Image by Paul Raffaele
What I loved most was the aggressive delicacy of Prince. It was a trick, a sly manner of distracting audiences before they had a chance to realize what would hit them. His lithe body (he only stood at 5'2") and delicate curls and general gorgeousness were the first draw. I am sure I heard numerous Prince tracks before I remember actually seeing him, but his visage—the pointed use of the color purple like a nod to his ascending state of royalty, the ruffles adorning his shirt collar, his perfectly applied use of eyeliner—is what sticks with me most.
Prince cycled through numerous eras and identities. Most iconic was the Purple Rain era. When a casual listener thinks of Prince, they think of this aesthetic. They see the delicate, low-cut blouses that appear almost Victorian. They imagine the impossibly tight pants that hug his limbs while still giving him room to breathe as he pounced across the stage like a formidable predator hunting its prey (in this case, we are they prey. We are at once claimed by our predator and captive to his whims).
Coiffed with a full, lush afro, Prince’s last look was a return to his original form, as seen vaguely on the cover of For You, his 1978 debut. I believe we come into many facets of ourselves as we age, but deep within is our truest selves. The Prince we know—primped and preened and luscious—might not be the whole truth. The afro felt like a remembrance of where he started, a freedom lined in the vast space consumed by his tight coils. I feel similarly, too. When I wear my fro, I am consuming all parts of the world, taking up space that might not have been mine, proudly announcing my body and spirit for all to see. Through each era of Prince was an underlying sense of self, a true rebellious spirit seemingly unparalleled as a black man, of course, but as a man, period.
1978's For You and 2014's Art Official Age
This sense of self also translated to his music. Think of the crippling devastation of “Nothing Compares 2 U” or the extreme sensuality of “Do Me Baby” or even the religious devotion of “I Would Die 4 U”: Each differs but each also offers a part of a Prince that is raw as much as it is loving. Truly great ballads (like “Nothing Compares 2 U”) have the power to make us feel both alive and unnerved. Prince excelled at this, making his music a slick kiss upon one’s body as lovely and precious as Prince himself.
I'm reminded of my favorite line of his, from the underrated “Erotic City.” In the second verse, Prince’s warbled vocals utter, “Every time I comb my hair / thoughts of you get in my eye.” The line is playful in its metaphor. His lover is everything to him and in him, something he cares for everyday, something he manipulates overtime, something that slips back into his consciousness as he goes about his everyday routine. It is the perfect encapsulation of love and lust and, also, a hearty nod to the physical. The physical and mental don’t stay on separate realms. Rather, they intertwine, crossing the wires to our senses, fully embodying our true selves.
The reality of older age means the reality of our idols dying before we are ready. I didn't know Prince would pass less than four years later after I first saw him play massive and intimate shows in Chicago, but the urgency of great performers means you make sacrifices to experience them live. Time is both precious and inescapable. Prince slinks across the stage, wields a guitar as if it is a lover (gripping its body with equal parts love and aggression), and builds layers of lyrics that seep deep into the psyche of listeners across the globe. When given the chance to experience that, one doesn’t miss it.
We've yet to experience new artists (at least male artists) as bold, forthright and experimental as Prince. His aesthetics—as strange and outlandish and excessive as they were—also drew in eyes and turned those watchers into listeners. Truly great visions are the kind one can't turn away from when given a glimpse. His love of everything from high-heeled boots to tight, cropped underwear made him an anti-hero of American black masculinity. For me, a woman fearful of the power, anger, and dominance of men around me, Prince was a figure who first confused me, then delighted me, then comforted me. His aversion to society’s beliefs of how he should look and act became a source of respite and excitement. What can't one do with such a strong sense of self? In Prince, we found something rare. Here was a black man, a righteous man, a loving and charismatic man, a delicate and proud man. It is not the only thing I remember about him, but it is one of the first and best.
In him, in the push and pull of his delicateness and beauty versus the fuel and loving fury of his music, I found a figure that felt true and right and precious. His balance made me a fan. His balance made him a star. I think this is how he won other fans, too. Prince played against the standards of the world, leaned in toward his weirdest and most interesting instincts, embraced the power of what we consider the feminine (how could one forget his embrace of female musicians throughout his career)—and we accepted it eagerly.
In his body and his manipulation of the appearance of his body was the truest sense of rock 'n' roll: rebellion, freedom, and grit all rolled into glitter and sex and sensuality and truth. I believed in him not because he needed true protection but because that dichotomy of his artistry was fuel for my creative mind. In the days since his passing, an outpouring of grief underlines this point. Because Prince was so fiercely himself, we could be, too.
Britt Julious is a writer from Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.