Nothing Compares 2 U

I spent most of yesterday evening listening to Dirty Mind. It’s not my favourite Prince album. It does sum up the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ he crafted during the 1970s and which came to dominate R&B the following decade – and the song ‘Head’ might be the finest ode to oral sex ever set down on wax – but, in many ways, it is just another Prince album. I’m not really sure why I picked it to listen to on the day he died.

But that’s always been the joy of Prince. The sheer quantity of music he produced is overwhelming, even for the most dedicated fan. He founded scores of spin-off groups and fronts to get around Warner Bros’s production cycle, which forced him to do one album and a tour every three years. He released five albums between 1994 and 1996 and fifteen from 2000 to 2015 (most of them double or triple albums). Rumour has it that he has written a song every day since the early 1970s. There are entire albums that only a select few have ever heard and which some swear are the best he ever recorded. If you thought that the Dilla or Tupac vaults made for an impressive posthumous release schedule, be prepared for a Panama Papers-sized musical dump from the Purple Vaults in Paisley Park. Or maybe not. There’s a chance the vaults will never be opened, or their contents are being doused in gasoline as you read this. Having once appeared in chains and a gag in protest at Warner Bros’s treatment of his work, it might be safe to assume Prince made provisions to have his secret recordings destroyed. But dead artists have a tendency to see their wishes overruled.

One of the stranger side effects of Prince’s obsession with his work – his insistence on total control – is that it kept it almost entirely off the Internet. One of the first things I thought about after hearing of his death was what it will be like for people who were never huge Prince fans. If you can’t reach for original records or terabytes of illegally downloaded mp3s, then you’re going to be disappointed when you try to search for him online. Unlike David Bowie, there’s no easy way to access his music. I don’t know how long that situation will last without Prince being there to personally sue fans uploading his work to YouTube. But it’s entirely possible that his death will pass a younger generation by without them being able to listen to any of it.

His attitude to the Internet has always been complicated. In 2010 he declared it to be “completely over” – a view he confirmed in 2015: “I was right about that.” He did eventually join Twitter (@Prince) and Princestagram but once the excitement faded, he seemed to lose interest. That says a lot about his mercurial talents. Endlessly flitting between projects; recalling albums that had been distributed to stores and replacing them with new ones; becoming a Jehovah’s Witness a few years after creating a song, ‘Darling Nikki’, deemed “the most objectionable ever” by the Parents Music Resource Center.

One of the things that I will always love Prince for is his ability to jump between genres. Even Bowie, who was capable of studied but brilliant genre exercises (think of his reinterpretation of plastic soul on Young Americans), never did it with Prince’s relentlessness. Sign o’ The Times moves from socio-political groove to high-energy helium funk to strange synth-pop ballads in 15 minutes. He wrote glorious bubble-gum pop for his girl groups, string-washed ballads like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (later made famous by Sinead O’Connor) and two straight jazz albums under his Madhouse alias. ‘I Could Never Take the Place of your Man’ is the best song Journey never wrote, except that Prince’s honesty undercuts any cheap American schmaltz. ‘Screwdriver’ is a brilliant modern grunge track recorded in stunning hi-fi. ‘Sister’ revisits skater rock with the memorable chorus: ‘incest is everything it’s said to be.’ And yet he never merely copied others. That he could write so well in so many different styles is a testament to his virtuoso, but his genius comes out in the subtleties. Like dropping the bass line from ‘When Doves Cry’. Or having live drums alongside the drum machines on ‘Sign O’ the Times’. To paraphrase Mike Scott: we saw the crescent, he saw the whole of the moon.

I also have a real soft spot for his writing about sex. An exemplary line from his pitch-shifted alter-ego: ‘I’m just a virgin… on my way to be wed, But you’re such a hunk, so full of spunk, I’ll give you head, till you’re burning up.’ He played with gender, masculinity and sexuality in a way that few mainstream African-American musicians have had the courage to do. He described himself as the ‘skinny motherfucker with the high voice’ and had his own characters interrupt his sexual advances to ask ‘Are you gay?’ But it was never simply frivolous – there was a serious side to his music too. ‘When Will We B Paid’ is a sombre cry for reparations, and the childish typography doesn’t take the edge off it. ‘Sign o’ the Times’ is even less apologetic. There’s no way to reconcile these different sides and flat contradictions. That’s the point. This is the man who put on secret Paisley Park shows for locals, who would pay $40 to attend without knowing if he would turn up or not. One fan who had been three times said he saw Prince only once, not on stage, but riding a unicycle through the car park.

The B-side to ‘I Would Die 4 U’ sees Prince mourn the death of a girlfriend by drinking banana daiquiris till he goes blind. That’s how I’ll be seeing him off tonight. I managed to find it online for you.

—Matteo Tiratelli


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