Last week, musician and producer Prince was found dead at his estate and recording studio Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Prince, known for his eccentric stage presence, skills as a guitarist and extensive songwriting, is a cultural icon. His death has since elicited an outpouring of grief from the music community.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson — yes, his real name really is Prince — in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1958, the musician released his first record, For You, at age 18 with Warner Bros Records. His musical style uniquely blended funk, dance and rock music, and Prince’s overtly sexual lyrics defied gendered expectations. On the title track of his third album Controversy, Prince pushed back at the outside voices attempting to define him, singing, “I just can’t believe all the things people say / Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” He would continue to blur the boundaries of gender and sexuality his entire career.
By 1984, Warner Bros. allowed him to begin producing albums other than his own, and he quickly went on to produce a record for the Time, who would go on to become his backup band the Revolution on Purple Rain. The semi-autobiographical movie, and its more notable soundtrack, put Prince on the map.
Two singles from the soundtrack (which the Recording Industry Association of America ranks as having gone platinum 13 times over) featured singles “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry,” both of which topped U.S. charts. The latter was the first major R&B hit to not feature a bass line —Prince, after recording the single, erased the bass line, telling the engineer in the studio, “Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait; they’ll be freaking” — and was such a smash hit that it bumped Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” out of the top position in the charts. Prince would become the only musician other than The Beatles to ever simultaneously have the number one movie, album and single in America.
Prince continued to write and record music prolifically throughout the 80s and 90s, for himself as well as artists like Stevie Nicks, Cyndi Lauper, Sinead O’Connor and Kate Bush. Over the course of his career, he would release 39 studio albums, the last, HITnRUN Phase Two, just months before his death. The musician was known for his intense perfectionism, often playing every instrumental part on his own albums, despite putting his backup bands through rigorous rehearsal.
Prince was an advocate for art, and his music helped to bridge his artistic vision with the mainstream. His 2007 Super Bowl performance captured this combination, as Prince performed a powerhouse rendition of “Purple Rain” for his largest audience ever, bathed in purple light during an actual torrential downpour.
The results of the musician’s autopsy and subsequent toxicology reports have yet to be released, and a cause of death is unconfirmed. Prince’s remains were cremated and are being kept at an undisclosed location. He was 57.