Why Prince matters in music history

Over his nearly four-decade career, Prince innovated, experimented, confounded, influenced, mentored and plain rocked. We won't see the likes of him again.

Be it genre, style, sexuality, career management — Prince bent the rules, usually expertly

Singer-songwriter Prince performs a concert in Antwerp Sportpaleis in November 2010. (Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps you sang along to Purple Rain in high school or surreptitiously listened to the shocking Darling Nikki in a covert corner. You undoubtedly grooved to 1999 at a wedding or to ring in the millennium. You might have dropped When Doves Cry or Nothing Compares 2 U onto a break-up playlist at one point. If you're lucky, you got to see Let's Go Crazy performed live. 

With more than 100 million records sold around the globe, Prince's music has occupied the world's pop-music soundtrack for more than three decades and, when you take a closer look and listen, it's easy to see why. 

Some of history's most acclaimed artists are melting pots, able to absorb the essence of earlier influences and channel it into fresh, innovative creations. By soaking up the music of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, the Beatles and even contemporaries such as Michael Jackson, Prince carved a new path with his distinct sound.

Prince 'bragged. Then he lived up to it,' says George Stroumboulopoulos

7 years ago
Duration 0:40
The music journalist on Prince's talent, confidence and agency.

Few artists can claim to have encompassed infectious funk, blistering rock, soulful R&B and dazzling, melodic pop over the span of an entire career. Prince did that just on the 1987 masterwork Sign O' The Times alone. Respectively, songs Hot Thing, The Cross, Adore and I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man befit the aforementioned stylistic descriptions.

Virtuoso. Innovator. Trailblazer. 

Born to a jazz pianist and a singer, the self-taught musical prodigy (who played guitar, piano, drums, bass, saxophone and more) was a font of creativity, experimentation and proliferation from the very start. Signed to his first record contract in his late teens, he is said to be the youngest artist in Warner Bros. history given complete artistic control — apparently all it took was top brass witnessing the 18-year-old at work in the recording studio. 

Tributes flow for Prince

7 years ago
Duration 6:44
From sharing wistful remembrances to joining banging block parties, Prince fans are mourning the music icon. Eli Glasner reports

"All these hip-hop artists, the first thing they do is start their own label and lock their business down," he told longtime rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis in The Word in 2004. "We had a lot to do with that." (In addition to referring to himself in the third person, Prince also on occasion used the plural pronoun. This may have been influenced by his penchant, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, for using pseudonyms when writing and producing, including Christopher, Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind).

His 1978 studio album debut For You contains one song co-written with former producer Chris Moon. The rest was all Prince: he composed the music, wrote the lyrics, sang, performed all of the instruments, arranged and produced the album. He continued to write, produce, arrange and play most of the instruments on all of his recordings for the rest of his life. 

Prolific Prince's vast oeuvre is legendary, encompassing a dizzying number of albums and myriad tracks, running from banging dance floor anthems to soaring ballads to double entendre-filled booty call jams to psychedelic endeavours. Many artists would have killed to boast songs as singles or on their albums that he tossed off as B-sides (She's Always in My Hair, Another Lonely Christmas) or gave away (4 the Tears In Your Eyes, donated for the We Are the World longplayer, Manic Monday for the Bangles). There are reports he maintained a trove of thousands of unpublished material, as well. 

Iconoclast. Profane. Experimental. 

Beyond straddling musical genres, Prince served as an iconoclast who refused to conform to Western society's perceptions of masculinity and gender norms. 

"Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" Prince asked in his track Controversy. "I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I am something that you will never understand," he sang in I Would Die 4 U. You could argue that his musical alter ego Camille was a man or a woman. 

Prince’s legacy

7 years ago
Duration 6:31
Special guests Shad (host of CBC Radio’s q) and Garvia Bailey (music journalist and radio host) share their insights on Prince’s musical legacy

"He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high, heeled boots. Epic," rapper Frank Ocean recalled in an online tribute. "He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity."

Truly, Prince wasn't afraid to bend the rules with fashion. A permed bouffant, expertly kohl-lined eyes, high-heels, ruffled blouses, plunging necklines, butt-less pants, lace confections, crop tops, floppy hats and bell-bottoms are just some of the gender-fluid looks he's favoured over the years — none of which detracted from the fact that he was an unabashedly, aggressively sexual man (at least in his earlier music) who loved the ladies. Of which there were famously many

George Stroumboulopoulos on Prince's gender fluidity and diversity

7 years ago
Duration 0:58
The music journalist reflects on how the late singer-songwriter challenged gender norms and championed diversity.

And speaking of the ladies, though some of his early songs remain quite shockingly explicit (even by today's standards), the sex symbol largely stood out for his lyrical celebration of women as complex beings with the same urges as men. His salacious songs Darling Nikki and Sugar Walls, the latter sung by Sheena Easton, were among those cited by the Parents Music Resource Center, a group co-founded by Al Gore's wife Tipper, which successfully lobbied for parental advisory stickers on some music releases.

That said, the Seventh Day Adventist-raised singer's 2001 conversion to Jehovah's Witness seems to have complicated this legacy, with Prince disavowing his earlier super-sexy persona and making comments against gays and gay marriage in more recent years. 

Litigious. Ambitious. Intractable. 

Whether employing a seductive baritone or teasing falsetto, Prince was perhaps most charismatic, masterful and, above all, exuberant onstage. The diminutive artist's outsized talent was such that he could (and would) cover another artist's signature song — say the Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Beyoncé's Crazy in Love or Radiohead's Creep —and astound with his interpretation. 

No jerseys or face paint for this guy: Who but Prince would have the confidence to attend sporting events like NBA games, or on this occasion, the French Open tennis final, with a walking stick? (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

His commanding nature meant he could also wrap an arena filled with fans around his little finger. Standing solo onstage with just an acoustic guitar, he could (and would) easily lead tens of thousands in a singalong of, say, Raspberry Beret, while his backing band took a breather. 

That supreme confidence in himself, as well as his tenacity, was evident in the famous battles he waged for artistic independence and to protect his image. Other famous artists, like Brian Wilson, had shelved projects as Prince did with The Black Album in the late 1980s. But who else would have the gall — or the bizarre inspiration — to change one's name to an unpronounceable glyph to protest a record label contract?

Apparently the same fiercely protective artist who thought it was a good idea to sue fans who upload videos featuring his songs or link to bootlegs of his music online.

In an industry marked by tumult, Prince sought out ways to stay relevant and profitable. He released songs on his website, unlike many artists from his generation, and a concert ticket-CD package deal helped 2004's Musicology become his bestselling release in over a decade.

Mentor. Flirt. Maestro. 

Prince championed many recording artists throughout his career, whether it was contemporaries like The Time or older artists he revered, like Mavis Staples. He influenced countless others who heard his music. While artists such as Lenny Kravitz, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Janelle Monae and others might be considered modern day successors, simply stated, his unique and astounding contribution to popular music isn't likely to be replicated anytime soon. 

'Prince was about the art,' says George Stroumboulopoulos

7 years ago
Duration 1:05
The music journalist on Prince's focus on the importance of the artist and how he circumvented the system

He leaves an impressive legacy of tracks: just when you think you've recalled his biggest hits or greatest songs, yet another springs to mind. The Beautiful Ones. When You Were Mine. Sign O' The Times. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Kiss. Little Red Corvette. Cream. Adore. Musicology. If I Was Your Girlfriend

He sparked myriad emotions — joy, sadness, love, lust, outrage, elation — in his fans, who are assuredly mourning his death and celebrating his life in the most fitting way possible: with his music.

Prince dead at 57

7 years ago
Duration 4:45
Authorities responded to medical emergency call from singer's home recording studio


Jessica Wong

Senior digital writer

Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at Jessica.Wong@cbc.ca.

With files from Chris Iorfida