It’s a given that Prince was almost inarguably the most purely talented pop star of all time. Genius? Yep, obviously. What’s maybe a little less clear, especially for those who aren’t already intimately familiar with his music (I’m jealous — you have so much new listening pleasure waiting for you), is what, exactly, made him so singular and special. Here’s a breakdown of why people keep throwing around the g-word.
Prince had so many different voices. He could coo (“I Feel for You”) and croon (“Slow Love”), he could implore (“Partyup”) and go gospel deep (“Purple Rain”). He could sound innocent, forlorn, bluesy, funny, horny, seductive, desperate, mysterious, and like a cyborg (he does that all over 1999). And in all these guises, he sounded totally believable, and never as if he were trying on a vocal persona he couldn’t credibly inhabit. You never listen to a Prince song and feel like you don’t believe the sincerity or authenticity of the vocal performance. There’s also the pure sonic pleasure of his voice — buttery in the middle and lower registers, angelic up high. He had a huge range, unerring pitch, used melisma and vibrato tastefully, and was, with the possible exception of James Brown, music’s greatest screamer.
There was no style of pop composition that Prince couldn’t master. He was just as capable of coming up with a marvel of two-chord simplicity (“Starfish and Coffee”) as he was a complicated, curving epic (“3 Chains o’ Gold” is “Bohemian Rhapsody” times four). He knew all the songwriter’s tools — key modulation, bridges, intros and outros — and how to use them for maximum effect. He could write a syncopated funk workout, a dreamy tune set to sophisticated chord changes (“Sometimes It Snows in April” sounds like Debussy), and, if anything, his knack for a catchy melody is underrated. If Paul McCartney is generally held up as the gold standard for pop melodicism — jeez, doesn’t Prince have just as many, if not more, songs you can hear once and hum forever?
So, structurally and technically, he was pretty close to peerless. Lyrically? Same deal. Think about how many different kinds of things Prince wrote about: apocalypse, partying, sex, death, race, love, hate, incest, computers, cars, sin, salvation, human-to-animal reincarnation, and geopolitics (“Ronnie, Talk to Russia”). He was intellectually curious, and wrote from the perspectives of men and, more impressively, women. He wrote narrative story songs and playful nonsense songs. He was original and insightful in his use of metaphor and almost never relied on stock pop language or rhymes. He was a gifted phrasemaker. (The lyrics to “When Doves Cry” are so weird and idiosyncratic, and still scan so naturally.) He was funny, too. Prince’s is one of the great American songbooks.
Prince stands alone here: He was the most creative and intelligent pop producer of his era. Again, the diversity is astounding. Dirty Mind has a sparse sonic palette. Parade is psychedelically lush and dense. Both are all-time classics. He was brave, too. “When Doves Cry” famously has no bass line. His drum-machine programming on 1999 and Sign o’ the Times made electronic rhythm organically funky. You can focus on just the background details in Prince productions and have a mighty good time: A vocal is doubled for just a line; a wah-wah guitar will squiggle in the background; strings filigree the melody; painterly attention is paid to each part of the stereo spectrum. He’d throw in all sorts of weird sounds: alarm clock ringing, backwards echo, muttered asides. But it wasn’t just about adding more: “Kiss” is as minimal a hit song as has ever been recorded. When you stop to think about the sheer level of decision-making and concentration he put into this music — it’s mind-boggling.
His arrangement and instrumentation choices were dynamic, surprising, and fun. “Play in the Sunshine” from Sign o’ the Times is, on the surface, frothy soul-pop, but the track keeps morphing and ebbing and flowing: an atonal guitar solo, a marimba riff, hand claps, a funk breakdown, a shimmering harmony-laden outro. Speaking of harmonies: Stevie Wonder, maybe, rivals Prince’s gift for harmony arranging. Prince could layer and layer and layer his own overdubbed voice and never clutter the melody. Dig up “Saviour” from Emancipation — it’s the Taj Mahal of harmony singing.
Prince’s productions were maximal, they were minimal, they were fantastic trips. Whatever a song needed to achieve its full recorded excitement and impact, he gave it. He was a great instrumentalist, yes, but his best instrument may well have been the studio.
While we’re on the subject of instruments … Prince was a skilled keyboardist, bassist, and drummer, but his instrumental legacy will surely be as a guitarist. His skills on guitar weren’t quite as wide-reaching as his singing but what he did, he did incredibly well.
Mainly it comes down to two things: groove and flash. He was one of the funkiest guitar players ever, deeply influenced by Ike Taylor and James Brown’s guitarists. He’d play little one-note lines, or trebly chord-voicings high up the neck, goosing songs like “Controversy” and “Partyup.” He had an uncanny sense of syncopation with his strumming hand, and would brighten and then mute the chords by varying the pressure of his fretting hand. He didn’t just strum the same chords over and over. He took care to make sure his rhythm playing was as funky as possible. This wasn’t a particularly innovative approach, but he was a maestro at it.
Rhythm comping, though, takes a pretty big back seat to his guitar soloing. That’s where the flash comes in. People have rightly pointed to the brilliance of his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But I think that’s, like, his 11th-best guitar solo. (The sweeping outro solo on “Purple Rain,” for example, is way more dramatic and memorable.) His soloing was all drama, all the time. Big wailing bends, speedy flurries of notes, ominous octaves. Subtlety was not his thing. He’d start at a peak, then find the next one, then the next one. It’s flashy and flamboyant as hell — and I think that’s a lot of what people respond to — but he used non-standard scales and modes to lend his leads sensuality and grace. His speed was comparable to ‘80s shredders like Eddie Van Halen, but he was a prettier player than those guys, and while folks often cite Jimi Hendrix when they talk about Prince’s guitar playing, but you can hear a lot more Carlos Santana in his note choices. His tone, too, was big and bold, always just on the verge of over-distorting, an aural spotlight.
Oh, also, he played really cool-looking guitars.
I just laid out four areas that, if Prince had only mastered one, would’ve made him legendary. He mastered them all. The range of his talent was that immense. And he made so much music! Jimi Hendrix was perhaps as broadly talented, but he made three studio albums; the Beatles were together for eight years. Prince released hundreds upon hundreds of songs over his nearly 40-year-long recording career. I don’t want to sound hysterical, but “Moonbeam Levels” is the best song you will hear this year, and Prince never even officially released it! That doesn’t even make any sense! He created so much music, over so long, in so many different styles. Prince may be gone, but he left behind many lifetimes of, yes, musical genius.