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PRINCE, FIVE YEARS GONE: SOME PURPLE MUSINGS

In late 2015, bassist Ida Nielsen received a phone call at her home in Denmark requesting her presence. It had been a couple of months since she’d played with Prince. A member of His Royal Badness’ all-female backing band, 3rd Eye Girl, Nielsen was asked if she’d be available to perform at an exclusive New Year’s Eve show headlined by the megastar on St. Barts. “I think I was asked on Dec. 25 if I could do it,” she says, recalling her former boss’ penchant for unconventional scheduling. “That was normal within the Prince camp.”

Indeed, Prince was infamous for his spontaneity. The restless force of nature would ring up sleeping band members at 2a.m. to jam or record at his Paisley Park complex. Asking you last-minute to jump on a 14-hour flight to play an $8 million private gig for an audience that included Paul McCartney, Chris Rock and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the event’s host, was about as Prince as you could get.

“We played a lot of the hits. It was a very feel-good vibe,” Nielsen recalls before somberly trailing off. “It’s tough. That was the last time I saw Prince. I cannot describe how it made me feel when I heard he’d passed. I really don’t like to talk about it; I’d rather talk about what he meant to me.”

4/21 marks the five-year anniversary of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, who died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl at the age of 57. For many, it’s a loss that still reverberates, as fresh as the night landmarks across the globe were drenched in purple in tribute to the genius singer-songwriter-producer-musician who recreated a pedestrian pop landscape in his own sexy, defiant, button-pushing image.

From 1978 to 2015, Prince, who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and was the most revered live act of his era, released a blistering 39 studio albums; won seven Grammys and an Oscar for the culture-shifting soundtrack to his classic 1984 film, Purple Rain; disrupted sexual politics, thus kick-starting the Parental Advisory LP sticker movement; challenged record-biz orthodoxy over artists’ rights; and delivered the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever—all in high heels.

Prince's oeuvre is a declaration of freedom—sexually and spiritually as well as lyrically and musically. Songs like "I Wanna Be Your Lover" (1979), "Dirty Mind" (1980) "Little Red Corvette" (1982), "When Doves Cry" (1984), "Kiss" (1986), "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" (1987), "Gett Off" (1991), "7" (1992) and "Don't Play Me" (1998) displayed an obsessed master at work. 

Taking on his massive catalog, which includes more than 8,000 songs (many unreleased), music videos, original, handwritten lyric sets and hours of live concert footage, has been a Herculean task for the Prince estate.

“One of the decisions we made on day one as a team is that art was going to sit at the top and commerce was going to sit underneath art,” says Troy Carter, a biz veteran who joined the Prince estate in 2017 as its special entertainment advisor. “With some estates you see it flipped the opposite way, where commerce leads. But for Prince, art was always going to lead the way. So from a decision-making perspective, that’s the first lens we have to look through.”

So far, Team Prince has stuck to its dogged “art-first” mantra. You won’t find the Purple One’s songs anchoring car commercials or a line of official action figures; nor will you see the late performer appearing as a hologram at a venue near you. But in 2018 the estate partnered with Black-ish for a tribute episode centered on Prince’s music, and Carter confirms that there have been conversations about a Prince musical in the vein of ABBA’s jukebox show turned blockbuster film Mama Mia!

And there has been a steady stream of Prince music hitting the market. Welcome 2 America, a previously shelved 2010 album—on which the artist confronts a range of topics still dominating headlines, among them Black empowerment, racism, police brutality and social-media distortion—will be released on 7/30.

(As for the latter concern, Prince wrote in advance of Welcome 2 America’s planned release in his customary shorthand, “The world is fraught with misin4mation. George Orwell’s vision of the future is here. We need 2 remain steadfast in faith in the trying times ahead.”)

“This is someone who spoke out about police violence and took action following the death of Freddie Gray,” Carter says of Prince’s very public social activism, punctuated by his recognition of the African-American man who died in Baltimore in 2015 while in police custody. “He used his music to talk about social issues and bring people together, so we know that at this time right now, especially with what’s happening in his hometown of Minneapolis [site of the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent trial], Prince would have had something to say.”

Welcome 2 America is the latest in a string of meticulously crafted projects from Prince’s mythical vault. After a few court squabbles (Prince didn’t leave a will), fans finally got their hands on the long-awaited remastered versions of such celebrated works as 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984) and Sign O' the Times (1987), complete with bootlegged favorites, liner notes, outtakes, vinyl editions and recordings of full-length concerts.

Also upcoming is a limited-edition vinyl pressing of the 1997 fan-favorite acoustic set The Truth, due out June 12 to coincide with Record Store Day 2021. (Asked about rumors of remastered versions of 1980 breakthrough Dirty Mind and 1986’s Parade, Carter is coy, asserting, “I can neither confirm or deny.”)

There’s also the artist’s first posthumous release, 2018’s Piano & a Microphone 1983, which captures an on-the-rise Prince sketching out a collection of songs, including “Purple Rain,” and 2019’s Prince: Originals, unreleased demos of hits he wrote for other artists.

But this is Prince we’re talking about, the man who in the ’90s went to war with his longtime label, Warner Bros., for full control of his work, changed his name to his trademark symbol and scrawled “slave” on his cheek in protest and re-recorded his entire catalog to use as a bargaining chip to retain his masters (decades before Taylor Swift took a similar route). So it’s tempting to say that he would have balked at the notion of label executives today having the final say over his art.

Marc Cimino, COO of UMPG, the worldwide publishing administrator of Prince’s song catalog, pushes back against such speculation. “I think those re-releases were tied up in a decade-long discussion Prince was having with people at Warner,” he says, “and once he was able to get over that big hurdle with Warner, he was a lot more open-minded about doing things with his catalog than what the perception was. That said, however, there’s nothing we would engage in without the blessing of the estate, which is very focused on projects that uphold his legacy and enhance his art.”

And it’s a dizzyingly diverse legacy. Prince’s musical DNA can be detected in a vast number of artists, from Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and Harry Styles to Gary Clark Jr., Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo, Moses Sumney and H.E.R., who wasn’t even alive when Mr. Nelson was on his peerless ’80s run.

“I remember watching the Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert DVD almost every weekend with my dad and studying the arrangements,” says the 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist, who recently won the Grammy for Song of the Year for her acclaimed Black Lives Matter protest anthem, “I Can’t Breathe.” “It made me wanna be a rock star. I listened to Purple Rain nonstop. It was so diverse and free, and the hooks were so catchy. I knew I wanted to be as versatile as Prince and create a live show as dynamic as his.”  

Still, there was a time when it looked like Prince’s work was in danger of falling through the cracks for H.E.R.’s generation of music heads, who’ve known nothing but the streaming era. The dichotomy of the man—one of the first to release music via the Internet and create an online fan community yet who, after receiving a Webby for his pioneering digital presence in 2006, sued streaming sites to take down his copyrighted material a year later—has become Prince legend.

Says Casey Rain, tech futurist and creator of the Prince web series The Violet Reality, “Every YouTuber who covers Prince's work, like we do, can attest from their analytics that the Gen Z audience is virtually nonexistent. Essentially, YouTube is to them what MTV was for us, and Prince is not present. Although I understand his reasoning, this in my opinion was a huge mistake.”

That reasoning was simple; Prince believed artists were not being fairly compensated for their work by music streaming sites. In this sense, too, as today’s headlines make clear, he was a bellwether.

After striking a deal with Tidal for exclusive streaming of his 2015 album, HITNRUN Phase One, and his classic works, Prince demanded that all other streaming services remove his catalog.

He explained the gambit, made in support of Black ownership, in an interview with Ebony. “Tidal is sinking money into it and they need it,” he said. “And my heart is always on because I want them to do well. [Tidal founder Jay-Z and Beyoncé] have taken a lot of abuse… A historic amount of abuse between the two of ’em. And when we win on this, none of us’ll gloat.”

Prince’s presence online has nonetheless been heightened considerably since then. Following his death, his estate inked licensing deals with streaming behemoths Spotify and Apple Music. Whereas once Prince videos were a rarity on YouTube, now viewers not only have access to the entire Prince music-video collection but also estate-sanctioned remastered albums and concert footage.  

Needless to say, this opening of the floodgates has paid off; in 2016, Prince sold more albums than any other artist, his albums and songs moving a combined 7.7 million in the U.S. alone.

As far as the still-current cultural impact of His Purple Highness, Google revealed in 2020 that he is its most-searched-for guitar soloist, supported by 99 million views of his otherworldly ax display following his 2004 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he has generated scores of reaction videos, to name just two indicators.   

The Prince estate, meanwhile, has not been shy about its plans to introduce Prince’s music to a more youthful demographic, as evidenced by its 2020 licensing deal with TikTok. “It’s walking the line between leading with the integrity of the music and making sure a younger generation gets to learn about Prince and enjoy the music,” explains Carter. “Prince wouldn’t have been doing silly dances on TikTok—it’s about using the platform in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re chasing; we’re making sure that any deal upholds the level of his integrity.”

The man himself, of course, did most of the heavy lifting. “Prince was the epitome of what it means to be a boss,” says H.E.R. “Always preaching the importance of ownership and creative control. He made the decisions, and every decision he made, everything Prince did, represented who Prince was.” 

 

 Photo credits: NPG Records, Mike Ruiz, Kevin Mazur

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