100 Best Albums

Essential Albums

About Prince

In the early 2000s, the filmmaker Kevin Smith contacted Prince to see if he could use one of Prince’s songs in one of his movies. Prince responded by asking Smith to make a documentary about him. Smith said sure, but the project never got off the ground. When Smith tried to pull out, one of Prince’s assistants explained to him that it wasn’t that simple. 'Why not?' Smith asked. After all, he wasn’t even a documentarian; he made features. 'I get it,' the assistant said—but Prince doesn’t understand reality like the rest of do. Prince… Prince calls you at three in the morning to ask if he can get a camel. He isn’t doing it to be a jerk. But he does want the camel. It’s a funny story, of course. But it also illustrates the strength and commitment of Prince’s vision. The camel is an extreme example. But imagine you told him there was no way to mix new wave and psychedelia with funk and R&B. Or that a man couldn’t explore androgyny without risking his sex appeal. Imagine, really, telling Prince there were any conventional boundaries he had to respect—and then imagine how much groundbreaking art would’ve been lost if he’d listened. Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, he trained in ballet as a teenager, starting his music career just out of high school. By 24, he’d already released a body of work (including Dirty Mind, Controversy, and 1999) that helped shape nearly every style of ‘80s pop music, Black and white; by 30, he was both a midnight-movie cult hero (Purple Rain) and a Beatles-level visionary (Sign o’ the Times). To read about his Paisley Park compound is to get a glimpse of a world of almost perpetual creativity—between his debut in 1978 and his death in 2016, there was barely a year he didn’t put out an album, and there were several years during which he put out two. He was one of pop music’s true universals, and yet always distinctly Black. And to listen to him mix sexual ecstasy with spiritual transcendence (“When Doves Cry,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) not only finished the mission Little Richard started, it delivered on rock ’n' roll’s promise that you could find heaven here on earth if you were willing to shake for it.

Minneapolis, MN, United States
June 7, 1958
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