Prince Dead at 57
Prince closed out the Eighties in a typically oblique manner. He recorded and marketed an underground party record he dubbed The Black Album in 1987, but pulled it at the last second due to a crisis of conscience (or as the result of a bad ecstasy trip, depending on reports). The album would go on to become one of the most bootlegged LPs. It eventually got an official release in 1994 to help him sever a contentious contract with Warner Bros., but at the time he’d salvage only “When 2 R in Love” for what would become his next release, 1988’s Lovesexy. That album contained nine songs, but when the CD came out, he insisted they be included on a single track. That album nevertheless contained the hit “Alphabet Street.” In 1989, he put out his last Number One album for a number of years, Batman, which contained his first Number One single since “Kiss,” “Batdance.”
After the failure of Under the Cherry Moon, Prince fired the Revolution and recorded the hit album Sign ‘O’ the Times with a new, untitled band that featured Sheila E. The double-LP helped him regain his commercial footing, reaching Number Six on the Billboard 200 and going platinum. Like Purple Rain, its singles spanned a wide swath of styles: the bubbly yet pensive title track, the funky and percussive “U Got the Look” (featuring Sheena Easton), the pining “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and the sinewy “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Prince’s half-sister, Lorna Nelson, sued him, claiming he’d stolen her lyrics for “U Got the Look,” but lost the suit before the decade was up. He accompanied the album with a concert film and world tour.
The Nineties kicked off with another movie, Graffiti Bridge, that picked up the story of Purple Rain’s the Kid. Like Under the Cherry Moon, though, it was a critical and commercial failure. The album nevertheless scored him a hit with “Thieves in the Temple.” He rebooted in 1991 with a new backing band, the New Power Generation, and a sound that focused more on funk and elements of hip-hop. Diamonds and Pearls was a Number Three hit album, containing the sh-boogieing single “Cream” and more sexual “Get Off,” as well as the poppy title track. The next year, Warner Bros. made him a vice president and renewed his contract. He put out another record that year with a symbol, merging the signs for male and female, as its title. The LP, a Number Five hit, contained the hits “7,” “My Name Is Prince” and “Sexy M.F.”
He subsequently became known by a number of monikers, most popularly “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” by a confused public. In 1994, Warner Bros. dropped Paisley Park Records, and Prince released a single, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” on an independent label. Although Warner Bros. said it approved of the “experiment,” it marked the beginning of a public war between the singer and the label. He wrote “Slave” on his cheek and began giving the label compilations of recordings he’d stored in the vault to fulfill his contract.
“People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. That’s where I was. I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
By 1996, Prince ended his contract with Warner Bros. and struck up a distribution deal with EMI, which helped him put out the three-CD set Emancipation via his own NPG label. It contained two Top 40 singles, a cover of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” and the pop-rock-leaning “The Holy River.” The album reached Number 11 on the Billboard 200 and went on to be certified double-platinum. That same year, he also lent a number of his hits to the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film Girl 6.
Toward the end of the decade, as the Internet became commonplace, Prince became one of the first artists to try selling CDs directly to fans. He offered up the three-disc compilation Crystal Ball, which collected songs that were never officially released, in 1998. It managed to reach Number 62 on the Billboard 200. Prince closed out the Nineties with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and a re-recording of “1999,” the latter of which failed to chart.
The next decade proved to be a time of experimentation for Prince, who returned to his birth name in 2000. He released the jazzy The Rainbow Children in 2001, which received mixed reviews, and One Nite Alone …, an album that found him performing only with piano on most tracks and featuring a Joni Mitchell cover (“A Case of U”), as an online-only release the following year. He followed that up with a rare live album, One Nite Alone … Live! Neither charted. He put out three records in 2003: the jazzy, instrumental-only albums Xpectation and N.E.W.S. and a funk-jazz live outing, C-Note.
Prince returned to pop music in 2004 with Musicology, an album that would earn him Grammys for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance (“Call My Name”) and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance (“Musicology”). It also catapulted him back onto the album chart, bowing at Number Three, thanks to his idea of including copies of the CD with purchases of tickets to see him live. (Nielsen SoundScan subsequently changed the rules after the release, counting only albums sold in addition to ticket purchases as album sales.) The record would ultimately be certified double-platinum. He put out two other funky, R&B-inflected albums that year, The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse, but neither charted.
That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After Alicia Keys inducted the musician, Prince appeared onstage to perform a breathtaking guitar solo during the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison.
As YouTube and streaming music became more prevalent, Prince subsequently became an outspoken voice against what he viewed as piracy. He would ask performances of his songs to be removed from the service. Despite this, his funky 2006 album 3121 was a Number One hit and was ultimately certified gold. His 2007 release, Planet Earth, reached Number Three and contained “Future Baby Mama,” which scored him a Grammy. His double-album release Lotusflow3r and MPLSound (which was bundled with Bria Valente’s Elixer) reached Number Two and went gold as an exclusive release for big-box retailer Target.
The prolific musician continued unusual record releases with the 2010 album 20Ten, which came out in Europe as a free release with the German edition of Rolling Stone and other publications. In recent years, he put out albums as companion pieces. The rock and funk–focused Plectrumelectrum, which found him fronting the otherwise all-girl trio 3rdEyeGirl, came out in 2014 along with the R&B solo LP Art Official Age, both of which charted in the Top 10. Last year, he issued HitnRun Phase One and HitnRun Phase Two, the latter of which came out only via Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal (the rare streaming service Prince approved of).
Prince rarely conducted in-depth interviews, especially in recent years, and kept his personal life private. Nevertheless, he was linked romantically to several women in his lifetime, including Kim Basinger, Madonna, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Susanna Hoffs and several others. He was engaged to Susannah Melvoin, frontwoman for the Family and the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in 1985. But he did not marry until 1996, when he wed dancer Mayte Garcia. They had a son, Boy Gregory, that year but he died a week after his birth due to Pfeiffer syndrome. They divorced in 1999. He married another woman, Manuela Testolini, in 2001 and became a Jehovah’s Witness that year. His second marriage ended in 2006.
Earlier this year, he announced that he had begun work on his memoirs. “We’re starting right at the beginning from my first memory, and hopefully we can move all the way to the Super Bowl,” he told a crowd at a private concert in New York City last month. “We just started, we’re going as quick as we can, working tirelessly.” The book was tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones.
Prince’s last public appearance was a party at Paisley Park on Saturday. Star Tribune staff writer Sharyn Jackson reported that he was proud of a new purple guitar he’d just gotten. He addressed rumors of his poor health at the show. Jackson reported he said, “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
Prince’s 2007 performance at the Super Bowl included “Purple Rain” and is one of the greatest live moments of his career. Watch here.