There is no one way to define Prince. Never afraid to experiment, to buck trends or to swerve left when the world expected him to go right, Prince's long and illustrious career is a testament to his relentless musicianship. Prince was an artist's artist. He was influenced by the greats—from David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix to The Beatles and Joni Mitchell to Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder—and it can be heard in his vast array of albums spanning more than three decades.
Pop, rock, R&B, funk, jazz—even hip-hop. Nothing was off-limits for Prince. His keen understanding and love of different types of music made his own so singular. Here was a man unafraid of pushing himself and twisting conventions (consider his bouncy, apocalyptic rock 'n' roll on "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," or his satirical proto-house on "All the Critics Love U in New York") to write and perform and live freely as a true artist. But if there's a downside to Prince's many accomplishments, it's that his catalogue is almost too vast to approach. Prince has done everything. And now that his music is available across streaming services, all these different facets of Prince are at everyone's fingertips, all at once. So where does one begin with Prince and his staggeringly rich career? Here are five different sides of Prince to explore.
So you want to get into: Mainstream Prince?
First: There's nothing wrong with Mainstream Prince. The thing about Mainstream Prince is that it's better than 95 percent of major label music. It's not "mainstream" in a way that is at all cheap or shallow. And that's an important distinction to remember when listening to Prince's music. He is an artist and a musical genius first, which means that his hits (and there are many, from the delicious "Pop Life" to the entirety of the Purple Rain album) are equal parts intelligent and fun.
Anybody could dive into any of Prince's many greatest hits collections and find something worthwhile. But if you want to start with basics and sample the full breadth of his talent, start with The Hits/The B-Sides, a collection that highlights Prince's sharpest and most popular hits while also showcasing the deep cuts that deserve a second look. "Erotic City," a B-side to "Let's Go Crazy" from the Purple Rain soundtrack, is an indelible classic in its own right: Growing up, I had no idea "Erotic City," wasn't a single based on how often I heard it on the radio. And then, of course, there are the songs like "Kiss" and "1999" that are such big hits that they transcend earthly ideas of popularity. Don't overlook them. They're that popular for a reason.
So you want to get into: Prince, the Musician's Musician?
There are multi-instrumentalists, and then there is Prince, a man who played 28 instruments on his debut album in addition to writing all of the music and performing all of the vocals (he was 19 at the time, by the way). Prince was nothing if not an ambitious, perfectionist experimentalist. His deft and once-in-a-lifetime skills allowed him to flirt with pop chart success and progressive instrumentation simultaneously.
Whether it meant executing a mind blowing guitar riff to frighten your favorite psych or hard rock bands ("Let's Go Crazy" from Purple Rain and "I'm Yours" from For You) or channeling the 4/4 synth rhythms of proto-house deep cuts like "All the Critics Love U in New York," Prince was never afraid to make music that challenged and pleased even the most finicky of listeners. This writer loves "BREAKDOWN" from ART OFFICIAL AGE, one of Prince's last records. The track floats seamlessly between the numerous genres that came to define Prince's career, proving he is hear for crisp melodies and off-kilter structures and rhythms was not lost to age.
Playlist: "I'm Yours" (maybe the best Prince guitar riff ever) / "Let's Go Crazy" / "Bambi" / "All the Critics Love U in New York" (proto house) / "Christopher Tracy's Parade" / "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" / all of Lovesexy / "7" / "BREAKDOWN"
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Black People's Prince?
Prince was always a capital-B Black artist, even if his casual fans were unaware or uninterested in that portion of his catalog. If anything, Prince represented the diversity of black people's music, from rock and funk to R&B and gospel. Black people made it all from the start, and we were capable of transforming and mutating society's collective understanding of the genres, too. No one exemplified that mastery quite like Prince.
But some tracks were undeniably blacker than others. Many of them stemmed from his earliest and most recent albums. Prince began as an undeniable black people's artist ("Do Me, Baby," from the perfect and fun Controversy can still be heard on regular rotation for "hits and diaries" radio stations across the country), transitioned into a pop star and legend, and finally won the freedom to make whatever music he pleased. They are groovy ("I Wanna Be Your Lover") or loving ("Baby") or even hits for other black artists ("I Feel for You," which Chaka Khan perfectly covered). Here, you'll find Prince laying the foundation for his later masterpieces, but imbuing in each song touchstones of contemporary black genres like funk and R&B.
So you want to get into: Political Prince?
Prince never hid his political beliefs, but many people were too distracted by the sex, the melodies, and the purple to dive deeper into this side of the artist. Take a listen to "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," a Little Richard-like throwback that sounds more relevant than ever ("Ronnie, talk to Russia before it's too late / before they blow up the world," he croons).
Although Controversy, his short and sweet 1980 album, was his most explicitly political, Prince included politically-minded tracks on most of his albums. Sign O' the Times, one of his later experimental masterpieces, touched on a broad range of subjects, from drug abuse to natural disasters (Prince was an avid environmentalist until his death) to nuclear holocaust (something he alluded to on Controversy as well).
Even Prince's less explicitly outspoken tracks were imbued with multiple narratives. "Sometimes It Snows in April," a more vaguely political track from his film Under the Cherry Moon, also contemplates ideas of mortality and ephemerality. Prince was not just interested in the vitality of his life but in that of the world as a whole.
Playlist: "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" / all of Controversy / "Around the World in a Day" / "America" / "Sometimes it Snows in April" / "Sign O' the Times" / all of Love Symbol Album (especially "7" and "The Morning Papers")
Apple Music | Spotify
So you want to get into: Hypersexual Prince?
Yes, Prince found religion in the 80s and later became a Jehovah's Witness in the new millennium. But that certainly never stopped the artist from testing the boundaries of sexuality. As a black male artist, Prince utilized the delicacy of his features and his stretchy voice (he could easily reach deep tenors, ear-piercing falsettos, or femme-forward vocal manipulations) to give life to his music.
Prince was most explicit in his earliest days. Think "Soft and Wet" off of his debut album: "Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane / That I wanna lose in you / Baby can you stand the pain," he croons, proving contemporary pop music is practically chaste compared to what our parents were listening to back in the day. On Dirty Mind, his third demo album, Prince pushed boundaries further, whether speaking frank and plain, like on "Head," or tackling incestuous fantasies, like on "Sister." Sex, like all things Prince, was ripe for dismantling and deconstructing, ultimately building something weirder and more interesting than your average human could muster.
Playlist: "Erotic City" / "Soft and Wet" / all of Dirty Mind (especially "Head" and "Sister") / "Lady Cab Driver" / "If I Was Your Girlfriend" / "Scarlet Pussy" / "Horny Toad" / "Pheremone"
Apple Music | Spotify
Illustration by Zoe Priest
Britt Julious's favorite Prince song ever is "I Would Die 4 U." Follow her on Twitter.