He only needed one name. For a stretch, he only needed a symbol.
I fell in love with Prince at the earliest possible age. As a child of the ’80s, Prince was among the first artists who earned my attention, my devotion, my money. I was too young to accept his millenial-closing party invitations, let alone to understand the sexually charged lyrics, but those early songs of lovers and cars and good times were tied to a charisma and talent that was undeniable. I was delirious. I wasn’t the only one.
When Purple Rain fell in 1984, everything changed for Prince. Suddenly we met Prince, the actor; Prince, the deeper songwriter; Prince, the cultural icon. From his performance in the movie of the same name to the striking album cover image, Prince had truly arrived. And those songs were ubiquitous. You couldn’t avoid them, not that you wanted to. The pain of “When Doves Cry.” The longing of “Purple Rain.” The spirituality of “I Would Die 4 U.” Prince became three-dimensional on Purple Rain, and it was a journey that continued through an era that valued superficiality.
The sex and swagger were always there, and Prince gladly played those cards until the end. But Prince’s music was also painting a vision of something better — a better self, a better America, a better world. He confronted a nuclear reality in the height of the Cold War. He eschewed racial and class divides in hopes of a unified humanity. He lamented cultural ills of gang violence and drug addiction, natural disasters and wars waged.
Nearly a decade after Purple Rain, Prince invited us to envision utopia together. “There will be a new city with streets of gold,” he sings on “7,” a symbolic song straight out of the biblical book of Relevation. Everything will eventually give way to a better way, a better world. We can and will be better. It wasn’t the last time he extended this invitation to us.
Beyond the memorable performances and music videos, awards and honors, sexuality and symbol, Prince’s greatest gift was one of encouragement. No subject was taboo. No person was left out. Every aspect of life was intended to be cherished, to be enjoyed, to be celebrated. He invited us to love ourselves and each other, and to work together to fill the world with beauty.
“Some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies.”
Prince, I can only hope you are truly happy now.