of 64 dates, was a very special one. He let audiences attend the band’s soundchecks, first of all, and they were allowed to ask him questions before the show. He wore only suits, rather than his flamboyant on-stage outfits and spoke nightly about race relations, history, and politics, which I guess is a more intimate experience with the man himself than what you get in a football stadium with pyrotechnics and theatrical sound-design…
In typical Prince fashion, he infuses “One Nite Alone” with lyrical double-meanings to suggest that he’s sharing this intimate evening with both us, as well as some lucky lady somewhere. Music and lovemaking are obviously always inextricably linked in the Prince lyrical world; he uses tempo-changes to mimic foreplay, all moans and breathy vocalizations, he frequently asks questions and leaves answers lingering, teased… All in all, this album offers a microscopic view of the singer doing what he does best, without the glamor and dance moves.
Martin Fowler: “Kiss”
Entering the world of Prince in any context is overwhelming, all-encompassing, and a little confusing. Even through the simplicity of a song like “Kiss,” Prince’s over-aroused approach shines through in the prowess of his falsetto vocals, the massively funky guitar, and well-orchestrated synths and vocal harmonies. This tune is what first threw me into the deep end of Prince-dom, and not just because of its innumerable musical merits — in fact, it was about what it was missing. As a bassist, I was simply shocked to realize, not on first or second or even third listen, but many listens later, that this was a top-ten hit with no bass line. What blasphemy! What heresy!! And I didn’t even notice until several listens later!!!
Overly forward dance moves and soul-penetrating stares aside, Prince had won over my own heart by omitting the very instrument I loved. That’s how I learned that things in Prince’s world may often lead to some uncomfortable laughter for any number of reasons, but he’ll always send you off with a smile on your face.
Nick Lerman: “When Doves Cry”
The opening guitar riff on “When Doves Cry”? A seminal moment in my guitar education. I thought I hated all music from the ’80s. I didn’t know I liked Prince. I didn’t know Prince was a ridiculous guitar player (or that he plays dozens of other instruments). In honor of his passing, I went straight to “When Doves Cry” and listened. I still love the guitar solo, but the vocal growl in the beginning got me this time. It’s almost like he’s throat singing, but it’s used in the production and arrangement to transition from this guitar genius to the rhythmic bones of the track. Also, it’s such a sparse track with an insanely catchy synth part, which lead me to think: Why do so many ’80s songs have iconic synth parts? Probably because of Prince…
Zoë Young: “Purple Rain”
Well this is just the worst. I know the news has been “confirmed,” and I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, but I’ve decided that Prince will be my Tupac. He’s living blissfully on an island in the middle of Lake Minnetonka, shooting hoops with David Bowie in a bedazzled purple velvet sweatsuit.
The framing of this article asks us to speak to the inspiring creative genius of Prince the Musician, but there is no one singular best version of Prince — there are an infinite number of Princes to love. Prince the weirdo. Prince the tiny basketball player. Prince the magical scene-stealing soloist. Prince the slave to the industry. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. I love the Prince who wired every room in his house with an elaborate and discrete recording and speaker system so that he could talk to Kevin Smith as the voice of God. Prince the amoral. Prince the religious. Prince the fearless pioneer of the space between genders. Prince the Starr. I loved the Prince who loved my hometown. Prince who sexed up the Superbowl. Prince, embracer and enemy of the internet. But the things that ties all versions of Prince together for me is strength, rawness, and purity of emotion.
For me, the thing that makes Prince’s music great is his ability to translate emotion through music — love, fear, disappointment, anticipation, arousal, regret… And so while all these conservatory-educated artists I work with are likely picking obscure guitar solos off of early discography b-sides, I have no such aesthetic high ground. I was an 80s baby who wanted boys to like her, so obviously I desperately wanted a “Raspberry Beret.” I actually did once party like it was “1999.” And as an adult, I’d say without exaggeration that “Purple Rain” singalongs have been a part of roughly 85% of my top life moments. The song is the single most perfect expression of cathartic, sentimental, nostalgic, and collective experience. And so right now, as always, all I want is for Prince to guide me… to the Purple Rain.