I wasn’t dreaming when I wrote this — but I wish I was.
I’m not one for getting all verklempt when a celebrity dies. Yet, on Thursday April 21st, 2016, I found myself struggling not to cry at my desk when I heard that Prince died.
At first, I thought, This has to be a false report. Some chucklehead is just running some death hoax since Prince had the flu last week. He’s still alive. Prince can’t die. He’s Prince.
But the reports were true. Prince had died, ironically, found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park compound — eerily echoing lines from two of his songs. Prince did, indeed, punch a higher floor in the elevator of his Paisley Park compound, as alluded to in “1999.” And while there was no frost on the ground when I looked out the window of my Philadelphia office, the lyrics to “Sometimes It Snows in April” felt all too appropriate.
I texted my brother and closest friends, telling them what happened. That I wanted to leave work early, go home, have a good cry, snuggle my stuffed animal, and watch Purple Rain.
Melodramatic? Perhaps. But it was how I really felt.
Now, a week later, I am still not okay with the idea of a world without Prince.
Prince Was Everything
The concept of duality figured heavily into Prince’s work. He wasn’t fully masculine or feminine. He was as manly as they come, yet comfortable enough in his sexuality to rock high heels and eyeliner.
His music spoke to all races and walks of life. It was universal. Prince’s musical influences ranged from Fleetwood Mac to James Brown. From funk to hip hop to jazz to rock, the man played 20 different instruments and knew how to bring it all together into something so distinctly his.
He was spiritual and sexual. Prince proved that you could think deep thoughts about God, life, death, and the state of mankind — and still want to slap a fine booty on the dance floor when it was bent over in front of you. Prince taught us that these were all integral parts of the human experience and that, to truly live, we have to experience these things and think these intensely personal thoughts for ourselves.
He was a great performer who protected his music from corporate pirates and had enough completed music squirreled away in his famous vault to put the combined posthumous works of Elvis and Tupac to shame.
He was also a great person. Under the radar, Prince’s good deeds ranged from donating large chunks of his sizable fortune to public libraries, initiatives to help impoverished youths learn to code and secure lucrative Silicon Valley jobs, and putting solar panels on homes. He was a man who cared about the Earth and its people, yet didn’t need for others to know about his charitable works.
When a light like that goes out in the world, you can’t help but feel that loss.
Putting Feelings Into Words
It’s over one week later, and so many things have been said about Prince and probably said better than I could articulate. Being a writer, a former music critic, and a fan, I had to get it out of my system and talk about Prince meant to me. Not because saying you’re sad is cool or trendy, but because you feel like the world lost something special and you want to pay your respects to someone who was a part of your childhood:
- The person who showed you that talent could give you the confidence to conquer shyness and use it to create your own mythos.
- The guy who made you appreciate different styles of music and made you see how those differences made singular things much richer.
- The guy who looked better in ruffles than most women, and who inspired your brother to go out and get a lime green turtleneck sweater because Prince wore that shit and rocked it with confidence.
Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.
— Juliette (@ElusiveJ) January 11, 2016
Then it hit me: I missed Prince because he used his music as a platform for sharing himself. The sacred and the profane. The philosopher and the lover. The activist and the private soul. So many of these things were deeply intertwined in his music.
The number seven was a favorite of Prince’s with so much symbolism wrapped up in it. From the album 3121 (when you add up all the numbers — 3 + 1 + 2 + 1 — they equal 7) to the song “7,” it had meaning to him. With that in mind, here are seven (or more) songs to listen to that will make you miss Prince even more than you already do.
For the most part, I veered away from including some of his bigger hits like “Little Red Corvette” (perhaps the greatest use of extended sexual innuendo ever put into song), “Raspberry Beret” or any of the other better-known hits already mentioned here. Instead, I tapped into songs that really showcased Prince’s ability to express profound and/or profane thoughts on a variety of subjects and his ability to create unique soundscapes. If you haven’t heard any of these songs, I hope you get a chance to hear them for yourselves.
#7. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
In roughly five minutes, Prince weaves a tale and creates fully-fleshed character portraits layered over a mixture of pop-rock-and-funk instrumentation. It’s a boy-meets-girl story: The girl, barefoot and pregnant, ditched by a man she’s desperately trying to get over. Prince is the guy she hopes will help her move on. In the confines of the lyrics (and the dancefloor of a local bar), Prince knows he could hit that, but musters the moral fortitude to say: “I may be qualified / For a one night stand / But I could never take the place / Of your man.” He’s sweet, sympathetic, and sexual in one breath — brutally honest about his intentions and not wanting to take advantage of someone in such a compromised position. You can pretty much envision him as the impromptu hot shrink with a mixed drink at the bar, lending an ear to a devastated woman, but having seen enough of life to know when things are doomed.
While the lyrics tout the everyday tragedies of broken women and the rare knights in purple armor who refuse to take advantage of them, the song’s musical arrangement frames the situation on an upbeat, potentially hopeful note. Bright, poppy synths provide the backbone riff of the song, but Prince’s outstanding guitar work lends a funk-rock assist.
#6. “P. Control”
Prince loved women. Obviously. While appreciation of females and the female form were major themes in many of his songs, you could never accuse His Purpleness of misogyny. In fact, several of his songs championed women. Perhaps his most unexpected feminist anthem was “P. Control” — sometimes referred to as “Pussy Control.”
Now hold up and get your mind out of the gutter for a minute. Before you think that “Pussy Control” is all about working the kegels, the song is actually about a woman named “Pussy Control” — although several lines throughout include a few puns on the Bond Girl-esque title character’s name.
The song charts her rise from humble beginnings being bullied on a playground to earning a higher education and becoming a respected woman in her own right. She eventually takes pity on the ones who initially downed her, saying, “Pussy got bank in her pocket / Before she got dick in her drawers / … She said Mama didn’t tell ’em what she told me / ‘Girl, you need Pussy Control.’”
Of the song himself, Prince said:
Please don’t be a victim of the 30-second bite. Listen to the words carefully. They are meant to uplift and enlighten all of the members of the female persuasion so that no woman ever becomes a slave.”
“P. Control” holds a special place in my heart after seeing Prince perform it on the VH1 Fashion Awards. It was 1995 and Prince had been somewhat quiet for a few years. It was the first time my younger brother had a chance to really see him in action and gave us a few more musical acts to provide us with a stronger sibling bond.
The performance alone is worth watching, not to mention the lyrical content. If you’re a female in need of inspiration to push yourself to your limits and demand respect from men and women alike, let “P. Control” be your anthem.
#5. Prince’s songs about activism
One of the most overlooked aspects of Prince’s career was his strong sense of social justice. Even on his earliest albums, Prince tackled issues of war and social inequality. “Party Up,” off of his 1980 album Dirty Mind, was a subtle anti-war anthem, taking government to task for embroiling youth in their own lies and war. Continuing along the path, Prince wrote “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” in 1991. The song touched on greed and materialism: The first half telling the story of a man’s struggle for his soul in the face of wealth he didn’t have before. The second half of the piece focused on the offspring of greed on a global scale: war, poverty, a lust for oil that trumps the welfare of children and mankind.
But Prince’s continued efforts to raise awareness on societal ills didn’t stop in the ’90s. Rather, it was a constant. He continued to make new music that touched on these often hard-to-tackle topics. On his final album, 2015’s HITn’RUN: Phase 2, Prince penned “Baltimore,” turning his gaze on social unrest and outcry over the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. Proving to be more than just one more voice in the din, Prince actually traveled to Baltimore in the days following Freddie Gray’s death where he hosted an impromptu Rally 4 Peace benefit concert. Rather than feed into division, Prince chose to use his voice to create unity. His understanding that “peace is more than the absence of war” is just one of the reasons why his contemplation on civil and global unrest will be so greatly missed.
#4. Any song Prince covered
With the exception of Johnny Cash, no one else covered a song and could make it his own like Prince. While Prince wrote songs for many different artists and quite a few covered his material, Prince frequently covered other artists’ work. When he did, he’d turn it into an entirely different animal. From his live version of “Motherless Child” (featuring his mentor Larry Graham on bass) to his Super Bowl Half Time show medley that snuck in a powerful version of the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You,” Prince’s covers were as much an experience as his original work.
Prince didn’t even have to sing a note on a cover to make it his. For further proof of this and his unchained guitar prowess, check out his Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame appearance on a cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
My all time favorite Prince redux appeared on his 1996 three-disc album, Emancipation — a nod to his split from long-time label Warner Bros. Prince covered Joan Osborne’s hit, “One of Us.” There was no one more perfect than Prince to cover this song, given his penchant for ruminations on religion and its meaning for mankind. He made a notable change to the lyrics, taking the original line, “What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us” and swapping in “slave” for “slob.” That simple substitution speaks volumes, making you see a deity humbled, brought down to the same bus-riding levels as the rest of us and making us ask, “What is it we’re slaves to in this life?” There is joy, contemplation, and even frustration in his voice by the time he works up to the final stanzas of the song. And it’s absolutely beautiful.
Another noteworthy cover in Prince’s catalog, Prince covered Alice Smith’s “ANOTHERLOVE.” In 2014, backed by the all-female group 3RDEYEGIRL, Prince morphed the regret-fueled turn on the disco floor to a heavier, slower groove peppered with equal parts sadness, snark, and angst. He even made his own memorable lyrical substitutions in this one, offering up a line about sharing clothes “and even our hair” with a former paramour. Check out the video below to hear Prince in all his latter-day funkiness on this track.
#3. “Gett Off”
“Gett Off” was Prince at his most unabashedly sexual — and that alone says something. But unlike most of the plebes with their hackneyed pick-up lines, Prince was supremely suave. He masters clever double entendres and throws in a few not-so-subtle single entendres for good measure, too. Musically, the track leans heavily on funk with some hip-hop and dance overtones.
As an added bonus, the video for “Gett Off” echoes the same sense of fun as the song itself: Prince busts out grooves and moves in a shameless black leotard, presiding over the most epic ancient-world-meets-modern-themed house party of all time. You’ve got Tommy Barbarella and his keytar surrounded by chicks. You’ve got Rosie Gaines wearing marabou and wailing on the verses. You’ve got Prince dancing with two hot girls and matching them move for move. And you know every last person at that house party is going to get laid that night. Even if they don’t, you know Prince puts out a hell of a spread of hors-d’oeuvres.
#2. “Paisley Park”
One of the earliest instances of Prince’s musings on faith, forgiveness, and the afterlife, “Paisley Park” is a thinly-veiled allegory that stands in contrast to some of his later, more literal works on his and mankind’s search for God. (For a beautiful example of that, listen to “The Holy River.”) Prince seemed to channel his inner Beatle on the slightly psychedelic album, Around the World in a Day, with the song “Paisley Park” feeling like a less-ominous musical homage to “Eleanor Rigby.”
A listen to the lyrics and it’s no wonder that Prince named his own estate compound Paisley Park — a little slice of Heaven on Earth where he could make music and share laughter with other like-minded souls. The song weaves in tales of the Park’s inhabitants: a woman who couldn’t forgive her philandering husband in life and was haunted by her inability to make peace with him before he died, a joyful little girl on a seesaw, and other happy souls milling about. “Paisley Park” ultimately imparts a hopeful message of life on the other side and ponders whether or not that level of joy can exist here.
#1. “Purple Rain”
Is this a predictable choice for the top spot on this list? Yes. But for good reason. “Purple Rain” is synonymous with Prince and an 8-minute epic that stays with you long after the last note fades out. The title cut from his landmark 1985 album and the film of the same name, “Purple Rain”‘s lyrics are as complex as Prince himself. They’re fairly straightforward, yet there are layers of ambiguity woven into every line. It’s as much a declaration of love as it is an apology for that love. It’s painful, yet liberating at the same time, with Prince’s falsetto wails at the end driving the point home as a wellspring of pure emotion that doesn’t require words.
“Purple Rain” is a song you can listen to over and over again and find something new to love about it. And believe me, I did. Sometimes, I like to subject myself to experiments in sound and once listened to Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” on repeat for a solid hour and — many years later — did the same with “Purple Rain.” While extended exposure to “Bad Medicine” left me in a near Lovecraftian state of madness, a full hour of “Purple Rain” felt warm and spiritually uplifting — like having just come out of the most intense yoga class, sermon, and concert all crammed into one glorious hour.
There aren’t many artists who can make you feel that way — much less after hearing a song over and over again. And that’s why there will never be another like Prince. Rest in paradise and thank you for the music.