There are many things to love about the late Prince’s music, but there is only one reason he ranks among the greatest, and it isn’t his guitar playing, his ability to dance, love dynamics, greatest funk band in the world, sexual precociousness, none of that.
The reason we consider Prince one of the greatest is because of those brace of crossover albums for Warner Brothers, really Purple Rain, but a couple before and a couple after. His legacy lies in those songs, in “When Doves Cry”, “Purple Rain”, “Kiss”, “Little Red Corvette”, “Raspberry Berry” -like that. It was a reverse Presley, Presley was black songs by a white man, Prince was doing white songs by a black man.
However, Prince wasn’t the first, not even the best (though it is certainly open for debate), that would be Sly Stone. Like Sly, Prince was a funk master, and certainly a better musician than any one in Family Stone with the exception of Larry Graham. But the vast majority of his audience, his crossover audience, didn’t quite care about his funk leanings. The Black Album was terrific, but he didn’t even release it, and by the 00s, he was more prolific than ever but so much of it was funk jamming and for every “Cream” there were entire, barely released, albums that should have remained in the closet.
To perceive his genius through a black and white paradigm might feel a little short sighted but, have you heard the radio? All they are playing is WB hits, all everybody thinks of is those, the greatest hits at the top of the UK charts doesn’t enter the 1990s. No, not for you and me, but out there, the place where he is an icon and a giant , it isn’t because of “Chocolate Box” -his song with Q-Tip and that is a GREAT SONG. It isn’t because of the great return to mainstream music Musicology from 2004, the only thing that made it a return to form was that you could actually buy, the album is nothing much.
When Prince went pop after the WB years it was mostly as a cover artists, “La La La Means I Love You” or “One Of Us”…. his heart was in wild and long funk work outs. Now, I love wild and long workouts and Prince was a master at them BUT they aren’t why he is one of the greats. He turns them out fine but no finer than, say, his close friend Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station.
30 years after the Warner Brothers, they are his ice cold, undoubted legacy. They are so great, people argue that he is greater than Michael Jackson, which he isn’t, but he is close. As far as musicians of the 80s, he plays Costello to MJ’s Bruce.
Once he got past writing slave on his face, and got back to performing, he had lost the pop touch (though he in fact improved as a live act), he had mooted his whiteness but replaced it with something less special and much easier.
As we look back on his career, at where he stands in the rock and roll pantheon, place him high, as high as you can, and if you are like me, love it all to some degree or the other. But admit, it was his ability to tap his pop sensibility, his whiteness, that made him one of the Gods.
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