Image by Gerry Weber
You can’t eulogize a color. Coroner’s reports claim that the organs, joints, and muscles of Prince Rogers Nelson ceased their erotic serenade after 21,130 days on earth. All 62 inches of exposed skin were ostensibly placed in a pyre and the ashes scattered in a mysterious location—automatically dying the soil purple and yielding trees that gyrate with perfect rhythm. The wind guarding that patch of dirt or water will whistle with celestial falsetto. It will be to the funk as Lourdes is to the Marian apparition.
Prince was more celestial phenomenon than flesh and marrow, a delirious, devout, spellbinding satyr in sequins, famously summed up by “stealing your girl, then her clothes, then stealing someone else’s girl in your girl’s clothes.” More optical and aural act of sorcery than 110 pounds of exquisite cheekbones and silken hair. If Robert Johnson made that famous crossroads pact with the Devil, Prince met the Devil and convinced him to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
There’s a Prince anecdote about an unnamed actress who turned down a part in Purple Rain because the script originally contained pornographic acts she wouldn’t let her boyfriend do behind closed doors (obviously, she’d never listened to a Prince album). They hung out a few times and she remarked about his hang-ups: “He really thinks he’s related to God.”
But wouldn’t you think the same if you were Prince? He played the guitar like Stephen Curry shoots threes, like Chef Morimoto uses knives, like Donald Trump deploys lies. No one since James Joyce has spewed obscenity that effectively. He made lust seem like violent love and love like violet lightning. His voice spanned octaves that haven’t been deciphered, capable of eliciting tears from doves and demons. His blood type was raspberry beret. Prince was the only rational endorsement for intelligent design—oozing the sort of unzipped Kavorka that mankind needs to perpetuate the species. Without him, the US faces the perilous danger of, sekkusu shinai shokogun or what the Japanese call “celibacy syndrome."
If Prince defies proper memoriam, it’s partially because he was too alien for accurate categorization. Has anyone ever looked like him? He crossed Little Richard, Liberace, and Bambi, and somehow became the sexiest mutant on the planet. Calling him the symbol made the most sense. He was a hieroglyphic in human form. A manifestation of the androgynous Hindu deity, Ardhanarishvara, temporarily trapped on earth—the ideal synthesis of masculine and feminine energies, the source of creation, intuition and creativity. Has anyone ever showed us more, but revealed less?
I don't even know how Prince can die. This is like the sun turning to ashes, the water turning to gasoline, the trees turning to steel. Losing Prince and Bowie feels like a cruel hex, magic systemically exiting the world, the departure of the rare few who make life worth living. If you ever saw him live you understand. It was like staring into a velvet infinity full of diamonds, pearl necklaces, and pancakes.
Dave Chappelle’s legendary sketch landed so perfectly because even the most absurd Prince stories seem plausible. Of course, a post-club Prince stomped them at basketball while dressed like sleazy Louis XIV, then cooked a delicious hot breakfast. If Charlie Murphy had told us the story of how Prince traveled back in time to teach the ancient Phoenician traders how to make Tyrian purple from rock snails, we would’ve believed him. It just wouldn’t have made for great TV.
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“I'm not a woman / I'm not a man / I am something that you'll never understand.”
Sometimes, confusion leads to more questions. Other times, it leads to control. In the manicured talons of Prince, it meant that all ears followed. Like the greatest artists, he contained multitudes and left a trail of ambiguity to keep you guessing, eternally hijacking your attention.
Within hip-hop, Prince established an archetype alternately followed and ignored, idolized and shunned. Comparing someone to Prince could be a compliment or an insult. Hip-hop’s health could be calibrated by how readily artists admitted his influence. If it leaned too gangsta, his patrimony was denied. At its most open-minded, he was the Old Testament patriarch glittering in a leotard and cravat—gleefully shattering every commandment on Saturday night, soulfully repenting every Sunday morning.
He invented swag and called it “sickness.” He’s so deeply embedded in the funk DNA of early West Coast electro hip-hop that an alternate 1999 was unthinkable. “Head” and “Lady Cab Driver” boomed from stacked pyramids of Cerwin-Vega speakers at the fabled freak fests hosted by Uncle Jamm’s Army. If Instagram existed in 1984, The Egyptian Lover and N.W.A.’s Arabian Prince would’ve been the first to chime “Dad” in Prince’s comments. After the death, Ice Cube posted a photo of Prince and Vanity, asking if anyone had seen his childhood. Dre stitched a subtle “Let’s Go Crazy” sample into “Eazy-Duz-It.”
A reliable source once told me about a time that DJ Quik bought some re-mastered Prince CDs. Intending to go out that night, Quik bought the reissues to bump to and from the club. But upon getting in his car, the Compton legend allegedly became horrified by the tweaked sonics, returned to the studio, and spent several hours restoring the audio fidelity to its former luster. It apparently sounded pristine. I’m not sure how one would even begin to do such a thing or how accurate the story is, but I need to believe that it’s true. Prince meant too much to DJ Quik. He meant too much to anyone with a functioning pulse, preponderance of funk, and an active libido.
We could be here all day if we start listing the hip-hop artists who sampled Prince: Afrika Bambaataa to Bizzy Bone; Digital Underground to De La Soul; LL Cool J to Mac Mall; MC Lyte to Arrested Development. Lil Troy’s “Wanna Be a Baller” rides a chopped and slopped sample of “Little Red Corvette.” Nikki Minaj did the obvious and appropriated “Darling Nikki.” His only true peer in lavender, Cam’ron, paid homage by rhyming “purple rain” with “purple pain” over a “Diamonds & Pearls” loop.
Kanye flipped him on “Big Brother” and infamously rhymed “Apollonia” with “Isotoners” on “Stronger.” Said big brother, Jay Z, interpolated “If I Was Your Girlfriend” on “03 Bonnie & Clyde.” He nicked the title of The Black Album from Prince too. In later years, the pair became famously close, and reportedly discussed doing a documentary.
2Pac once claimed he wanted to hang with Prince because they “loved women the same way.” So yes, that’s a “Do Me, Baby” sample on “To Live & Die in L.A.” We remember MC Hammer primarily for Zubaz pants, bankruptcy, and “U Can’t Touch This.” But his highest charting single was actually “Pray,” which jacked a loop of “When Doves Cry,” and ascended to number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Even second-hand, Prince realized his ultimate revenge on his ex-tourmate Rick James.
Prince’s experimental freedom and willingness to flout convention found a natural affinity with Bay Area rappers. E-40 quoted “Why You Treat Me So Bad” on the remix to “I Got 5 On It.” Upon Prince’s passing, he tweeted his despondence that we lost a “musical genius.” Without Prince—the original goon in tiny pants—the world couldn’t have remotely understood Lil B. The Based God sampled “I Will Die 4 U” on “Fed Time,” and once told MTV’s Sucka Free about their plans to collaborate (presumably on a Purple Flame mixtape).
Famously contentious with the genre he helped sculpt, Prince toyed with rapping as early as 1982, spitting bars on the B-Side “Irresistible Bitch.” By the late 80s, he viewed it as a mild threat—evidenced on The Black Album’s “Dead On It,” where he recruited Tony M to spew an anti-rap Jeremiad:
Riding in my Thunderbird on the freeway
I turned on my radio to hear some music play
I got a silly rapper talking silly shit instead
And the only good rapper is one that's dead on it
See the rapper's problem usually stem from being tone deaf
Pack the house then try to sing,
There won't be no one left (ha ha) (on it)
Parking lot's on fire, brothers peelin' out of the town
They say in disgust, they singin' their guts
Rappin' done let us down (down, down)
You got to be dead, on in.
Prince welcomed hip-hop back on 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls. “Sexy MF,” “P Control,” and “My Name Is Prince” raunchily meld hip-hop, pop, funk, and New Jack Swing. Always eager to embrace technology, Prince readily encouraged sampling, even deliberating the release of a seven-CD set of instrumentals that producers could reference without paying royalties to Warner Bros. As he warbled on 1988’s "I Wish U Heaven:" "Take this beat, I don't mind / Got so many others, they're so fine."
He enlisted Big Daddy Kane to remix “Bat Dance,” but it never saw an official release. He conscripted J-Swift of The Pharcyde to remix “Letitgo,” one of the most unsung gems in his catalogue. But Paisley Park only released only a single hip-hop album (from forgotten Minneapolis native, T.C. Ellis.).
As the millennium wound down, Prince collaborated with Chuck D on “Undisputed” and released “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold,” featuring an “Adam & Eve Remix” with Eve, the pitbull in a skirt. A separate CD-single boasted a Neptunes edit and Q-Tip verse.
As he grew more religious, the “Darling Nikki” composer occasionally took umbrage with hip-hop’s violent imagery and foul language, but his intersections never stopped. Even his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith came under the auspices of his frequent collaborator, ex-Sly and the Family Stone bassist, Larry Graham—who happens to be Drake’s uncle.
A reported cameo on Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” never materialized, but Prince’s influence still managed to hang over untitled, unmastered. “Me and Kendrick always talked about doing a sort of Black Album, like how Prince did back in the day,” TDE’s Punch said earlier in 2016. On this year’s Purple Reign, Future turned Lake Minnetonka into a pool of promethazine. Its standout track, a sluggish death march called “Perky’s Calling,” now feels like a grim harbinger to Prince’s demise.
Over the weekend, Young Thug posted a photo of Prince holding a rose in a white ruffled pantsuit, fully unbuttoned. His caption read, “I quit.” Without Prince, its unclear where he could’ve started.
This untimely end caused massive bereavement in the rap world from both those you’d expect (Questlove, Timbaland, Danny Brown) to those who might not (Soulja Boy, Freddie Gibbs, El-P). It goes without saying that every R&B singer of the last 30 years owes some creative debt to the late funk virtuoso. Ty Dolla said, “he’s the reason I play guitar like I do…the reason I do my harmonies the way I do.” Anderson Paak chimed in: “I don’t think y’all understand how funky Prince was.”
But it goes deeper than brief online encomiums and sample litanies. If hip-hop’s fundamental tenet is the wild style, Prince embodied that spirit better than all others, instilling a sense of fearlessness, creative risk, flamboyant dress, and infectious melodies to several generations. If Lil Wayne and Andre 3000 are two of the most influential artists of the last half-century, Prince is the purple progenitor, the creator of abstruse shades that Crayola could never copy.
That’s not to say that none have tried. For all its frequent flashes of brilliance, Andre’s Love Below received the Best Album Grammy for what was essentially a Prince imitation. While Lil Wayne’s creative breakthrough only came after he re-discovered the artist. “It was the way he pronounced words and the way he used his voice. It was the way that he explored,” ” Wayne told me in 2014. “He wasn’t afraid of how he sounded because he knew what he was saying and how he was saying it would always sound good.”
But now the exploration has abruptly ended, the jumpsuits carefully folded and sent off to the Smithsonian, the absurd finality feeling slightly more real with every passing hour. Prince is ashes and no one exists who can replace him. If there is a God, he’s gone now.
Jeff Weiss will be purple forever. Follow him on Twitter.