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'1999' to Infinity: Robert Christgau Remembers Prince

Prince Rogers Nelson was the most gifted artist of the rock era.

Photo by Adam Mignanelli for Noisey

The only way to begin any tribute to Prince is by belaboring the obvious, which is an implausible hyperbole. Prince Rogers Nelson was the most gifted artist of the rock era. Not the greatest genius—just the most musical in the broadest sense. Singing, playing, songwriting, dancing, putting on a show—he was fabulous at all these things and fabulous at stardom itself, a provocateur with few equals who after major reversals proved himself a profiteer with few equals as well. His shifting trans-genre amalgam of funk and rock and pop and R&B was so original that he long pretended he was biracial even though both his hard-working failed-singer mother and his scuffling pianist father were African-American. His fanatical fanbase was and remains as ecumenical as his great rival Michael Jackson's, and more discerning.


With all that on the record, however, let me mention how much he owed both bizzers and rock critics. In 1977 Warner gave a black 19-year-old Minneapolis unknown an unprecedented complete-control contract only partly justified by 1979's "I Wanna Be Your Lover": three hooky minutes of shy-boy synth-guitar disco-funk that went 11 pop and No. 1 R&B. So it helped that soon Rolling Stone's Stephen Holden was creaming over the accompanying album's "blatant sexuality" as my sister Georgia Christgau's Village Voice review ventured prophetically: "He may not know how he feels, only that his feelings are strong enough to sing about." And while sales dipped with 1980's Dirty Mind, half an hour of audaciously radio-unfriendly rock demos including the three-in-a-bed "When You Were Mine," the incestuous "Sister," and the truly dirty-minded "Head," Prince's critical star kept rising.

Like 1981's Controversy and 1982's 1999, Dirty Mind earned a Rolling Stone rave and finished top 10 in the Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, and by 1999 there were finally more hits. But the historic breakthrough wasn't "1999" itself. It was "Little Red Corvette." It's hard to grasp now, but in 1982 the "death of disco" was still fueling hit radio's racist fear of offending its core demo with "urban" programming—not even a damn rock song about a woman too damn hot for the blatantly sexual Prince. When NYC's WPLJ finally put it in rotation, Warners A&R goddess Karin Berg phoned me just to crow about it. Beat steady and imposing, noisy guitar nailing synthed-up lyric, "Little Red Corvette" was Prince's trans-genre genius in action—without it, MJ's "Beat It" might never have cracked MTV. This kind of stage-tested, studio-documented proof that "rock" and "R&B" weren't mutually exclusive—funk patterns blunted by arena scale, soulful singing intensified by virtuosic shredding—will remain his greatest achievement.


All this action predated the summer 1984 launch of the Prince legend as we know it: the two-pronged release of the seriously gorgeous Purple Rain LP and the surprisingly enjoyable Purple Rain flick. For the next decade Prince would be the pop demigod the world mourns today, a prolific, hard-touring, reclusive cash machine who spent every spare minute laying down tracks in his Paisley Park compound—when he wasn't dreaming up movie concepts or bringing the gift of orgasm to bevies of darling Nikkis in his erotic city. The eros is fantasy, of course—his private life was well-guarded. But something not just soulful in his lithe falsetto, gruff baritone, and warm midrange made the fantasy irresistible. Lubricious, solicitous, insinuating, polymorphous, sometimes ungendered, his singing was confident without cock-rock aggression—friendly, good-humored, there for you.

But although the 1987 double-LP Sign 'O' the Times was his greatest album by acclamation, his obsessive overproduction led to musical dilution, his cinematic dreams were barely pretensions, and his sales never again approached Purple Rain levels. He was still creating some exceptional music. But with Paisley Park badly overextended by his rock-star extravagance, Prince blamed Warner for his commercial shortfall. Thus ensued his Artist Masquerading as a Rune phase and his insistence that his contract rendered him a "slave." Exploited? Always arguable. Slave? Show some respect.


As I once put it whilst praising Prince's exceptional 1992 rune album, I am neither smart nor stupid enough to parse this African-American's racial politics. But I am arrogant enough to insist that chattel slavery is too huge a blot on humanity to exploit as a metaphor, and to observe that the political smarts my critical clan sensed in the most gifted artist of the rock era were a fantasy. Sure he dubbed his band the Revolution and wrote one called "Ronnie Talk to Russia," but that was about the bomb just like "1999" was about the bomb—our most exhilarating bomb song ever. By temperament, Prince always believed the end times were coming. It was this innate belief that inspired his scattershot God-mongering and made his sexual extremism feel so urgent. And it's why the horror of his only child's infant death in 1996 ultimately drove him from the Seventh Day Adventism of his raising to the Jehovah's Witness millenarianism he espoused throughout this millennium. That didn't wreck his music either—because his feelings were always strong enough to sing about, nothing could. But it did put a crimp in his sexual extremism.

Yet it's a tribute to his musicality, his intelligence, his will power, and his capacity for change that in the wake of his '90s traumas he proved he'd been right about Warner all along. Marketing directly to his fanatical fanbase via an internet he saw early was made for the job, he earned a far bigger return packaging some of the many unreleased masters he owned than he would have with the most generous label deal. Yet as the decade wore on he further refurbished his legend by wangling one-offs from Columbia, Universal, and even eventually Warner. And he rebuilt his touring career as well—in 2004 alone, he sold a million concert tickets.

Prince had always told us he just wanted to get through this thing called life. But now that his own physical life has ended, his artistic life will continue. Who knows how many unreleased masters remain—dozens if not hundreds. And find the viral video where he destroys the Eric Clapton solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Reflect that he's never released a full-fledged live album. Pray his last will and testament makes that possible now.

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.