Prince is dead. It sounds implausible, even in a world where the only kinds of people are those who will die and those who already have. But if there were two types of people on the planet, Prince always seemed to belong to a third. And now he’s done the only ordinary thing any of us could ever imagine him doing.
There is no fear of hyperbole when remembering Prince. He was the best recording artist of his time, the most versatile, more influential to a broader array of artists and genres than anyone. As long as it’s not a horn, he might have been the best at playing any basic pop instrument. He was a singular tour de force, using each of his albums to defy silly record-store categories. He could be as energetic and defiant as James Brown, as traditionally masculine as Teddy Pendergrass, as unbounded as David Bowie, as vulnerable as Marvin Gaye, as insightful as Paul Simon and as electric as Michael Jackson. At the same damn time.
He was the only one who could dream of being so much and then summon the talent and ambition to pull it off.
No one could simply encapsulate his career or his influence. When he was with us, it was hard enough to make sense of him, let alone sum him up. He moved too fast for that, almost to his own detriment. By the time the world could digest 1999, he was already onto Purple Rain, which somehow managed to be hard rock, soul, pop and gospel at once. Before we could fully comprehend that—but after buying roughly a zillion copies—he was on to Around the World in a Day. Two years (and one bad movie) later, he was on to Sign O the Times, a double album with no filler to be found. Next thing you knew, he was butt naked on the cover of Lovesexy, rebelling against the strictures of the nascent CD format by making the whole thing one continuous track. That’s how he wanted us to listen.
His mistakes came when he tried too hard to be like someone else, whether it was the awkward attempts at incorporating hip-hop (dear God, the gun microphone) or smoothing his sound to make R&B more palatable to ’90s urban radio.
But doing what he wanted? That’s what Prince at his best was all about. Appearing on the cover of Dirty Mind in a trench coat and G-string, releasing “When Doves Cry” without a bass line or demanding to do a movie when he’d never acted in his life. He wore what he wanted. He said what he wanted. He did what he wanted, fully aware that we couldn’t help but indulge him. Why? Because he was the baddest motherfucker on Earth, a tiny man who somehow oozed masculinity while playing with a traditionally female aesthetic.
He was the only man who would dare tell Michael fucking Jackson that he wouldn’t join him on the title track to the follow-up to Thriller.
His songs all center on that most precious commodity in music: audacity. Few things are more daring than emotional intelligence combined with physical freedom. They were ever-shifting Venn diagrams of sex and love, confidence and insecurity, hope and resignation. He had the rare talent to write songs for women that actually sounded like they were written by women. In other words, he was man enough to sound like he wasn’t.
Where Bowie was great at being so many people, Prince’s gift was showing so many sides of himself. The expressions of raw sexuality were so pointed and clever, and the romanticism was so measured, each with equal parts self-assuredness and self-awareness. He knew what he was capable of on “Do It All Night,” but was fully aware someone else might get there first. He’d somehow lost his woman to the dude she brought for them to play with on “When You Were Mine,” and yet wanted her back with no equivocation. And “Adore,” with its soaring declarations of love and the groundedness to say that she better not lay a finger on his car, is as real as any love song has ever been, even if some of that love was for an automobile. Being shy in Prince’s world was useless, no matter how crass or uncomfortable the truth may have been.
Prince wasn’t Bob Marley. His music wasn’t supposed to change the world. It was the world as most could only wish it was. It was the soundtrack to dreams, even if it seemed like his real life. Because the dream for so many is freedom, to be liberated from convention and guided by how they felt, no matter what that feeling was.
There’s just no way anyone would ever dream that Prince would die, and there’s no point in dreaming up a replacement. We had our one, and I hope you had a funky good time, because nothing like this will ever happen again.
Bomani Jones is the host of The Right Time on ESPN radio, a co-host of ESPN’s Highly Questionable, and hosts The Evening Jones, a weekly pop culture podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @bomani_jones.