You're Missing the Point if You Try to Understand Prince

June 1985, Detroit, Michigan, USA --- Prince on Stage in Detroit for His Birthday --- Image by © Ross Marino/Sygma/Corbis Photo: Ross Marino/Corbis

Prince was a genius. Prince was a pop star. Prince played guitar, keyboard, drums, bass, and probably piccolo at virtuoso level. Prince danced, sang, produced, and composed, and did it all better and more originally and audaciously than just about any human ever. He was not like you or me. He was not relatable. (How do you relate to a purple unicorn?) He was a riddle never meant to be solved, which is why he will never fade away.

I have a vivid memory of the first time Prince blew my mind, and it wasn't in the traditional Jesus-he's-talented way (though he was that talented — more, even). Instead, I was made delirious because I had no fucking clue what was going on. This was in 2002, when Prince was about as far out of popular fashion as he’d ever get. He was touring in support of The Rainbow Children, an album full of dense jazz fusion and head-scratching, vaguely conspiratorial lyrics like “The opposite of NATO / is OTAN" and "Holocaust aside / Many lived and many died." The concert was as hard to parse as the album. Fourteen years after hearing it live, I clearly recall Prince's lovely falsetto as he sang the line “Abraham Lincoln was a racist.” He'd disappear from the stage, then suddenly reappear to tell parables about leaders and followers. At one point, Prince asked an audience member seated near the stage if it was better to give or receive. Naturally, the fan said "give." Prince told her to give her seat to someone in the balcony. I remember an uncomfortable amount of jazz fusion. So much jazz fusion. (And I like jazz fusion.) 

It was as baffling a concert as I've ever been to. Prince had a solid three dozen undeniable hits in his pocket, and played four, maybe five of them over nearly three hours. He did, though, play a song reminding the audience that accurate knowledge of Christ and the Father would bring the everlasting now, and I'm pretty sure he mentioned something about dirty blood and interferons. The entire thing was riveting. Superstars are rare. Superstars that can confuse the shit out of you are even rarer.

Prince had his world-historic hit songs and albums, that shining, sexy catalogue of rock, funk, pop, and R&B (not rap, not really — he never figured out how to successfully incorporate hip-hop into his music). But far more than other similarly huge stars, Prince, if you follow him, will get you lost. There's so much material — 39 studio albums, many of them multi-disc sets — and live albums and compilations and extended dance mixes and B-sides. And once you start dipping in, it's hard to stop, because even albums he probably forgot he recorded are studded with songs that can absolutely change the course of your week. (Like, for example, "Papa" from 1994's Come and "Dinner with Delores" from 1996's Chaos and Disorder.) You could stick to his golden run of work from 1980 to 1988 and have enough for a lifetime of close listening. The knottier thing is trying to consider the spirit behind it all. 

I'm wary of getting into this kind of woo-woo talk, but our favorite artists do things to our souls. Imagine, really imagine, being someone who feels oppressed by all the limiting sexual-religious-racial choices society asks us to make, and then you discover Prince? "Am I black or white?" "Am I straight or gay?" "Do I believe in God?" "Do I believe in me?" That's a life-saving glass of water to a very thirsty listener right there. By ignoring limits set by other people, Prince made you more aware of your own. That's what great artists do. But, and this is what I appreciated most, he could also help you understand where you weren't willing to go. Even the most enlightened among us have boundaries, and Prince's ignoring boundaries was also his drawing lines. Could you go along with his porn-y (and not particularly musically rewarding) habit of overdubbing anonymous female moaning onto his tracks? How did you take all of his songs about salvation and temptation? (They don't do it for a secular heathen like me.) Were you okay with his willingness to sue his own fans?

Prince could be hard to stand beside. As I said earlier, he struggled to make sense of rap, and would occasionally be fuddy-duddy disparaging about music made by people who didn’t play instruments. More distressingly, the man who broke through into mass consciousness as a walking rebuke to boring-ass heteronormative gender roles was, by the 21st century, making seemingly fundamentalist statements that carried the whiff of homophobia. And as I'm sure other writers will point out in the coming days, he could be very, very weird about women. It's hard to think of another male pop star who did so much to try and help develop the careers of women musicians — and who seemed so aggressively Pygmalion-y about it. (Also troubling: He could be staunchly anti-drug, and there are reports coming out now … ) These are all things that sit wrong with me, but how many other artists with Prince's talent and track record are even causing audiences to think about things like sexual, social, and musical morality? There's Madonna, there's Kanye, and Prince is funkier than those two.

So who could claim to understand Prince? Who would want to? His contradictions, his dead ends, his prodigiously variable output, his shifting obsessions — those are the sources of our awe, our literal awe, for him. They’re the riddles we'll keep trying to answer. The opposite of NATO is OTAN? Of course it is.