By Greg Tate
“Could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? ...He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without constant boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie...”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I can't imagine the world without Prince in it. Who's going to make the world safe for black people?"
—Lisa Jones Brown, in conversation, April 2016
"And beyond that, who's going to make the world even tolerable for freaky black people?"
—Greg Tate, in response
"Go to the zoo but DON'T feed the realists."
—Prince, in conversation
Trailblazer. Trickster. Troublemaker. Who was that masked Race Man Supreme?
No one who really matters to us could ever be painted in monochrome, but the only title you embraced was a simple one: musician. Few caught the boundless love and humility you displayed before your tradition's storied and gloried ancestors -- all those who'd plied their trade before you in The Not Always So Entertaining or Fiscally Rewarding Bidnuss of Commodified Musical Blacknuss. But musician also connoted something specific -- the sense of craftsmanship and attention to detail you'd expect of any good carpenter or neoclassical jazz composer's son. And anybody who charges "false modesty" need only watch the tribute to Chaka clip with Stevie or the jam with Lenny Kravitz on “American Woman” to see the real deal. Seeing you grind so hard in the 20-feet-from-stardom position, a fool might believe the role of sideman was your daily bread and you felt so lucky to have it.
Then again, your government name was meant to be aristocratic confidence-booster enough. I got a boychile comin' / He's gonna be a sonuva gun. Papa Nelson was clearly feeling mighty prophetic, cocksure his progeny would justify being declared at birth a knight of The Realm — that anointed place, unambivalently sacred and profane, liturgical and low-down, where Dukes, Counts, Barons, Sun Gods named Ra, and three guitar-strangling Kings abounded.
He gonna make pretty women jump and shout / Then the world wanna know, what’s this all about …
None who ever mattered to us could ever be frozen in any cycle but Timeless, nor reduced to their alleged season in pharmaceutical hell. Because here's the paradox: The truth of any vessel's light only emerges out of the darkness. And whenever one of The People's champs takes it to the next phase, up pops Hamlet on cue, pointing us beyond the tabloid dross with a reminder:
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
Only after death are we forced to reckon with unsolvable riddles: How did that much music, wit, and spirit come out of that exsanguinated, stiff, shrunken, and breathless body? How could you just step off? Beloved Prince — nobody gave you permission. Our BFF Tasha Diggs was right about how your sudden and mysterious departure hit us: “This is a death in the family. Prince was like your brother, your cousin, your father, your favorite uncle …” Anybody who’s ever lost close family knows those seven stages of grief aren't urban myth. On our social media, many are still in a blubbering state of shock, like Mz Nicole, who says, "Still floating in an ocean of grief. I don't even see a shoreline." We thought we had partied our way into catharsis the night of with Questlove at Brooklyn Bowl, then Sunday we heard audio of your last testament in ATL, and that raw, prophetic, chain-gang tenor you unleashed snapped us to pieces again.
All the same, our doxology, our final reckoning with the demiurge in you, begs that we now answer this:
Just how bad was Prince Rogers Nelson?
So baaaad you were your own Joe Jackson, for starters. Whipped your own ass into that ready-for-the-world-stage-worthy state we first met on tour in 1981 with The Time in D.C. Most of your audience, representing young Chocolate City's fashion-forward New Wave pansexuality, appeared to have been awaiting you for — well, if not forever, then a mighty long time. You, this intercontinental ballistic missile of danger and derring-do, blown into our path from the very unfunkybutt boondocks of Minneapolis. A place with a colored population of barely 10 percent when you were born. Black enough, though, that you show up at 19 years old a ready-made grand master of all our music's core instruments, romantic vocabularies, and progressive sonics. And unlike our insanely permissive and mollycoddling present — when any young Negro with half a hook can be a shooting star and expend their 15-minute final quarter flaming out in front of Apollo Legends — U had the nerve to come storming in from the outback demanding dining rights in their Olympian arena. Meaning you came into the game when Stevie Wonder, Rick James, David Bowie, Weather Report, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Jackson Five, and Earth, Wind & Fire were still in their prime. So not a drill, not an audition.
How cocky was our oven-fresh embryonic young Prince? So cocky you turned down lucrative record deals that would have permitted Maurice White or Quincy Jones to be the in-studio bosses of you. Because you already knew, back when the band was Grand Central, then Champagne — Jimmy Jam on bass, Morris Day on drums — and yawl were cutting your ambitious teeth on every talent-show, hotel-lounge, or chitlin-circus gig the Great White American heartland had to offer future Funk & Roll/Black Rock Stars as bodacious as your rambunctious and anomalous selves.
So baaad that back when the entry exam for upstart contenders in black popular music was more akin to today’s NBA than tomorrow’s TMZ, you blew in with stacked heels, mascara, a supermodel mane, Egyptian kohl, and that puckish grin, telling the league’s gatekeepers, I'm starting five, or Funk You. And I’m floor-coaching myself from day one.
Ain’t a lick been played on the radio, nary a beat dropped in any arena, no Berry, Stevie, or Diana had cosigned your insurgent antics. Last time anybody had seen balls that Gigantor, his name was Sly Stone, from just as booty a backwater — Vallejo, Cali. Ex-DJ, ex-gangbanger, ex-choirboy, ex-conservatory nerd who woke up one day and decided to challenge the Memphis Motown James Brown Abbey Road Brill Building regimes by his lonesome. “You Can Make It If You Try” was his mantra, too. A studio-savvy multi-instrumentalist like Stevie and you, fluent in English poetics, equally advanced about ethnic and gender democracy to boot.
The No. 1 model for copious notes on what to do and not to do — eclectic-craft-wise and chemical-wise, too. Which is another reason the sketchy and suspect narrative we're being given regarding your exit befuddles us.
Given the loyal opposition, your 1980s breakthrough was as wildly improbable as Sly’s 1968 one, not least because you weren't out to just secure a foothold. Nope — you saw a crack in the window of apartheid-oriented American rock radio and wanted to bust that bitch wide open, upsetting your nation's still-dreaming-of-desegregation race, sex, and dress tolerances with the taunting debaucheries of your Dirty Mind. We also can't overlook that this hoodoo child of the Corn Belt busts out of L7 the year after punk broke, the fabled “Summer of Hate” that would beget the second British Invasion of our lifetime and New Wave, too. So: legends of funk and soul to your right, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, and Devo to your left, and a deluge of L.A. hair metal in the gooey midsection of early music television’s rotational bandwidth.
How bad was Prince Rogers Nelson, when his starship landed on the nigga-denying shores of an MTV still busy sweating Van Halen’s jockstraps?
Bad enough that your “Little Red Corvette" will vie neck and neck with MJ's “Billie Jean" for a shameful distinction — first video by a black artist allowed on the network. Michael took the lead, Prince a close second, both following Crossover Tactics 101 held over since the days of minstrelsy. All in the service of a Basquiat-like pimpwalk of black avant-garde-ism through the front door, while the rest of us 1980s avant-negroid #BlackRock furthermuckers were scheming on how to sneak our ra-ra through the servants' entrance.
We past masters of code-switching, the mask that hides and grins, got techniques for these mother-rapers — blackface, whiteface, WTF kind of racial-facial the funk calls for. We been knowing how to disguise our Trojans and ride white horses. Getting over on The Crossover been a Negro specialty since a cork-greased Bert Williams first stuffed himself in a bootylicious rooster suit. And don't even get us started on the history of slipping behind enemy lines by defusing tension with The Conk, The Relaxer, and That Nigra Prince Valiant. When there's a million soldiers in gold medallions and tracksuits, you can go full-frontal hip-hop, but when it’s just your priapic high yella butt cheeks out there, you might need to pass until the Afro is unsafe again.
They can call it overcompensating short-man syndrome if they want, but as Charlie Murphy learned, you relished stuffing on ‘em all, small or tall, blind, crippled, or crazy with a kickstand. And like your generational peer Michael Jordan, your superstardom dues required getting spanked by your elders before rocketing past them. The Stones' fans booed and hissy-fitted you off the stage; you upstaged Rick James into such a state of paranoia he threatened to beat you down if you didn't stop stealing his shit. And so forth. Next.
Dirty Mind and Controversy implanted your primal directive in the public imagination — sex, dance, rock and roll. Whole world figured out that like every rocker worth his satyric impulses, you not only came lusting after their daughters, but possibly their bi-curious sons and Christalmighty maybe your own blood siblings, too.
What screams “Schoolyard Predator Alert" more than a man in an open trench coat with nada on underneath but six-pack abs and cheetah-print briefs? A pancaked and bouffanted Little Richard had established the template in 1956. Fastest road out of obscurity into a nation of car radios? Dressing up gender confusion in tenderized kinky hair and Pentecostal fervor while suggesting fans form attachments across racial and sexual divides. Jimi rolled over The Monkees with that script in ‘67. Up in Buffalo, Rick James got the news, snatched George Clinton's saucer like it was Little Sally Walker’s. Now it was your turn to do the twist.
I was dreamin' when I wrote this / Forgive me if it goes astray / But when I woke up this mornin' / Coulda sworn it was judgment day.
Take the heat, relish the media outrage, sex and race up the charts with consecutive platinum hits. After the desired effect, there'll be world enough and time to let The People know you love Jesus and The Ghetto too. Not hard, since you always left room for the Holy Ghost in the unholiest mixes. You dropped hints early — “Annie Christian / Anti Christ / Until you’re crucified / I’ll live my life in taxicabs” — then, with 1999, you dropped all pretense, ponied up an erotic fever dance of an album that encouraged mass hedonism under a Ronnie Raygun–dreading mushroom cloud. Then came the cineplex blockbuster Purple Rain, where you broke into our regularly scheduled bildungsroman like emergency broadcast news — revealing from the jump on “Let's Go Crazy" that You, my dude, were the most Messiah-complexed and death-obsessed party animal rock had seen since Hendrix. But unlike our long gone King Jimi James, you weren't out to oppose Christian orthodoxy, start your own church, or throw the Bible out with the Bacchic bathwater.
To dispel all doubt, you handed us “The Cross" on Sign 'O' the Times, although even that scarcely revealed that a Jehovah's Witness conversion was waiting in the wings, or that flip's most glorious gift: the apocryphal vision of you and long tall Larry Graham, your Jehovite sensei, decked out in white robes and mod cuts, going door to door hawking Watchtowers and fellowship to Twin Cities hausfraus.
Eventually you morphed, tatted, and glyphed yourself into a Slave rebelling against the wrecka-business, letting earthlings know a Corsican brotherhood known as Warners owned your body and your master tapes. A tad dramatic, we thought at the time, but we now know you were delivering future shock, a pre-sagacious primer in the changing rules of the digital road — that music-making was about to become secondary to music-taking, that tech-savvy in music no longer meant keeping with the latest synths and drum machines, but with which software promised to be the most advantageous for music's creative flow. CD-ROMs, website downloads, cross-media giveaways — you got there first. And when file-sharing came along, you didn’t play yourself like fan-litigating Metallica. You wisely waited to peep the YouTube game and then started file-starving the little buggers, on the logical grounds that if Steven Spielberg's content couldn't be strip-mined for free, then yours wouldn't be, either. Hence the difficulty of finding Prince canon or iPhone concert footage on the legit net. And then comes 2014, when just as the streaming biz finds room for one more layer, you finally wrangle your masters out of Warners and license them to Tidal.
Sprinkle goofer dust all around your bed, wake up one morning, find your own self dead.
Down in some crossroads-basement magic shop, Jimi took you by the hand, passing on his seething cauldron of guitar fluidity, while you promised him Never gonna let the elevator bring us down, and then you delivered on that, word is bond. And that is what’s really so bananas about all this no-more-Prince-in-the-world sheet. Because you're The One who beat the freaky-soul-man crib-death mortality curse by decades. Because after MJ, last seen sipping his milk of amnesia, went off to never-neverland, we were sure your clean-living, straight-edged patootie would end up the funk's marathon man. The One who'd come rolling up to the RRHOF at eighty-sump'n like Chuck Berry with an octogenarian common-law dime-piece like Lady Themetta by his side, the two of yawl chuckling the night away while all-star tribute acts reanimated your canon.
Now conspiratorial speculation is running wild. (Couldn't be your postapocalyptic catalogue value, or all the #BlackLives Van Jones sez been mattering to you, with your generosity of purse, rage, and spirit, since before Trayvon, no?)
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
You know the one, Dr. Everything'll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby….
Dr. Everything'll Be Alright
Will make everything go wrong
Pills and thrills and daffodils will kill
Hang tough, children
Certain channels are rife with suspicion that it was Michael who gave the order. Called you home out of boredom and brotherly longing. Because even beyond those pearly gates, there was no one who complemented him the way you did.
There is a Goddess, and We The People already knew — because she, in her infinite wisdom, doubled down, dropped two prodigal suns on Earth in the same myth-cycle: cosmic twins of glam and slam, her white-gloved Thor and purple-suited Loki of glitter and grits. Just so we'd get to witness her moody Prince and her excitable MJ barnstorming the Death Star of industrialized white supremacy. Blowing it up from the inside, then living to tell the tale and walk away with all the money, power, and respect due to the cats before them who never completed 27 circles around the sun, let alone 50. Life in a bizarro-world fortress of solitude was merely the monastic price of the ticket. Only, since there’s no major childhood trauma in the Prince story, or even much adult melodrama unusual for a late-fiftyish black man in America with two bad hips, your version of Neverland Ranch was no amusement park but a hard-driving, all-night rock-and-soul workplace, the fabled Paisley Park, where thousands of fully produced and unreleased songs and videos are rumored to lie in a vaulted state of suspended animation.
Ever since DJ Spinna and DJ Kool Bob Love, a.k.a. Bobbito, started throwing those Prince-versus-MJ parties, we've bought the mock-competitive conceit — except that one sister who told us she’d unequivocally solved the riddle: Michael for the dance floor, Prince for the bedroom. ‘Course, in our community, the hard and fast line between the electric slide and the erogenous zones can get capsized depending on who's leading the dance and at what up- or down-tempo. Especially after you see 500 folk out on the floor crooning “Raspberry Beret" with as much hip-swangin' fervor as they would “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'.”
Twin City Gemini tricksters need more changing rooms than Virgo shape-shifters from Gary, though. That’s why, for our money, your love paeans deliver more sutras for our karma to sink her teeth into. You're hands down the more marvelous wordsmith of your tandem — that black bard whom no less a vernacular authority than James Baldwin's BFF Miles Davis openly declared America's poet laureate for all those “words, words, words."
Miles also thought you were a brilliant blend of Charlie Chaplin and James Brown, but somehow the elder Prince of Darkness forgot to mention Joni Mitchell — the patron saint of you and all other post-soul lyricists. Joni’s all up in Dig if U will the picture / Of U and I engaged in a kiss / … Animals strike curious poses / They feel the heat, the heat between Me and U. Dig if you will as well the Joni-ness of Dorothy, a “dishwater blonde, tall and fine / She got a lot of tips / Well, earlier I'd been talkin' stuff in a violent room / Fighting with lovers past / I needed someone with a quicker wit than mine / Dorothy was fast.” Not to mention this quintessential: “Every time I comb my hair / Thoughts of U get in my eyes / U're a sinner, I don't care / I just want your creamy thighs.”
Miles also considered Prince a true troubadour because he wrote a song about every experience in his life. The upshot of all that sharing seems beyond ironic. Because it's only in our mourning that we realize we know more about your furtive, mysterious, cunning, and offstage publicity-shunning fantasy life and psychic haunts than any black cat in history, famous, infamous, or even family. Yet the deepest thing about you in retrospect, my ninja, is also the most obvious. That like every other big-tent playa-pimp impresario we've ever known, you lived and died by that most basic rule: Give ‘em everything you've got in spades, but always leave ‘em grieving for more.
More Prince on MTV: