Prince Reclaims His Crown

Rolling Stone's 2004 cover story on the reinvigorated superstar

Photograph by Albert Watson for RollingStone.com
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"Hammering! That's the word. That's it!" Prince folds over in laughter and stamps his high-heel boots on the floor. Those heels, as it happens, are clear plastic, and lights twinkle within them. It's a perfect metaphor for the electricity that seems to be coursing through the singer at the moment.

Prince is responding to a description of the torrid version of "D.M.S.R."—a jam from 1999 touting the virtues of "dance, music, sex, romance"—that he and his backing band, the New Power Generation, unleashed earlier that evening at the sold-out Gund Arena in Cleveland. It was a full-on funk stomp that got the house up and shaking. Hammering only begins to convey the performance's pulverizing rhythmic assault. "Pulverizing! That's good, too," Prince says, laughing again. "What you see is people responding to what this band is - and what we're doing."

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It's just twenty minutes after the show, and, at a time when most performers would be just beginning to cool down, Prince is utterly composed. He's crisply dressed in a purple tunic and black pants and looks as if he has spent the evening relaxing in his living room rather than burning down a 20,000-seat house. But that's how effortless things seem to be of late for the forty-five-year-old musician. Everybody in the Prince camp—most definitely beginning with Prince himself—bristles when anyone suggests that the current wave of Princemania constitutes a "comeback." The official line is that he never went away. From a strictly literal standpoint, of course, that's true. He's been as busy as ever, using his own label and his Web site, the New Power Generation Music Club, to release CDs such as The Rainbow Children (2001) and N.E.W.S (2003), as well as the DVD Prince: Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas.

This article appears in the May 27, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

But whether or not you buy the message that Prince never left, it's clear that many of his millions of fans had gone somewhere in recent years, and now many of them are staging a comeback of their own. Suddenly, liking Prince doesn't feel like such a chore; in fact, it's fun. His stripped-down, pleasingly straightforward new album, Musicology, delivers on the promise of his spellbinding performances earlier this year on the Grammy Awards broadcast and at his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His live shows have become ecstatic parties, sweaty, two-hour romps through the likes of "Controversy," "U Got the Look," "Take Me With U" and a sizzling version of Sam and Dave's classic "Soul Man." Nearly a recluse before, Prince is now all over the media, chatting on talk shows, posing for photographers, being interviewed by reporters.

It's like an old friend has returned. Indeed, the spring of 2004 is beginning to feel like the summer of 1984, when Purple Rain made Prince one of the biggest rock stars in the world. When he sings, "Don't you miss the feeling that music gave you back in the day?" in "Musicology," he might as well be speaking about his own music. After abandoning his name for an unpronounceable symbol, after painting the word "slave" on his face as part of a battle with his record label, after disowning decades of his own work, Prince is enjoying himself again. And, as always, his enthusiasm is irresistible.

Photos: Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour at MSG

"I had an epiphany last night," Prince says about his appearance in Columbus, Ohio. He's sitting on a couch in his dressing room, shortly before taking the stage in Cleveland. The room is warm and humid, to keep his throat and nasal passages clear and his vocal cords supple. Candles burn on every available surface.

"I was offstage, listening to Michael Phillips take his solo," he continues, alluding to the instrumental portion of the show in which the saxophonist takes a long, atmospheric excursion during "God" while Prince changes clothes and takes a break. "I was thinking, 'Wow, listen to those people responding, and all he's doing is playing a saxophone.' They can feel that what he's doing is real. So many shows now, they have pyrotechnics, pre-taped vocals and musical parts, and it's so dead. But here's one man breathing into an instrument, and the whole room feels alive. It made me want to rise up to that level when I came back onstage."

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Part of the goal of the Musicology album and tour is to connect audiences once again to the power of live music. "Take your pick—turntable or a band?" Prince challenges on the album, and his concerts are like a clinic in inciting the sort of pandemonium that only a band can create. That's true even for the players themselves. "This is school for me," says Phillips, 27. "Every night I watch how he connects his gift to the crowd. I've spoken to him about it. He told me that playing a solo is like making love. You have to pay attention to the things that make your partner respond—and space them out so they come at exactly the right time. It's one big, long orgasm.

"I didn't go to college to learn how to play," he continues. "I come from playing gospel in churches. That's a language Prince understands, and when he hears me speaking it, he responds."

If not exactly a new element in Prince's music, that interplay among the musicians is something that Prince is now actively encouraging. He is someone who often plays every instrumental part on his records, and it hasn't come naturally for Prince to relinquish control to his band members. While he has always attracted superb musicians, he's been criticized for rarely giving them the freedom to fully express their talent. As far as he was concerned, he knew how the part should go; their job was to play it.

Photos: Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour in Los Angeles

Those days are gone. "The shows are a lot looser," he says, leaning back on the couch. "I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage. I'm way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen.

"That's one of the reasons we're doing these shows in the round: The music is at the center of everything," he continues. "This show is much more about the songs than the staging, which is very simple. I wanted to let the music do the talking. We've also been playing in clubs on some nights, and we carry that with us into the arenas. It's all one show to us. Clubs are where you really learn about crowd control. You're playing on small stages, so you have to be listening to and watching one another, and the crowd is right in front of you. You can't push anything too long. You concentrate on what works, and you hit it."

As raucous as the show sometimes appears—with Prince and band members racing around the stage, seemingly at whim—everything is, in fact, occurring within a larger, orderly plan. Prince, of all people, believes that improvisation isn't a virtue in itself—even spontaneous gestures must be meaningful. Only rigorous rehearsals make that possible, and this band is flawless and taut. During a sound check in New York one evening, Prince was working with the crew on lighting cues. He'd casually count off song parts—"OK, second verse, from the top"—and the nine-piece band would instantly fall in exactly in time. It was as impressive as anything in the show itself.

"Oh, you can't go out there unless you've got the show completely in shape," Prince says after the Cleveland gig. "It can look pretty wild onstage, but everyone knows exactly where they're supposed to be. That was a lesson I had to learn from when I was starting out. When we first went out behind 1999, the Time, who were opening for us, beat us up every night. They would laugh about it; it was a joke to them. Our show wasn't together. I had to stop the tour and get things tightened up. Now me and the band have a certain relationship with each other, and every night we make the audience part of that."

It's hard to tell precisely what accounts for the more easygoing Prince. He refuses to speak about any aspect of his private life, but his becoming a Jehovah's Witness a few years back has seemingly brought him a good deal of spiritual calm. The religion's combination of absolute certainty and convoluted interpretive zeal suits him perfectly. He began his remarks at the Hall of Fame induction by offering "all praise and thanks to the most high Jehovah," and his additional declaration there that "too much freedom can lead to the soul's decay" should be read as his acceptance of the strict tenets of that faith. In consequence, he has expunged all profanity from his language and refuses to perform any of his racier songs—no "Darling Nikki," no "Head," no "Gett Off."

And speaking of sexual decorum, Musicology, among its other subjects, is a paean to monogamy ("Eye see U picked me out like U want something/But shame on U, baby, can't U see this ring?"). And Prince has even become an unlikely advocate for cleaning up the airwaves. "This culture is in big trouble," he insists. "All you see on television are debased images. Whether you believe it or not, black people do not want to see pictures of people wearing bulletproof vests. You saw the Super Bowl. I don't even need to say anything more about it. And who produced that? That should tell you something right there."

Prince's problem with MTV, which produced the Super Bowl halftime show with Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction, is its de-emphasis on music ("Do you ever see a video on there?") and, like every other aspect of popular culture, its reliance on titillation. Discussing his Hall of Fame performance of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (a song he claims never to have heard before it was sent to him to learn for the show), Prince says, "It was an honor to play with Tom Petty—'Free Fallin' is one of my favorite songs. I used to love whenever he would come on MTV, because you knew you were going to get a great tune. MTV isn't like that anymore."

More personally, Prince's marriage to twenty-seven-year-old Manuela Testolini in 2001 seems also to have settled him. Beautiful, slender and soft-spoken, she was by his side virtually every moment he wasn't onstage in Cleveland. The past seven years or so have not been easy for Prince. The child he had with his first wife, Mayte Garcia, died from a rare illness after living for only a week. The couple's marriage ended not long after that. Both his parents passed away. Amid all that loss, remarriage and faith appear to have come as great, restorative gifts.

As for Prince's public re-emergence, L. Londell McMillan, the singer's longtime friend and business partner, says simply, "It began with a yes." McMillan is referring to Prince's surprising agreement to perform on the Grammy Awards after years of turning down such requests. That appearance and his Hall of Fame induction had two significant results. First, sharing the stage with Beyoncè at the Grammys and being hailed by OutKast and Alicia Keys at the Hall of Fame induction demonstrated to Prince how decisive an influence he has been on an entire generation of younger artists. He was so moved by Keys' speech—"Because of him, I've never wanted to be like anyone but myself... Because of his music, my music has wings to be different"—that a video of it introduces him every night on the Musicology tour.

Prince is well aware that his antics in the past have caused him to be portrayed as, in his words, a "petulant brat" or "a megalomaniac." That aspiring musicians heard a call to freedom amid the din of controversy surrounding him couldn't possibly be more important to him. "The respect of young artists—I love that," he says. "Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people. Alicia Keys gets it. All these hip-hop artists, the first thing they do is start their own label and lock their business down—we had a lot to do with that."

But, perhaps even more important, the initial steps that Prince took to re-engage his fans reignited their passion for his music. "I think people sometimes forget how great a genius he is," McMillan says. "What's happening now represents the vindication of one of the best all-around artists of all time."

Because "Musicology" is so listener-friendly, Prince overcame his near-pathological wariness about record companies and agreed to allow McMillan to work out a deal with Columbia Records. Columbia, which is part of Sony Music, will distribute and help market the album domestically (and be reimbursed for the costs of doing so) and license it for sale in the rest of the world. It's an arrangement that essentially requires no upfront costs on the label's part, while providing a strong profit incentive for the company to sell as many copies as possible. On his end, Prince gets the enormous reach of an international corporate powerhouse.

According to Sony's president, Don Ienner, the label has filled orders for upward of a million copies of the album worldwide. "And with the first copy shipped, we started making money," he adds. "We have really high expectations for this, and, though there are no guarantees, we hope to remain in business with Prince for a long time. How often does an artist of his stature become available on any terms?"

Prince received no advance payment from the label—"That's the price of freedom," McMillan says. But the singer retains complete ownership of the album, the whole point of his grueling battle in the Nineties with Warner Bros. He also gets a much higher percentage of sales than he would under a more traditional arrangement. "One advantage of writing 'slave' on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they're not going to be owning anything," Prince says wryly. "Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don't roll like that no more." In addition, everyone who purchases a ticket to the Musicology tour receives a copy of the album, though without the packaging or the "Musicology" video included in the Columbia version.

The overall strategy is for Prince to have what McMillan calls an ongoing, "multidelivery model" for bringing his music to the public. Everything Prince releases will be directly available online to the members of his NPG Music Club. Albums such as Musicology, with a potentially broader appeal, might also receive major-label distribution. More specialized projects, such as the instrumental album Prince has discussed with the Blue Note label, might benefit from still another approach. Live performance, meanwhile, rather than recordings, will increasingly become the center of Prince's musical universe.

Such imaginative flexibility may not only be ideal for Prince but might prove essential for record companies in the years ahead, particularly in the wake of the recent upheavals in the music industry. "I want to make heart decisions in business," Prince says. "If you can't do that, you're not free. I want to be able to dictate which way I'm going to go."

For a tumultuous run of songs at the end of the Cleveland show—"U Got the Look," "Life 'o' the Party," "Soul Man" and "Kiss"—Prince invites perhaps two dozen women in the audience onto the stage to dance. One willowy girl wears a purple two-piece bathing suit festooned with the glyph that had become the singer's name for a time. Prince struts over to her, and she becomes his dance partner during "Kiss." After the line "Act your age, not your shoe size," he holds the mike out for her, and right in tune, she sings, "And maybe we can do the twirl!" Prince's eyes widen and he yowls, "Wooo!"

"The security guard wasn't going to let her get onstage," Prince says backstage after the show. "I said, 'You can't send that girl home dressed like that!'"

Everybody's ready to hit the Spy Bar in Cleveland's Warehouse District for an after-party, but Prince and the band won't be doing a late-night set there tonight. "I always love to play," he says, "but we've been doing so many shows that I feel like I need to give the band a chance to rest." Asked why he booked a tour with so few days off, Prince smiles and holds his hands out in front of him, as if weighing an object in each. "Let's see," he says, "sleep, or half a million dollars? Sleep, or half a million dollars?"

But while the cash is obviously welcome—particularly as a proud refutation of the recurrent rumors that he was going broke—Prince is satisfied by more than money these days. "My fans bring their sons and daughters to my shows now," he says. "That's how I grew up. I hope to be an inspiration to those people.

"I feel at peace. I knew it would take time, and I had to deal with a lot of ridicule. But this feels like peace right now. Spiritually I feel very different from the way I used to, but physically? Not at all. I don't look at time that way, and I don't believe in age. When you wake up, each day looks the same, so each day should be a new beginning. I don't have an expiration date."

From The Archives Issue 949: May 27, 2004