Wed Sept 1
One Center Ct.
Once, Prince was the final solution to American black music's age-old struggle between God and sex. Transcending the Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy worked out on the sweaty brows and searing pipes of predecessors like Sam Cooke and Al Green, Prince made the two entirely separable. For him, it seemed the very meaning of life was found in the interweaving and overlapping of these forces. Prince not only preached the gospel of fucking, but also illustrated the orgasmic potential of spirituality.
Furthermore, like many before and since (Vaslav Nijinsky, Billy Corgan, etc.) Prince seemed to be instilled with an acute sense of his own godliness--not in the way perhaps every believer does, but as a true avatar. All six minutes and 18 seconds of "Purple Rain" are nothing so much as a proselytizing call to the banner of Prince's messianic grandeur, a beseechment to allow His divine love to rain (or reign) benevolent over the world: "U say u want a leader/ But u can't seem 2 make up your mind/I think u better close it/ Let me guide u 2 the purple rain."
And so he did, from approximately 1982 to 1988. Beginning with 1999, Prince began to establish himself beyond the bounds of his occasional hits and semi-generic synth-funk albums and into the great beyond. He was the rare golden story of the music industry, in which creative genius and chart standings explode as one, a validation of the ephemeral dream of genuine pop music.
Prince's Judas came with the initials WB. Around '87, Prince began to expand beyond the comfortable horizons of his record label, and was immediately and viciously restrained. He had prepared for near-simultaneous release of both a three disc set, Crystal Ball, and the funked-up, emotionally charred Black Album. Both of these jumped off from the weirdness of Parade, his final album with The Revolution, and into extreme stylistic and emotional experimentalism. Warner Brothers demanded Crystal Ball be whittled down to the double-set Sign O' The Times, and the Black Album was shelved for seven years. For an artist not only of such expansive genius, but also of such then-unchallenged commercial clout, this must have felt like a true crucifixion.
A hint of what was lost can be glimpsed on the track "Crystal Ball" from the Prince-released bootleg collection of the same name. At nearly 10 and a half minutes long, it marries stunningly advanced and unusual orchestration to a completely hook-laden yet complex, non-linear song structure. It also carries his fuck-faith all the way to the apocalypse--the song sets a classic Prince come-on amidst riotous social Armageddon, stating, "The only thing u can be sure of is the love we make 2night."
Prince was rapidly accelerating beyond even his own established prodigious potential, leading to a prolonged and messy divorce from Warner Brothers. With ever-diminishing artistic conviction, Prince labored through the rest of his contractually obligated albums for Warner, ending with the slightly pitiful Chaos & Disorder. During this time, he became something of a public spectacle, due to his varied attempts at achieving some form of dignity. The "slave" painting, name changing, glyph adopting--all of these were quietly heroic, pained cries for his well-deserved freedom. And yet, even after he gained his independence, his march through the stations of the cross continued.
A perpetual self-mythologizer, Prince was already preparing for his next storied phase as he departed from Warner. With the triple album Emancipation, he launched the fully independent NPG imprint and finally seemed to be casting off the shackles of his long, painful contractual struggle. He had recently married a beautiful model named Mayte, and would soon become a first-time father. The sprawling Emancipation contained love odes to both his wife and unborn child, and even included his baby's sampled heartbeat on one track. But the baby died at birth, Mayte and Prince split soon thereafter, and without a clear direction forward, the understandably damaged Prince fell into a period of muddled, disappointing work, and a drastically muted public profile.
What then, has precipitated his current media-approved resurrection? Perhaps his well-publicized conversion to Jehovah's Witness provides some of the answers. Prince's religion of old always seemed highly personalized--wrapped up in eroticism and his own megalomania, it seemed a faith that held himself almost as highly as God. He even ended Around the World In a Day (possibly the apex of his maniacal creativity) with a stern argument between himself and his creator (both voices, of course, provided by Prince). His new role as a Witness demands an intense humility, even taking him as far as the door-to-door trademark of his faith. This humility may be the method by which Prince has regained his public stature. He has dimmed his fiery genius to return to the fluorescent glare of the public's love. Just as Prince is now a servant to--rather than a vital expression of--his god, he's also a servant to the dictates of pop consumption rather than a vital, shaping force.
His "comeback" album, Musicology, smacks of this downsizing of vision; it's undeniably able, workman-like funk-rock, but betrays a lack of reaching that one could never have accused the former Prince of. In recent interviews he has alluded to this gentle lessening of himself in various arenas, including on stage, saying that he now exerts far less control over his band, allowing things to develop more organically. Perhaps this is indicative of an artist's maturation, but it's impossible to imagine this more lackadaisical Prince ever producing work of the caliber of his glory days.
Once upon a time, every aspect of the man--his unabashedly sexualized guitar playing, his hyper-balletic dancing, his endlessly vulnerable yet masterfully theatrical singing--reflected a ferocious artistic hunger wed to unnerving discipline. It may not be too late for Prince, but if his current arc proves the story of his life, this new, gentrified persona may overwhelm the memory of what he once was: a true artist perpetually striving for a more dizzying, more terrifying purple mountaintop.