Pop life as we know it just wouldn't be the same without the funky man from Minneapolis
“The main problem with Spotify playlists,” I wrote on Twitter a couple of months back, “is you can’t put Prince on them.” It was a rubbish joke bemoaning the late star’s refusal to make his songs available on the online streaming platform, but it does serve to illustrate the fact that, to millions of fans across the world, Prince was basically a genre unto himself.
With a glittering run of records spanning an entire decade to rival anything else in pop, Prince’s influence on those that came to funk after him is necessarily huge. And yet, in some ways, the shadow he casts over the pop cultural landscape is more diffuse than with David Bowie, that other colossus of the music world felled by 2016’s madly swinging axe. In part, that probably has to do with the fact his genius was more instinctive in nature than the more conceptually driven Bowie.
It could also reflect his complex relationship with black music – although Prince is remembered primarily for his funk, his star faded with the rise in the US mainstream of hip hop, which was an awkward fit with his flamboyant brand of showmanship (though Roots drummer and noted Prince enthusiast Questlove has already attempted to set the record straight on that matter with his “33 Reasons Why Prince is Hip Hop” for Wax Poetics).
So what does the world really owe Prince? Well, first up we should probably acknowledge the handful of artists who’ve turned Prince worship into an artform in its own right. Even as far back as the mid-90s, D’Angelo was retooling his idol’s virtuoso-as-sensitive-loverman shtick for the hip hop generation with his breakout Brown Sugar album. He outdid himself in 2000 with the magnificent, “Adore”-esque soul of “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, which featured a video whose gratuitous male nudity teased out the latent homoeroticism in the era’s shirt-waiving hip hop (and therefore owed everything to Prince), before returning as a rejuvenated creative force at the end of 2014.
As the fruitier half of one of hip hop’s most consistently envelope-pushing outfits OutKast, Andre 3000 has never been shy of proclaiming his debt to the Purple One. Breaking up the bicoastal orthodoxy of 90s rap, the group laid the foundations for the new, weird hip hop that flourishes today, as well as paving the way for contemporary ATLiens of outlandish sartorial bent like Young Thug. Then there’s The-Dream, whose seminal ghostwritten hits of the 00s include Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”, and whose widescreen R&B vision was built in Prince’s image (his own track “Yamaha” is essentially a smart modern twist on “Little Red Corvette”). And, last but not least, Pharrell Williams owes his entire career in less-is-more beatmaking to the stripped-down arrangements of track like “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry”.
With a glittering run of records spanning an entire decade to rival anything else in pop, Prince’s influence on those that came to funk after him is huge
R&B’s evolution through the 80s, 90s and beyond owes plenty to Prince, from the psychedelic leanings of the nu-soul brigade (Erykah Badu tweeted that Prince “(is) in my cells” after learning of his death last night) to TLC, who jumped on gender-ambiguous Sign O’ the Times cut “If I Was Your Boyfriend” on their multi-million-selling CrazySexyCool, and Alicia Keys, who covered classic Prince B-side “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” on her 2001 debut. The link can be traced all the way back to 80s hitmakers Jam & Lewis, who supported Prince on tour in 1981 before going on to pen Janet Jackson’s hugely influential Control in 1985, whose 808-driven twist on the Minneapolis sound laid the blueprint for the new jack sound and by extension much of modern R&B.
For other artists, Prince’s influence is felt in a talismanic rather than a direct sense. Kendrick Lamar - whose ventriloquistic flow on To Pimp a Butterfly borrowed, via Madlib, from the Prince of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Shockadelica” - released his untitled, unmastered album of this year in the spirit of Prince’s legendary Black Album compilation, according to Top Dawg Entertainment co-president Punch. Listen to the sleazy 4/4 thump of early hit “Controversy”, and you’ll understand why house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles was a big fan (try mixing the track with Knuckles and Jamie Principle’s “Baby Wants to Ride” at a party and watch the place go off).
His genre-inclusive vision, incorporating sister-loving new wave on Dirty Mind and queasy psychedelia on Around the World in a Day, can be read as a precursor to Kanye West’s fierce rejection of the straitjacketing expectations typically heaped on black musicians. And his artistic daring and gender-fluid presentation inspired a young Frank Ocean to explore his talent to the full. “He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee high heeled boots, epic,” the musician wrote on his Tumblr yesterday. “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity etc. He moved me to be more daring and intuitive with my own work by his demonstration - his denial of the prevailing model.”
And while we’re on the subject of sex, we should remember that, for better or worse, every time a pop singer or songwriter claims they’re using sexuality as a means to empowerment, they follow in the footsteps of a man who sported bikini briefs on the cover of his third album, nothing at all on his tenth, and whose unforgettably lurid lyric about a girl “masturbating with a magazine” on “Darling Nikki” scared middle Americans of the aw-shucks 80s into slapping records with ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers for the first time. Prince, you beautiful man, we’ll miss you terribly.