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Prince Was a Genius No Matter How You Define It

If Prince was a peerless icon who represented the pinnacle of achievement in contemporary pop music and there is no one else like him, what does his passing mean for the future of musical geniuses?

Prince playing live at a 1999 concert. Credit: CAMERA PRESS/Wattie Cheung

In the aftermath of his tragic death on Thursday, journalists have found novel ways to refer to super-musician Prince as the "great purple genius of Paisley Park" and "the unparalleled genius." R&B beloved Frank Ocean waxed poetic about Prince as both a "vanguard and a genius." Guitarist Andrew Watt referred to Prince as "last greatest living performer" in an Instagram post that somehow got newly-dreadlocked Justin Bieber, who is surely not on the list of greatest living performers, miffed about the subjectivity of the claim. And a David Marchese-penned Vulture article titled "Everyone Is Saying Prince Was a Genius—Here's Why" begins with the mammoth statement, "It's a given that Prince was almost inarguably the most purely talented pop star of all time." Marchese then goes on to deconstruct Prince's genius, identifying five key criteria: his singing, songwriting, production, guitar playing, and the scope/volume of his output over the years.

That's cool: I've freely used the term "genius" myself to describe Prince. While the traditional Western definition of genius has undergone more than a few updates since its debut in ancient Greece, a genius is essentially any person who is widely or unanimously acclaimed for an extraordinary, soaring talent, or for brilliance—such as da Vinci, Shakespeare, Einstein, Hitchcock, Mozart, Liszt, or Glenn Gould, to name just a handful of obvious dudes. Genius has a series of closely related terms, as well. There's virtuoso, which usually refers to a person with extraordinary technical ability; there's prodigy, which refers to a young genius; there's auteur, which refers to a skillful artist whose works demonstrate a consistent aesthetic vision; there's savant, which is someone whose genius seems innate, even if that genius is related to a disability or neurological impairment; and in music, there's maestro, which is a term of commendation given to an exceptional conductor or composer who has reached a level of mastery.

The challenge in assessing geniuses in pop music is that most of our ideas about musical brilliance come from entrenched Western classical tropes historically defined by white men. In contrast to Marchese's criteria for genius, writer Denis Dutton has claimed that a musical genius is a person who creates compositional works that leave us awed with a sense of beauty. To be considered a genius, that composer has to make work that is considered original and innovative, and that demonstrates a profound variation of ideas and associations between concepts that are often unexpected. Dutton goes on to note that the skills of a musical genius have to be intuitive and felt rather than purely analytic, and that productivity is a great plus, too (well, actually, he says that "vast output is not a sufficient condition for creative genius, but it is difficult to name a creative genius who was not highly productive"). He also cites character traits: musical geniuses are often introverted, eccentric, iconoclastic, and autonomous in their decision-making.

Clearly Prince fit each one of those criteria in spades; you'd be hard-pressed to find a single soul who would disagree—even a cranky Justin Bieber. Prince very definitely embodied that classical conception of genius: He was a relentlessly enigmatic, almost solipsistic figure who crafted widely-acknowledged masterpieces, particularly his slate of classic albums including 1979's Prince, 1980's Dirty Mind, 1981's Controversy, 1982's 1999, 1984's Purple Rain, and 1988's Sign o' the Times. Like The Beatles and Stevie Wonder's respective back-to-back concept album masterpieces in the 1960s and 1970s, Prince created his masterpieces in a brilliantly successive fashion. True to the definition of musical genius, he composed music that featured profound musical sophistication and harmonic complexity (not unlike a Stevie Wonder or a Duke Ellington before him) and he managed to synthesize so many different musical strands—rock, rockabilly, pop, funk, synth funk, disco, new wave, country, and so much more—into a seamless whole.

In the lineage of performer-producers like Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren before him, Prince was something of a one-man band in that he functioned as the performer, producer, songwriter, business man, and even film star often at the same time. Prince is the sole person credited on his debut album, 1978's For You; he boastfully played 21 instruments. Yet despite his impressive chops, Prince's talent was never purely technical or analytical. He plumbed the soulful depths of intimacy and spirituality on classics songs like 1982's boudoir gem "Do Me Baby" and 1988's Earth, Wind & Fire-influenced masterpiece "Adore." If there was any doubt about Prince's genius, his brilliance was also confirmed during his lifetime by other widely acknowledge musical geniuses, including Miles Davis, who profusely gushed about the Purple One's work in his autobiography.

If Prince was a peerless icon who represented the pinnacle of achievement in contemporary pop music and there is no one else like him, what does his passing mean for the future of musical genius?

If Prince was a peerless icon who represented the pinnacle of achievement in contemporary pop music and there is no one else like him, what does his passing mean for the future of musical genius? The challenge with answering that question is that the term "genius" itself has become incredibly contested over the years. In Everything Is Obvious, a terrific book on the nature of common sense, sociologist Duncan Watts argues that there is no such thing as special people with innate extraordinary skills. Instead, he argues, geniuses are no more than the result of social and personal context—they possess qualities like drive or perseverance, they have attentive parents, etc. Some artists, including Mozart, become geniuses only after they die and we construct a movement to lionize them. Watts's revisionist line of thinking about the nature of genius is also backed up in certain quarters of contemporary neuroscience, psychology, and psychopathology, where genius is increasingly being seen as a social construct rather than an internal, innate quality.

Genius is also problematic because it's long been an exclusionary term. African American artists, historically denied full participation in American citizenship under slavery and Jim Crow, were often excluded from the category of genius or—in the case of visual art geniuses like Basquiat—obstructed from the full expression of their artistry by impinging discourses of primitivism and abjection. In popular music, rebel women like Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bjork, and Kate Bush are often left out of musical genius discussions even as the celebration of male musical genius (Frank Sinatra, for example) is sometimes rooted in men's ability to demonstrate traditionally female traits like expressiveness and sensitivity when they perform. Apparently, there is no such thing as a single standard.

Prince performing in London in 1996. Credit: CAMERA PRESS / Gavin Smith

Genius also happens to be a widely abused term that privileges technical mastery (think, guitar shedding) rather than depth of emotional interpretation (another reason why female interpreters like Ella Fitzgerald have been time and time again left out of the boys' club category of genius). And at its worst, classifying genius simply becomes a game of accumulation in which a musician becomes valued for how many instruments he or she can play. In those all too common situations, musicians are commended for being jacks of all trades rather than just being masters of one or two or a few.

Still, the exact type of genius that Prince represented—that self-contained performer who has the skill to write and arrange songs, produce (and sometimes engineer) recordings, play multiple instruments, and even handle business affairs like marketing and distribution, as well as operating a label—might be fleeting. That's because Prince came of age in the 1970s as a musician on the heels of 60s self-contained virtuosos like Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell, and the now-deceased icon developed his particular skills at a historical musical moment in the 1970s that privileged sophisticated musicianship, guitar rock wizardry, and recording studio experimentation. We don't live in that moment right now.

The pioneering "all-in-one" performer-producers of the 1980s and 1990s—including R&B stalwarts like Kashif and Prince and Meshell Ndegeocello, as well as rock legends like Steve Albini and Trent Reznor—in turn opened the floodgates to 21st century "bedroom" producers like Danger Mouse and Diplo. Significant changes in the use of technologies like multi-tracking, drum machines, synthesizers, and digital software over the decades ushered in the rise of self-contained production and composition in genres like dub, hip-hop, rock, and dance, which meant that almost anybody could be a one man (or woman) band with access to a modest amount of technology. In that context, almost anybody could be considered a genius, depending on the flexibility of the criteria you use. These changes in the nature of how music is made (and distributed) have lead to endless debates about whether a gifted producer like Kanye West is actually genius or not, or even how one can even assess the question of genius for music stars who clearly lack traditional musical skills.

Prince is a genius, by any standard, even as the very definition of genius changes with the times to become more open-ended and inclusive.

Increasingly, however, we're seeing a return to formerly elitist discussions of aesthetic mastery—the idea of the musician who plays traditional musical instruments with a consummate skill. Many of these 21st century musical "geniuses" also happen to be women—St. Vincent, Tune-Yards, and Esperanza Spalding are just a few contemporary artists who seem to be following in aspects of Prince's musical maestro footsteps. Jacob Collier, a 21-year-old British YouTube sensation and Quincy Jones-supported prodigy, harmonizes with himself and plays a plethora of instruments all at the same time through the use of filming and overdubbing techniques, as well as through his own customized gear. In some ways, he represents a new way of considering musical geniuses. While a musician like Collier is clearly riding on our prized classical notions of musical genius that are problematic because they represent an exclusionary elitism, his virtuoso musical skills also coincide with his skills at contemporary technological innovation (he builds his own hardware and is pushing the boundaries of immersive live performances, plus he's known for his nuanced utilization of social media to push his career) in ways that seem go beyond the stuffy old criteria for genius we've become accustomed to.

So, in light of the success of a new generation of musical maestros who might be pushing the envelope of genius in unprecedented ways, Prince is not the last greatest living performer. Maybe Justin Bieber was a little bit right about that, even if his timing was inconsiderate given that Prince had just passed. Still, Prince is a genius, by any standard, even as the very definition of genius changes with the times to become more open-ended and inclusive.

Dr. Jason King is Associate Professor and the founding faculty member of The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch School of the Arts. A musician, DJ, performer, producer, arranger and songwriter, curator, and journalist, Jason is also the host and curator of NPR&B, a 24/7 streaming radio channel on NPR dedicated to soul and R&B. His book 'The Michael Jackson Treasures' has been translated into more than seven languages. Follow him on Twitter.