Prince was never what you’d call a press-friendly artist. And rest assured, that’s an understatement.
He avoided all those toting pads, pens and recorders like a kind of plague. Some of it was undoubtedly about being shy — and distrustful. And some of it was just not feeling like he had to explain himself. Prince — who was found dead Thursday (April 21) at age 57 — let the music do the talking, and given his prolific nature, there was certainly plenty to talk, and write, about.
But sometimes you caught a break. The formal interviews were few and far between. At a certain point, however, he opened up, answering email questions (albeit without saying very much) and even inviting reporters to his Paisley Park compound to chat, though under the condition that there be no recorders or notepads. For a guy who was so careful and deliberate and micro-managed everything about his career, he became surprisingly cavalier about being quoted directly — or accurately. And he surely had a good time finding out just how much RAM we all had in our heads.
My last time with the man came on a Sunday afternoon during the Musicology Live 2004ever tour, a few hours before he’d be taking the stage at the Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. No recorders allowed, but a notepad was permitted. And despite his reputation for being closed-mouth and taciturn, Prince was actually hospitable and loquacious, dressed for the stage as he popped open a can of mixed nuts and sat on a couch in his candlelit, incense-sweetened dressing room — when he wasn’t running over to a computer to demonstrate something he was working on.
It was a good time for Prince too. During the previous months, he’d killed it at the Grammy Awards and had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and people were still talking about his scorching solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the latter. He had emerged from his “slave” battle with Warner Bros. and had a new deal with Columbia to distribute his Musicology album — which was “selling” well, since he was one of the first artists to include a copy with each concert ticket sold. The shows, performed on a cross-shaped stage, were as hot as anything he’d done, and he was on the vanguard of the digital music world with his NPG Music Club, clearly enjoying the ability to release music when and how he pleased without having to adhere to major-label conventions. He was taking some heat for it, but Prince couldn’t care less.
“You come up with something new and you’re gonna have trouble with it,” he said, rolling his eyes. “This is not me trying to make war on anything. The people at the shows don’t have trouble with it. Why would someone who’s not even part of this have trouble with it? I’m not gonna get in William Hung‘s way.
“You just keep doing stuff, and it gets stacked up and drives you crazy. And you don’t know what to do about it. Studies show that things like regret, not being able to forgive other people, that’s what causes cancer. It piles up, and you get irritable.”
He also didn’t want to consider his current spate of success a “comeback.”
“The vibe is not really different,” Prince said. “I’ve been touring for a while. I took a break to make the Musicology project. It hasn’t really stopped. Take away the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, put them aside, and I’d still be here in this building, talking to you. I would still be releasing the album. I’d still be out here. I ain’t going nowhere.”
He was fiercely moving forward, however. Sitting at the computer, he clicked through a variety of online-only albums like a proud papa showing off photos; a ministering Jehovah’s Witness, he apologized when a “bad word” sneaks through the mix. There were funky workouts such as The Slaughterhouse and The Chocolate Invasion, as well as the jazzy N.E.W.S., an instrumental collection called Xpectation he described as “one for dinner parties…I’m not trying to shock the world with every record,” and individual songs and videos.
“The cool thing is it’s interactive immediately,” he said. “The temptation is to fill it up with new songs all the time. Freedom can get you into trouble — too much freedom, anyway. But it’s so much more fun and there are so many more rewards to doing it on your own. You can become so much more connected to your audience this way. They don’t need to see a chart first or hear it on the radio first or read a review. What they vibe off of is what they vibe off of — it’s that easy.”
Keep in mind, this was before downloading enterprises became prevalent and commonplace, so Prince was well ahead of the curve. By the mid-’00s, however, he was starting to get props for being onto something — even from those with whom he’d had issues. And he took no small satisfaction from that.
“At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I ran into a guy who was at Warners back then,” Prince recalled. “He said, ‘Back then, we really treated you like it was a parent-child relationship.’ I said, ‘Sir…I was a grown man. The fact you guys could look at me like that…I see now. I understand. I couldn’t before.’ So there’s nothing to be bitter about, because I can see now what was going on.
“As time clicks on and we watch events unravel…people understand. Anita Baker came up to me recently. She said, ‘Prince, at first we didn’t know what was happening. We said, ‘He needs to kick up his medication.’ Then it happened to all of us.'”
There were no more Purple Rains or even 1999s for Prince, of course. But the Musicology era proved to be a turning point for him, a time when he was locking into the way he wanted to conduct his creative business under his own terms. And with a sold-out arena of fans waiting to see him, he seemed at peace with his lot — at least on this particular day.
“Y’know, Purple Rain was more or less like a fever-pitch type feeling all the time,” he said. “People at the hotel waiting, crowds everywhere we went, just…crazy. Now it’s more business-like. I’m running the affairs, making a lot more money. I know everything that’s going on. It doesn’t seem like a madhouse. I like that.”