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Is that his real name?
Actually, yes. Future androgynous genius Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958. Both of his parents were musicians; they got married while performing in the same jazz group.
So he had a head start on the whole rock star thing?
And he’s never really slowed down since then. Prince began composing music when he was barely out of kindergarten; he signed a record deal with Warner Bros. when he was still a teenager. 1978’s resulting debut album For You is an incidental entry in a colossal discography, but its minor hit “Soft and Wet” hinted at qualities he would soon master (funkiness, synthiness, horniness). One credit in the liner notes, making the first of many appearances, encapsulates both his virtuosity and his desire for control: “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.”
It was all done solo?
He formed a backing band after the release of For You, but they didn’t have a proper name, top billing or much presence during recording sessions until years later. In the meantime, he was sauntering towards mainstream crossover; the 1979 single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Prince reacted with characteristic indifference towards his commercial prospects, focusing on the clubs rather than the charts. His third album, Dirty Mind, was a pervy melange of rock, funk and disco, studded with tracks about seduced brides (“Head”) and formative incest (“Sister”). Even the lovelorn “When You Were Mine” hints at cross-dressing. As a kicker to his review, the music critic Robert Christgau wrote: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”
When did he make it onto MTV?
In 1983, having recorded five albums in as many years. These days, 1999 is perhaps best known for its title track, which Prince performed at the turn of the millennium before vowing he would never play it again (that pledge lasted for… not quite eight years). At the time, however, “Little Red Corvette” became his inaugural top-ten hit; it was also one of the first music videos by a black artist to reach heavy rotation on MTV, nipping at the light-up heels of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” A subtler yet ultimately more momentous achievement in musical integration: “Corvette” was the first Prince single that peaked higher on Billboard’s pop chart than its R&B one. It was his breakthrough.
Then he made a movie, right?
Prince had filled a notebook with ideas for a film very loosely inspired by his own life, and in the wake of 1999’s commercial success he told manager Bob Cavallo that their expiring contract would only be renewed if he got a major motion picture in the deal. While trying to scrape the funding together, Cavallo lined up an Emmy winner to write a screenplay. The eventual director had never made a movie before, but then, neither had most of the cast and crew. Prince was "The Kid," a mercurial, romantic musician from Minneapolis who falls messily in love with the singer Apollonia. His band (now called the Revolution) played characters with their own names. And high school bandmate Morris Day—whom Prince had since installed as the leader of satellite funk group the Time—was The Kid’s flamboyant rival/nemesis, Morris.
Um… that could be awful or amazing.
A bit of both. But despite questionable acting, ridiculous dialogue and an R rating, the movie eventually made $68 million in the U.S. Its soundtrack’s total cultural domination was more astounding still: Purple Rain the album stayed at No. 1 for 24 weeks while spawning five Top 40 hits. (Number of tracks on the entire LP: nine.) Prince defined the year in pop: his unconventional single “When Doves Cry,” which has no bass line, also became 1984’s best seller. A generation of gender-bent MTV viewers reconsidered their sexuality, or just made out to the nine-minute-long power ballad “Purple Rain.”
How did he top that?
Well…he didn’t. Not in terms of raw sales, at least. There was a certain backlash. When Tipper Gore heard her young daughter listening to Purple Rain’s masturbation fantasy “Darling Nikki,” it prompted her formation of the puritanical Parents Music Resource Center (and the creation of those “PARENTAL ADVISORY” labels). Missing the recording session for “We Are the World” didn’t help. Prince continued to pile up hits and non-hit movies throughout the '80s, but never at the supernova intensity of Purple Rain. He did make what’s probably his best album, though.
1987’s lust-fogged double LP Sign ‘O’ the Times. Having dissolved the Revolution in favor of a new, funkier band, Prince sifted through years of material to unite his cutest song (“Starfish and Coffee”), his horniest song (“U Got the Look”) and his funniest song (James Brown tribute/parody “Housequake”) on a pair of discs. Sign is so complex, so damn great, that there’s an entire memoiristic book about it. It’s another record he hasn’t topped.
Is that why he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol?
That stunt was a semiotic protest against his contract with Warner Bros.; Prince thought the company was stifling his artistic freedom. Yet it does simultaneously explain why his ‘90s output turned so spotty: The Artist Formerly Known As began throwing tracks onto CDs and releasing them as fast as possible, all to be rid of the requisite albums he owed Warners. Since then, he’s released new material via one-time record deals, subscription services, free giveaways in European newspapers and online distribution (despite his subsequent, highly litigious rejection of the internet). There are gems amidst the past two decades’ glut of bad jazz fusion and rigidly traditionalist funk—“Electric Chair,” “Cream,” “Letitgo,” “Black Sweat”—but why not just go see him live, where Prince’s powers still astonish? He even killed it at the 2007 Super Bowl. In a rainstorm.
Is it true that he won’t play his filthier songs anymore?
Yes: Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, so no “Darling Nikki.” It may not be the only change post-conversion. The former Revolution members Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin were a more-or-less-out lesbian couple all the way back in the early ‘80s, but in Spin magazine’s recent oral history of Purple Rain, Coleman said: “[Prince] has hinted to Wendy and myself recently that he can’t condone who we are or be friendly in a certain way. We both have kids now with other partners—he’s been a little less than Uncle Prince. So that hurts, especially because he liked that element in his band back then.” (He’s been married and divorced twice himself, to backup singer Mayte Garcia in 1996—their son Boy Gregory died a week after birth from a rare genetic disorder—and to Manuela Testolini in 2001. Right now he’s in a relationship with Bria Valente, the latest of many protégé-girlfriends.)
So…why all the purple?
It’s very regal.
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