Prince: Return of the prodigal

Prince enjoyed a purple reign during the 1980s, but messy wranglings with record companies led to bizarre personal behaviour, and the 1990s were spent in the musical wilderness. Now he is back, undiminished, with a new album that reminds us of his enduring pop genius
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The Independent Online

The billboard ads tell their own story. From every public surface in Britain, and the back of every magazine on the shelves, peers a familiar face. It's a face which, two decades ago, was (alongside those of Madonna and Michael Jackson) one of the three most famous on earth.

These glossy signs of the times carry a simple message: the artist formerly - and happily, once more - known as Prince has come in from the cold. It's been a long time coming.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born on 7 June 1958 to John Nelson, a jazz pianist, and his wife Mattie, a backing singer, and grew up in the black suburbs of North Minneapolis. Although his parents divorced when he was very young, Prince's musical heritage shaped the course of his life. His destiny was fixed at the age of 10 when he was lifted on stage at a James Brown concert, and found himself carried backstage by a bodyguard. "The reason I liked James Brown so much," he would later say, "is that on my way backstage I saw some of the finest girls I'd ever seen in my life."

Teaching himself to play not only guitar but also piano, sax and drums, Prince was an uncommonly gifted teen prodigy who assembled bands (with such names as Grand Central) around himself, but effortlessly outshone his peers. In 1977, Warner Records' Lenny Waronker, impressed by a Prince solo demo, took a chance on giving the angelic, afro-haired Prince, still 18, the chance to release an album.

For You was a critical rather than commercial success, but Warner kept faith with him through albums which were R&B hits, if not crossover sellers. 1999, particularly its anthemic title track, was a mainstream smash, but Prince truly broke through with 1984's Purple Rain, a fantasy biopic which established him in the public mind as a too-good-to-be-true dream hybrid of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and, of course, James Brown, with a chameleonic image and a dandyish, polysexual persona.

The Purple Rain soundtrack album broke sales records on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the years which followed, Prince made some of the most sublime popular music ever committed to vinyl. To take two random examples: "If I Was Your Girlfriend", his exquisitely observed tableau of obsessive love ("Would you run to me if somebody hurt you... Even if that somebody was me?") or "Gett Off", surely the funniest, filthiest song about sex in the popular canon ("You ought to be happy that dress is still on/I heard the rip when you sat down!"). One of his albums from that era, Sign O' the Times, is regularly (and rightly) hailed as one of the greatest masterpieces in pop history, and such hits as "Alphabet Street", "Kiss", "When Doves Cry" and "Raspberry Beret" are revered by those who don't remember their original release as much as by those who do.

Prince's modus operandi has always been an eccentric one. The ultimate control freak, he built his live-in studio complex, Paisley Park, and rarely gave press interviews. (When he did grant an audience to a journalist, he would ban tape recorders and even pencils, forcing the reporter to memorise the conversation.)

After dominating the worlds of rock, pop and soul so effortlessly in the 1980s, Prince's career was derailed in the 1990s by a messy and protracted divorce from Warner, which resulted in the artist symbolically severing links with his past by changing his name to an unpronounceable logo, and regularly eyelinering his cheek with the word SLAVE.

Following his last major hit single (1994's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", amazingly his only UK No 1), Prince's commercial stock has steadily fallen and, aside from a false start with the EMI-released triple disc Emancipation, his albums have been given only limited releases on his own NPG label, sold mainly via mail order and the internet.

Throughout the eras of Madchester, grunge and Britpop, figures such as Prince - aloof, flamboyant, outrageously talented - fell out of favour. In a new age of musical Roundheads (Stone Roses, Nirvana, Oasis), such an unrepentant Cavalier didn't fit. A telling index of Prince's perceived naffness came in an episode of Friends, when Ross and Chandler were debating whether to visit the Hard Rock Café. Ross: "I'm telling you I like the food!" Chandler: "You like the Purple Rain display!"

Prince's partial retreat from the spotlight wasn't purely down to changing fashions and music biz politics. Prince married his backing singer, Mayte Garcia. In 1997, the publicity surrounding the couple's first baby, born with a skull deformity, was sufficiently traumatic to cause this already private man to hide away completely. (Their marriage was later annulled, and he has since married former Paisley Park employee Manuela Testolini.)

Then came religion. The finely balanced tension between the sacred and the sexual had always been a driving force behind Prince's best work, but stories emanating from Minnesota seemed to suggest that he'd been tipped too far in one direction: Prince, along with his bassist Larry Graham, had been roaming the suburbs knocking doors on behalf of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In recent years, however, a critical and artistic rehabilitation has been under way. First of all, you started to hear his records in hip nightclubs again. Then you started to notice other people's records making musical nods in his direction. Pharrell Williams, the production wizard from The Neptunes has called Prince a genius. Prince was recently - somewhat belatedly - inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and invited to perform at the Grammys with Beyoncé Knowles.

The culmination of this resurgence of respect is a new recording deal with Warner's arch-rivals Sony, and a new album, Musicology, (which is getting the biggest promotional push he's had in years; hence those ubiquitous billboards). This release will inevitably be hailed by those who haven't been paying attention as a "return to form", but the truth is that reports of his artistic death have been greatly exaggerated. Listen to any Prince album from the wilderness years, and you'll hear at least three moments to make you tremble in awe.

Musicology contains plenty of reminders why this man is considered by many - this writer included - to be the greatest musical genius of the pop era (and you don't just stop being a genius overnight). Cocky, confident and sassy ("put your name on this pre-nup and let's all hit the disco!" he quips in "Illusion, Coma, Pimp and Circumstance"), Prince is sounding like a man who's emerging from a decade-long sulk.

Tales that Prince was excising all references to sex from his music were disheartening. Some would argue that Prince minus the sex is a weakened beast (and they would have a point). But the reality is far more secular. "They can bug my phone/Peep around my home/ They'd only c U and me/Makin' love inside," he sings on "Call My Name", and "On the Couch" is pure filth ("I wanna go down south, yeah"). In fact, religion rears its head only on "Dear Mr Man" (effectively "Sign O' the Times" two decades on), wherein he starts quoting the Book of Matthew.

Overall, he's sounding ready to have "fun" again. Last year's Glastonbury no-show left a sour taste in the mouth, but as anyone who saw his One Night Alone tour in 2002 can attest, this remarkably well-preserved man puts on a show like nobody else alive. If Prince's renewed zeal for the public eye means he can be lured back to a British stage, maybe we can all party like it's 1984.

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