5 Ways Prince Was Even More Talented Than You Realize
Prince died last week. I've been writing for Cracked since 2007, and a lot of famous musicians have died in that time. Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Phife Dawg, Fred Durst -- the list goes on and on (and I might be joking about one of those). All of those artists (again, except for one) meant a lot to me as a person who appreciates music, but none of their untimely deaths inspired me to write a column. Prince is an entirely different story.
I cried the first time I saw Prince in concert. I was in my 30s. It was the Musicology tour, and he played a solo acoustic version of "Little Red Corvette." Every second of that night, individually, was one of the greatest moments of my life.
You see, I'm kind of old. I certainly don't feel old, and I still look fantastic, but none of that changes the fact that I vividly remember the launch of MTV. Seeing the world premiere of the "1999" video and owning Purple Rain on vinyl as an eight-year-old didn't technically get me in on the ground floor of the Prince phenomenon. That would've required me to hit the clubs of Minneapolis as a toddler in the late '70s / early '80s. Still, I've been a fan for a long time, and unlike Michael Jackson or David Bowie, Prince was a legend I didn't have to share with other generations. He was purely a product of my time. His career is like a friend I grew up with. That it's over isn't just a sad thing for me; it's also a reminder that I'm no spring chicken myself anymore. No matter how badly you want to, you don't always get to outlive the things you love. I fucking loved Prince.
I could honestly make this entire column just 2,000 words of me reminiscing about all my fondest Prince memories, but that would get boring really fast. Instead, I want to make the case for why, hands down, Prince is the greatest recording artist of this or any generation. I know, it's a bold claim, but I fully intend to back it up. We talk about my stance on the importance of Prince on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comics Quincy Johnson and Jeff May. And I'm talking about it in this column today. Argue with me in the comments section all you want, but here are five objective reasons Prince is the greatest recording artist / musician of all time.
He Played All The Instruments
This is the thing we're quickest to pounce on the pop acts of today about, right? All these superficial teen stars just showing up to the studio to sing words they didn't write while real musicians do all the stuff that requires actual musical ability. If you're prone to making complaints of this nature, then by rights you should agree with me right here out of the gate that Prince is the greatest musician ever. From his earliest days, he played damn near every instrument on his albums. The example that gets cited the most, for good reason, is his debut record, For You, where he's credited with playing 27 different instruments.
Even after adding extra musicians to the mix, he was still doing pretty much everything you hear on his most famous songs. On the 1999 album, which is theoretically a joint effort between himself and The Revolution, he's still the sole driving force behind most of the music.
In case you're wondering, the additions from outsiders come mostly in the form of hand claps and extra vocals, save for the guitar solo on Little Red Corvette, which was played by guitarist Dez Dickerson.
Had that album been recorded today, he just as easily could've outsourced that smattering of extra responsibilities to people he found on Craigslist. He didn't just play a bunch of instruments, though -- he played them extremely well. That's especially true when it comes to lead guitar. For years now, I've been telling people who were bored enough to ask that Prince, hands down, is my favorite guitar player of all time. If you only know his work from the singles you've heard on the radio, it may not have come through all that clearly, but he was a fucking machine when it came to his guitar work. One of the best examples, and one that's been getting a lot of additional and well-deserved attention in the days since he died, is his solo during the all-star performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
You can see it in the above video. If you want to skip directly to his solo, head to the 3:26 mark. If you have time for neither, please accept my enthusiasm over this particular moment along with this GIF of Prince making George Harrison's kid extremely happy ...
... as proof that something ridiculously special happened that night. Also, if you still doubt that he's one of the greatest guitar players ever, keep in mind that Eric Clapton played guitar on the original version of that song, and he's very much still alive -- meaning he totally could've been the one to play that solo that night, but when Prince is in the room, finding a "better" guitar player is not only unnecessary, but borderline impossible. If nothing else, Clapton sure as shit wouldn't have ended his solo this awesomely.
Granted, there are plenty of musicians who can play a lot of instruments. But Prince has something else over almost all of those people when it comes to making music ...
He Didn't Need a Producer
See, it wasn't just that Prince could play a lot of instruments. He was also 100-percent capable of knowing what to do with those instruments in order to produce a song or album from beginning to end. Name an artist who's had a career that rivals that of Prince. Michael Jackson? Bruce Springsteen? Madonna? The Beatles? No matter what name you come up with, chances are someone else was in the room to guide the decision-making process on their finest albums.
For Springsteen, it was a guy named Jon Landau. Michael Jackson had the likes of Quincy Jones and Teddy Riley in his corner. The Beatles had George Martin. Madonna has worked with way too many producers to bother listing here.
Prince, on the other hand, didn't need any help. Former Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker credits the label's decision to let Prince produce his own records with being the deciding factor in why they won the bidding war that broke out among major labels when his music first started generating interest back in the '70s. Sure, Prince was a teen at the time, but he'd also produced a demo all on his own that was already pretty close to being a finished album. According to most accounts, that demo and what eventually became his debut album sound almost identical.
Swish that around in your head a bit. Think of literally any teen you know and imagine how impressed you'd be if they just walked in a room, picked up 27 different instruments, and cranked out a major-label-worthy album without any help. Hell, imagine how impressed you'd be if they did anything productive, you goddamn curmudgeon.
You probably can't, because that's not how we think of teens these days -- especially not teen musicians. Prince didn't develop into the kind of artist who could do everything from beginning to end. He started that way. That's not nothing, people, and it probably went a long way toward establishing him as the absolute greatest in another category ...
He Was Insanely Prolific
Bob Dylan has released 37 solo albums throughout his career. That's a whole lot for sure, but he's also been releasing them since 1962. Prince, on the other hand, has 39 studio albums to his credit, and the first one didn't come out until 1978. That's 39 albums in 37 years, and the total doesn't even include stuff he released under different band names (Madhouse, New Power Generation, New Power Orchestra).
It's easy to forget just how prolific Prince was, because during the second half of his career, his albums flew under the general public's radar for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, between the turn of the millennium and his unfortunate end, Prince released 15 albums.
Again, that's just during the time when his days as a commercial success were behind him. If he'd stopped making albums in the '90s, he'd still have one of the most impressive discographies in music history. The 24 studio albums he released prior to 2000 would have been enough to put him comfortably ahead of the stars he competed with in his heyday, like Michael Jackson (10 albums), Madonna (13 albums), and Bruce Springsteen (18 albums).
Even more impressive is that, throughout that vast discography, he very rarely made the same album twice. His early stuff, the records that established the "Minneapolis Sound" he was credited with inventing, have a sometimes similar sound, but there are differences among them. While his debut is kind of unremarkable (aside from the fact that he did all the work himself), his self-titled sophomore album proved he was capable of writing hits. It featured classics like "I Wanna Be Your Lover," "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" and a song that you might not even realize Prince wrote, seeing as how the best-known version of it is a cover by Chaka Khan.
His third album, Dirty Mind, is basically a rock record. He also liked how the demo version turned out so much that he just released that instead of actually finishing it, kicking off his long-running fascination with doing whatever the fuck he wanted. He kicked that tendency into high gear following the release of his masterpiece, Purple Rain. While the world was clamoring for him to return with another album that sounded exactly like that, what they got instead was Around The World In A Day.
It doesn't sound like Purple Rain. It sounds like he spent his Purple Rain money dropping acid. As you'll note from the above picture, the album cover gives off that exact same vibe. There were certainly some hit singles, but by that I mean two -- "Raspberry Beret" and "Pop Life" -- whereas every song on Purple Rain could've been a huge hit. As far as follow-ups to career-making albums go, it's one of the strangest in history, and it represented a huge risk for an artist who absolutely had the ability (and the right) to coast for a few years on the sound that made him a household name. What fans and critics wanted was of no concern to Prince. He did exactly what he wanted in every situation, and it worked out magnificently more often than not.
Speaking of being prolific, don't even get me started on the number of songs he recorded and just locked away in a room forever. Modest estimates put his vault of unreleased songs at around 500. Some claim it's as high as 20,000 -- enough for a new Prince album every year for the next century. Whatever the exact figure is, it's safe to assume that, even though he's gone, his music will outlive us all.
He Was Also Insanely Progressive
Prince loved women. That was obvious to anyone who paid a scant amount of attention to the man, regardless of how frequently people insinuated he was gay in the '80s. Speaking of which, homophobia is always a bad thing, but that Prince weathered the kind of jokes and criticism he did in the heart of the ultra-conservative Reagan era with as much grace as he did is a ridiculously good thing. It's not just that he wore crazy clothes. A lot of musicians were dressing fancy during that time, which is why Dr. Dre's infamous sequined suit photos exist.
But Dre was just dressing the way the particular genre of music he was involved in called for.
If you'd had the gall to ask if his clothes meant he was gay, he probably would've thrown you down a flight of stairs (women only). That was not Prince. He invited you to wonder about his sexuality, knowing full well that the answer didn't matter if his music was good enough. At that point, the question isn't if he's gay or not -- the question is why the fuck do you care if you're enjoying the music. And if you're not enjoying the music, why do you care enough to ask? And while we're at it, why do you care about what anyone does in the bedroom, you creepy weirdo?
His music also went a long way toward making America comfortable with seeing black musicians on television. If you doubt this was a problem, keep in mind that MTV operated for a full two years before they'd even consider playing videos by nonwhite people, and when they did, it's only because CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all of his label's videos from the network if they didn't agree to play "Billie Jean." They relented and put that song and Prince's "Little Red Corvette" into heavy rotation.
Much in the same way conspiracy theorists think alien invasion movies are the government's way of softening us up to the idea of an inevitable IRL alien invasion, Prince forced a lot of Americans to reckon with the fact that some of the best people in your life will also be vastly different from you in a lot of ways, and that we all benefit greatly if we just accept that shit and keep the proverbial party going.
Of course, that's not to say he didn't love women. Like I said at the beginning of this entry, that part was very obvious. However, I'm not just talking about his sex life. With the exception of Morris Day and The Time, pretty much every protege Prince tried to help launch a music career was a woman. From as far back as Sheila E. ...
... to the last band he recorded an album with, an all-female trio called 3rdeyegirl ...
... Prince always made it a point to share the spotlight with a lot of insanely talented women. Argue all you want about his motivations, but motherfucker, we wouldn't have "Manic Monday" otherwise ...
So again, why do you care what people are doing in the bedroom? It's also worth noting that one of the key plot lines in the Purple Rain movie centers around how Prince should listen to the women in his life (in this case, Wendy and Lisa) a little more. Just agreeing to play the song they wrote literally fixes everything at the end of the movie.
All that said, as progressive as he may have been when it came to issues like sex and race, he was even more ahead of his time in another huge way ...
He Fought The Internet (And Won)
Prince was not a fan of record labels. This more than anything else was apparently the motivation behind his seemingly insane decision to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the '90s. As mentioned previously, he was ridiculously prolific when it came to recording music, and he wanted the freedom to release said music whenever he saw fit. His bosses thought this would dilute the market, thus lessening the demand for his music overall.
Even worse, they'd trademarked the name Prince (which is his actual first name, by the way), giving them total control over what music was marketed under that name. Here's how he explained it at the time, in his own words:
So as an act of rebellion against the idea that a corporation could own his name, he changed it to something that was almost impossible to market, and kept it that way until the contract he'd signed with Warner Bros expired. As you'd expect, this created tons of problems for the people who still had to market and promote his music -- one of the most hilarious being that the label had to send out floppy disks containing a custom font to music journalists just so they could use his "name" when writing.
The name change was temporary, but his disdain for distributing music through traditional channels stuck with him forever. Almost immediately after his deal with Warner Bros expired, he launched the NPG Music Club, an online subscription service that allowed him to sell his music directly to his most devout fans via the internet. For all the talk about how much Prince hated the internet, he was also one of the first major musicians to sell an album online. He actually won a lifetime achievement award at the 2006 Webby Awards for his pioneering work in selling digital music. The Webby Awards limit winners' acceptance speeches to five words. His were, "Everything you think is true."
What this all meant is that by the time Napster came along and forced musicians to think up new ways to make money selling music, Prince had already figured it out. He didn't have to worry about a steep drop-off in sales, because that already happened years prior when he decided to change his name. He was already well accustomed to selling albums to a smaller audience, but in a way that made him the most money possible.
When the internet inevitably became saturated with acts peddling their songs, he adjusted to that as well. He boosted sales of 2003's Musicology by giving a copy to everyone who bought a ticket to his tour that year. The cost of the album was factored into the ticket price, meaning each ticket sold counted as an album sold. It was his most commercially successful work since Diamonds And Pearls.
His attempts to exert total control over how and when his work appeared online didn't always sit well with the public at large. But it was for the best, because he was way ahead of the game when it came to making sure the rise of online music didn't cripple him financially. That he ended up only allowing his music to stream on Tidal ...
... should surprise no one. In an interview, he made it clear that his decision had everything to do with Jay Z's fledgling enterprise paying musicians more than other streaming services and allowing him to customize how his music is presented on the site to his own particular liking. Prince didn't ask for much; he just wanted to control his work.
And your p***y.
Beyond that, he simply wanted to make music. We should consider ourselves lucky that he got to do exactly that for as long as he did, because Prince was the greatest damn musician who ever lived.
Deep inside us all behind our political leanings, our moral codes and our private biases, there is a cause so colossally stupid, we surprise ourselves with how much we care. Whether it's toilet paper position, fedoras on men or Oxford commas, we each harbor a preference so powerful we can't help but proselytize to the world. In this episode of the Cracked podcast, guest host Soren Bowie is joined by Cody Johnston, Michael Swaim and comedian Annie Lederman to discuss the most trivial things we will argue about until the day we die. Get your tickets here!
Get more of Prince's genius in 5 Rock Stars Who Are Secretly Musical Geniuses and Prince Could Ball! 7 Unexpected Pre-Fame Lives (RIP Prince).
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to see Fred Durst flail about with a guitar in 4 Musical Performances That Will Ruin Your Childhood - Spit Take Theater, and watch other videos you won't see on the site!
Also follow us on Facebook because this Friday night we will be doing a live stream exclusive to Facebook covering the NFL Draft. Don't miss out!