My parents got me The Very Best of Prince album when I was about eleven years old. I had just received my first Walkman and with this new technology in tow, I thought I should begin to take myself more seriously a music-listener. I made concerted efforts to have my taste in music, movies, and TV mirror that of my siblings—who were the obvious standards for coolness at the time—and noticed quickly that classic rock and synth funk made me more admirable in the eyes of my older brothers than Jock Jams ever could. I’m not sure peer pressure has ever produced nobler results. Prince was my first real musical love.
In the early 2000’s, pop as a genre—which, as a preteen, I was expected to like—primarily referred to folks like Britney Spears and 3LW and Backstreet Boys. But there was something qualitatively different about listening to Prince; even though it was dancey and fun, his music didn’t feel cheap or hollow like the music I heard on the radio. It felt timeless.
Eleven is probably a weird age to begin a musical infatuation with an artist known for his “predilection for lavishly kinky story-songs,” but I loved that he told stories, set scenes—even if I didn’t always understand the subtle meaning underneath the words. It was easy to imagine the people and places he painted lyrically—they were all in vivid detail: “She wore a raspberry beret / the kind you find at a second-hand store” and “walked in through the out door;” or “Dream if you can a courtyard / an ocean of violets in bloom”—even a kid can latch on to imagery like that.
I suppose my parents weren’t too concerned about the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) suggestions in his music, since, in addition to loving Prince, I was also the kid who requested books about Moses for Christmas and practiced spelling big words in my free time. They knew they could trust me to remain obstinately innocent while still exposing me to one of the most amazing musicians my homeland has ever produced—and indeed, they were right. It took me about a decade to realize and understand the almost incessant sexual references in his lyrics (I really thought “Little Red Corvette” was about a little red corvette), but the slow revelation just made it seem that his music grew along with me.
When I listen to his music now (which I still do, regularly), the enjoyment of its storytelling and the experience of listening to real, substantive music that I had at age eleven is still there. But added to that is a sense of the incredible emotional spectrum of his music—from giddiness and romance to dread and frustration; as well as a deeper understanding of meanings below the surface—both sexual innuendos and existential curiosities.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999” are both responses to a real human dilemma: death, the afterlife, and whether what-comes-next should frame the here-and-now. The former begins with a faux eulogy (that Prince must have foreseen would be quoted ad infinitum at his passing):
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here to tell you
There's something else
The after world
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
Prince, who was born, raised, and died in my (the) homeland, created what’s called “Minneapolis sound”—which I now recognize as the indescribable quality that first mesmerized me in his music—a unique blend of funk, rock, pop, and synth. A friend tweeted to tell me that it was raining in Minnesota as the reports of his death were confirmed, which feels fitting: the whole state is mourning the man who wrote "Purple Rain." I’m mourning (just ask my fellow Commonwealers: I did that awkward, muffled workplace crying throughout the afternoon and only managed to stop in an effort to write this small tribute.) If you’re not mourning, the only possible reason is that you have not yet been initiated into the musical genius of Prince. In that case, do yourself a favor and download his Very Best album as a tribute to his memory and the first step in your education.