Magazine article Variety

A Potent Career Spent Defying Boundaries

Magazine article Variety

A Potent Career Spent Defying Boundaries

Article excerpt

ONE MARVELS at the completeness of Prince.

The musician, who died April 21 at the age of 57, arrived in 1978 with all the tools of his formidable genius on display. His debut album that year, "For You," released by Warner Bros, when he was 19, was a one-man opus of virtuosity: He wrote, arranged, sang, played and produced every note on the album. In one five-tool stroke, he announced his ambition, nerve, independence, daring and sure-handed brilliance.

Much of his persona was also evident, in embryonic form. The teenage funkateer made his first mark with "Soft and Wet," a song that foretold his brazen lubricity to come, but he also projected a quivering romanticism and vulnerability that cooled the heated edge of his bold songs about sex.

Though he would deliver other dynamic solo performances over the course of his 38-year career, Prince flourished in the company of other musicians. Working as a sideman as early as 1975, he developed amid a fertile R&B/funk scene in Minnesota's Twin Cities, a jam-down atmosphere that spawned such talents as Alexander O'Neal, André Cymone, Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Like his key influences - James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Miles Davis - he was at heart a band animal, and he fronted taut, puissant units from the earliest days of his career: his hit-making group the Revolution, his dynamic '90s outfit New Power Generation and, near the end of his life, the potent all-female 3rdeyegirl. He made hard-rocking, take-no-prisoners music with them all.

As with other boundary-shifting pop icons who became lionized institutions as their careers progressed, the transgres- sions and provocations of Prince's earliest appearances seem remote today. He materialized as a figure as outré and confrontational as another recently departed star, David Bowie. Lean, kohl-eyed, and smoldering, he strutted across the stage in stockings and barely decent black briefs, his song "Do Me, Baby" less an invitation than a demand.

The extremity of his attack can be seen in an astonishing video, posted on YouTube, of a complete 1982 concert in Passaic, N.J. It is highlighted by a hyper-theatrical version of "Head," a track from Prince's 1980 collection "Dirty Mind." Prince interprets the song - which proffers a sex act still illegal in some states - as an erotic pas de deux with his guitar, successfully one-upping Hendrix's almost literally climactic Monterey Pop Festival set with a flick of his tongue and a caress of his priapic guitar neck.

Such songs and performances triggered second lady Tipper Gore's public scorn, the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center, congressional hearings on alleged obscenity in rock music and the major labels' institution of parental guidance stickers. Others were pushing the outside of the envelope, but Prince was leaning hardest.

By the time Gore and the forces of censorious cultural conservatism were circling him, Prince was already out of their grasp; he was too big to bring down. His 1984 album "Purple Rain," created as the soundtrack for the eponymous feature, was second only to Michael Jackson's blockbuster "Thriller" among the bestselling albums of its decade. (The record contained "Darling Nikki," the song that had outraged Gore.)

Therein, Prince had his apotheosis. The enticing, mercurial polarities of his musical personality were etched forever in both the sensationally received film and its accompanying record. Much of the music was raw and blatantly carnal. But many listeners approached the songs through the film, which completed his artistic profile: Prince's "Kid" was a sensitive young man coming to terms with distant, abusive parents. …

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