Prince, the virtuosic musical titan who unexpectedly passed away at his Minnesota home early Thursday morning, was a man of seemingly endless contrasts. A musical prodigy who recorded virtually every instrument on his albums himself; he also found beauty in simplicity, frequently striking gold with simple pop song structures. An innovator who defied genre boundaries with recordings spanning R&B, rock, funk, disco, and much more; he was also a mainstream pop superstar who sold more than 100 million records. A melodramatic showman who gave dramatic, captivating live performances that pushed the limits of sexual and gender boundaries; he was also a deeply private, deeply religious man who rarely lived his personal life in the spotlight.
Some may see these disparate elements as contradictions, but for Prince these clashes served as not only pieces of a unified whole — but as the basis for an astounding body of work that portrayed sex as a religious exaltation, and fused the earthly and spiritual in ways few pop artists would even dare to attempt. Prince’s music could switch from party soundtrack to spiritual meditation in an instant — or capture both mindsets simultaneously, such as on the dance floor-as-gospel anthem “Let’s Go Crazy”. In addition to his malleable, beautifully expressive singing voice, capable of shifting from a haunting croon to a fierce shriek seemingly effortlessly, the man’s instrumentation and production also struck out bold new territory, pioneering what eventually became known as the “Minneapolis sound”. This style, with its emphasis on funky synthesizers and fast rhythm, would influence generations of pop musicians. And Prince was never one to remain artistically stagnant, veering from the synth-driven new wave of Dirty Mind, to the stadium rock flourishes of Purple Rain, to the raw funk of Sign o’ The Times.
Although I was first exposed to Prince at a very young age, through the music collection of my parents, it wasn’t until much later that I began to sit up and take notice. As a narrowly focused teenager obsessed with angsty rock, the weird rhythms of Prince’s discography weren’t initially to my liking. However, as my musical horizons slowly broadened, so too did my encounters with the man’s legacy. The Purple One’s influence is still profoundly felt in today’s popular music, from the funky soul of D’Angelo, to the dance floor anthems of Justin Timberlake, to the timeless R&B of my favorite contemporary R&B artist, Frank Ocean. Hearing so many of my favorite artists espouse praise towards Prince made me eager to take a closer look, and going into Purple Rain with fresh ears a couple years ago was a profound experience. Not only did I finally click with some of Prince’s most rock-driven numbers and emotional songwriting, but I was blown away by the knowledge that much of the album’s spellbinding instrumentation was laid down by the artist himself. While the more synth-driven side of his music was still an acquired taste for me, it was one that I grew to cherish immensely as well.
If you are just becoming acquainted with the icon’s immense and daunting back catalog, I would recommend beginning, as I did, with 1984’s Purple Rain. The soundtrack to Prince’s film debut, this album is the best distillation of Prince as a pop force, covering some of his most accessible and diverse sonic ground. From there, move on to the 1982 album 1999, which is perhaps the best example of the “Minneapolis sound”, and contains two of Prince’s signature singles in the title track and “Little Red Corvette”. Finally, complete your introduction with perhaps the man’s magnum opus — 1987’s double album Sign o’ the Times. This record shows Prince at his most sonically adventurous, covering a huge amount of musical styles and boldly experimenting with sonic minimalism. From there, the man’s vast discography is your playground, rife with uncompromising artistic vision and eccentric eclecticism — and lest you think he slowed down, more than half of the man’s 39 studio albums were recorded in the last twenty years. Prince was bursting with creativity and passion until his very last days. Rest in peace, Purple One.