Prince: A Musical Genius
What a concept, genius. Especially in an age like ours—secular, rational, disenchanted. No one, perhaps, was more suited to exploit the idea of genius-as-enigma than Prince Rogers Nelson, who died on Thursday at his Paisley Park compound, outside Minneapolis, at the age of fifty-seven. Prince played impenetrability like a guitar. To think about him was to ask a series of questions: Why purple? Whence the glyph? Did he really love spaghetti and orange juice? What was up with the retinue of light-skinned, long-legged women, who were visually identical to one another and to him? And his willingness to sing about sexuality and gender: what, if anything, was he trying to say? Such was the depth of Prince’s mystique that any story about him was interesting, as proved, hilariously, by the “Chappelle’s Show” sketch in which Charlie Murphy (Eddie’s brother) describes a night of pickup basketball (“shirts versus blouses”) and pancakes at Prince’s. Even his diminutive size served as a kind of metaphor: he was energy compressed. One imagined his bones as birdlike; he might have up and flown away on a whim.
But there’s a way in which the notion of the special person, landed from nowhere, does the artist an injustice. It steers us away from the specifics of Prince’s achievement. He was his generation’s most startling and dramatic guitarist, guiding his solos through a landscape of varied terrains: first rocky, dissonant bends, then long, plain like notes, sustained like breaths. He’d often finish them by repeating an anemic, singable melody, altered minutely until its intensity helped it lift off. His drum work in the studio was subtle and insistent, often resembling the clapping of fine-fingered hands. His voice was one of pop music’s most distinctive, a mixture of quintessential American expression: the revivalist’s falsetto, the crooner’s ease, a rasp like David Ruffin’s, the occasional exasperated holler. In performance, he joined rock-and-roll insouciance with flamboyant precision (and a perm) like James Brown’s, then added a dash of trick sounds borrowed from the blues. What resulted was a unified and inimitable style, rivaled only by Michael Jackson’s in terms of its magnetism.
Prince was odd and inscrutable to the end; he remains our unbelievable thing. Maybe it’s appropriate that he died just after announcing plans to write a memoir. But what we need to know we already do: Prince was a genius, but he was also, somehow, a person, just like us, and now he is gone.
To see just how talented of a guitar player Prince was, enjoy the clip below, and see for yourself. (Prince starts playing at 3:27)