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A Brief History of Prince Being Prince

There's logic to what he does. It's just not our logic.

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This feature was originally published in September of 2015. We’re reposting to mark one year since Prince’s passing.

It’s not like he didn’t warn us. “I’m just a crazy fool, lost in the world of love,” sings a 19-year-old Prince Roger Nelson on “Crazy You”, the fourth song on his 1978 debut, For You. In the nearly 40 years since, the Purple One has unleashed the crazy in every way imaginable, injecting his singular personality (or maybe personalities) into some of the most brilliant recordings and truly bizarre career moves anyone has ever made. Only he’s not crazy, this funky five-foot-three Midwestern rock ‘n’ soul preacher-teacher sex deity. He’s eccentric, superhuman, supernatural, and maybe even extraterrestrial, but there’s logic to what he does. It’s just not our logic.

As Prince returna with HitNRun — by some counts his 38th studio album, streaming exclusively on Tidal — we celebrate some of the weird-ass moments that, for better and for worse, have made the guy such a riot to roll with. Who but Prince could emerge as a race- and gender-defying one-man band from Minneapolis and proceed to create his own freaky-sexy universe of spin-off acts (Morris Day and the Time, Vanity 6, The Family), star in a self-mythologizing blockbuster biopic, dare U 2 accept a new form of English language, scare the pants off Tipper Gore, charm the pants off Carmen Electra, compose a rad set of songs about Batman, do battle with one of the biggest record companies in the world, and pen a decent song about being reincarnated as a dolphin — all before his 40th birthday?

“There’ll never be another like me,” he sang on MPLSoUND, one of three 2009 albums he bundled together and sold exclusively at Target, of all places. He wasn’t kidding. On any given night, Prince will turn up in your town, dance like James Brown, wail like Jimi Hendrix, and shoot the J like Michael Jordan. He’s called himself the Purple Yoda, but Jedi masters have nothing on this guy.

Click ahead for a brief history of Prince being Prince.

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Baby, He’s a Starr?

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Speaking with Rolling Stone for a 1983 feature, Prince’s Minneapolis funk-soul contemporary and eventual big-screen co-star Morris Day insisted that Jamie Starr, the producer credited on early albums by his band The Time, as well as the lingerie-loving girl group Vanity 6, was a real person. RS writer Debby Miller wasn’t buying it, though. Starr, she easily surmised, was really just Prince — a guy who had more songs than he could possibly release under his own name and who understood even in his early 20s that mystique is a powerful thing. For as public a figure as Prince is, he’s always done a masterful job of maintaining a sense of mystery, to the point that the dudes in Disclosure recently told Pitchfork they’d think twice about working with him for fear of peeking behind the curtain.

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A Freaky Control Freak

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In his pre-superstar days, Prince wasn’t just a mystery man. He was also kind of a control freak, and whether he was ordering early keyboardist Gayle Chapman to parade around in metallic underwear on and offstage or ruling over The Time like a vengeful, jealous god, he was uncompromising in his vision. This goes back to the very beginning. When Prince signed to Warner Bros. as a teen prodigy, the label arranged for Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White to produce his debut album. Most rising funksters would’ve jumped at the chance, but not Prince. He was going to produce the album, just like he was going to write (or co-write, in the case of “Soft and Wet”) all the songs and play all the instruments. While none of his first four LPs cracked the Top 20, they built a critical buzz that led to the mainstream success of the fifth, 1999, which hit No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and spawned three Top 20 singles. By then, Prince had staked his claim as a punk-funk auteur with the edginess and guitar chops to woo New Wavers and the smooth grooves to satisfy R&B fans. He was a classicist for the future, a frilly neo-psychedelic pop oddity with dirty thoughts up the wazoo and an undeniable tender streak. He was 100 percent Prince, and if you didn’t like it, you could go jump in Lake Minnetonka.

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Tipper Feels the Grind

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Even before the risqué Purple Rain cut “Darling Nikki” wrinkled Tipper Gore’s drawers and led her to create the Parents Music Resource Center — the watchdog group behind that “Parental Advisory” sticker found on every subsequent record worth owning — Prince had a history of getting filthy. He celebrated oral sex and incest with the Dirty Mind tunes “Head” and “Sister”, and on 1999’s “Lady Cab Driver”, he dedicates an audible coital thrust to “Yosemite Sam and the tourists at Disney Land.” But “Nikki” was something different: a song about a masturbating female sex fiend that landed on the chart-topping soundtrack to a major motion picture. Even by Prince standards, this was a wild song to unleash on American mallrats and their unsuspecting parents.

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Enter Camille

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In the ‘80s, no one did macho-dandy sexual ambiguity quite like Prince. He was Little Richard in bikini briefs riding Brando’s motorbike around George Clinton’s mothership, and with Camille, an effeminate alter ego he created circa 1986 by speeding up his vocals, he took the gender bending to new creative heights. Prince originally planned to release an entire album as Camille, and while he scrapped the project, many of the best tunes (“Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) wound up on arguably his best album, Sign o’ the Times. In a 1997 interview with Yahoo, Prince seemed to confirm that Camille was not intended to be a woman, but rather an androgynous character inspired by a famed 19th century hermaphrodite named Herculine Barbin, aka Camille.

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The Revolution Stops Now

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Like any writer, Prince benefits from good editing, and he’s arguably never had a better team of collaborative peers than the Revolution. While personal issues played a huge part in the 1986 dissolution of the band — which had backed him, to varying degrees, on the triumphant run of albums comprising 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade — guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman claimed to have been genuinely surprised to get their walking papers. In a September 1987 interview with the L.A. Times, they remarked on how withdrawn Prince had become during sessions for Sign o’ the Times, his first LP after firing the band. “For a while we were just about the only people he worked with,” said Coleman. “We were Prince’s embellishers. We embellished his musical vision.”

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Holding Back Black

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Prince’s faulty filter works a couple of ways. Sometimes, it stops him from issuing material that ought to stay in his legendary vaults. In 1987, though, it kept him from dropping The Black Album, the funky curio that was to have followed Sign o’ the Times. Stories abound as to why Prince pulled the record just days ahead of its scheduled release, but the most popular is that he had a “spiritual epiphany” and realized the music was “evil.” True, “Bob George”, featuring slowed-down reverse-Camille vocals, is pretty violent, and “Cindy C” is about shtupping a supermodel, but Black is more aggressive and uneven than it is wicked. When it eventually arrived in 1994, the heavily bootlegged LP hardly lived up the mythology, though backlash against the hype tends to overshadow the quality of the music. It’s as essential as 1988’s Lovesexy, the sunnier album he offered as a replacement.

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That Whole Name-Change Thing

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One major storyline in Prince’s career has been a quest for artistic freedom — something he didn’t feel Warners was giving him in the ‘90s. The label wouldn’t let him release the stacks and stacks of music he was coming up with, and it wouldn’t relinquish control of his master recordings. In response, he changed his name in 1993 to an unpronounceable symbol — a move he evidently thought would allow him to fulfill the remainder of his Warner contract by dropping “Prince” discs of vault material and issuing newer stuff via other outlets. It was a legally dubious move that cost him dearly in the court of public opinion. Confused by his motives, fans and journalists mocked “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” for the entirety of the seven years he stuck with the glyph. In 2000, when his Warner contract expired, he went back to using his birth name — just in time to begin confronting a whole host of new record-biz issues no one had really anticipated. No one except maybe him…

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Prince and the Internet, Part I: A Love Story

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After leaving Warner in the late ‘90s, Prince got hot and heavy with this thing called the Internet — a newfangled tool for looking at dirty pictures and chatting with fellow comic book fans when your mom wasn’t on the phone. In 1996, Prince launched his first website, TheDawn.com, and the following year, he used the nascent web to pre-sell copies of Crystal Ball, a 3-CD set filled with outtakes and rarities. There were some glitches, but not enough to give him permanent computer blues. In 2001, Prince debuted his online NPG Music Club, and before shuttering the service in 2006, he released to subscribers a slew of videos and no fewer than seven CDs of music unavailable elsewhere. “Long before MySpace and iTunes, Prince used the Web to premiere videos and new music, challenge distribution practices, and connect with his fans,” said reps from the Webby Awards, who gave Prince a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Anticipating the rise of mp3s and choosing to experiment with new business models rather than simply play ostrich and crack down on file swappers? If the major labels didn’t already think Prince was nuts, here was their proof.

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Finding God

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There’s nothing inherently strange about becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, as Prince did in 2001. Plenty of people find religion at some point in their lives, and according to 2014 estimates, there are more than 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world. It’s not even that unusual that he’s gone door-to-door proselytizing, as many engaged with that faith do. The curious thing about Prince’s conversion is that he’d never been a rule follower, and much of his music humps the pole denoting the intersection between sex and spirituality. Rebelliousness and constant questioning are central to his greatest records, and now that he’s given up cursing and refused to play his salacious early tunes, it’s like he’s robbed himself of a superpower. He’s made some fine records in the last 15 years and given some incredible performances — among them his covers-heavy set at Super Bowl XLI — but he’s not the instigating innovator he used to be.

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Making Kevin Mad

Seemingly everyone who has a brush with Prince comes away with a story, and Kevin Smith’s is better than most. As the filmmaker recounts in his An Evening With Kevin Smith (2002) documentary, he contacted Prince in 2001 to see about using “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Prince declined the license but invited Smith — whose film Dogma he claimed to love — to his Paisley Park compound to film a series of conversations with fans about religion and race. Alas, the footage never saw the light of day, but Smith’s recollections of his brief immersion in “Prince world” — a magical place ruled by a pop star with a tenuous grip on reality and closet full of athletic gear from the Nordstrom’s boys department — are undoubtedly more entertaining than anything that might have resulted from the shoot.

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Cat Can Ball

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One guy with a better Prince story than Kevin Smith is Charlie Murphy. In a 2004 episode of Chapelle’s Show, the comic tells the tale of the time he, his brother Eddie, and a group of their friends played basketball against Prince and the Revolution. According to the sketch, Prince called plays, set picks, drained outside shots, and took it strong to the hole, leading his crew to an easy victory over the Murphy contingent. To add insult to injury, Prince served the vanquished post-game pancakes, a detail he confirmed in a 2004 interview. In February 2015, Prince used a still from the sketch as the cover of his “Breakfast Can Wait” single, proving he (or someone in his camp) still had a sense of humor.

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Prince Goes Wonka On That Ass

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To promote 2006’s 3121, a better-than-good comeback album that debuted atop the Billboard 200, Prince hid seven purple tickets in the first batch of CDs. These types of sweepstakes aren’t unheard of, but in this case, the winners were whisked to his LA pad and treated to a special in-house performance. The lucky Veruca Salts and Augustus Gloops came from the US, Mexico, and the Netherlands, and Prince played a mix of new tunes and classic hits.

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Not an Ideal Tenant

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One interesting side note to that 3121 show: It took place at a house Prince was renting from NBA star Carlos Boozer, who was less than psyched with some of the modifications the musician made to the joint. According to court filings, Prince painted purple stripes and his famous male-female symbol on the exterior and did all sorts of work on the inside, such as installing purple carpet and adding plumbing for salon chairs. All parties settled for an undisclosed amount, but as Boozer’s former Duke teammate Jay Williams told ESPN Radio, it might have been a seven-figure affair. “Dude was just like, ‘Here, Boozer, here is a little check for about a million,’” Williams said. “‘It’ll take care of everything, get it back the way you want it.’ And Booz was like, ‘This little man is cool as hell.'”

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Prince and the Internet, Part II: The Breakup

 A Brief History of Prince Being Prince

In 2007, the strange relationship between Prince and the Internet turned ugly, as the artist sued a trio of web giants — ebay, YouTube, and the Pirate Bay — for copyright infringement and threatened similar action against three of his biggest fansites. If embracing the Internet as the future of the music business seemed batshit in 1997, denying its legitimacy as a means of promotion and fan outreach a decade later was doubly crazy. Not surprisingly, there was a backlash…

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Prince Declares Funk War on Separatist Fans

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In response to being sued by Prince for posting copyrighted photos online, several sites teamed up in 2007 to form Prince Fans United. As might be expected, Prince wasn’t cool with the schism, and in November, he unleashed a musical attack in the form of “PFUnk”, a seven-minute diss track containing the line, “The only reason you say my name is to get your 15 seconds of fame/ Nobody’s even sure what you do.” Oddly enough, “PFUnk” was met with cheers from fans, as some deemed it the most inspired thing he’d done in years.

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Prince and the Internet, Part III: The Eulogy

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Does Prince have it out for Al Gore? First, he pissed off Al’s wife; then, he declared the death of Al’s greatest invention. “The Internet is completely over,” Prince said in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mirror, the British newspaper he used to distribute copies of that year’s surprisingly strong 20Ten album. “I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can’t get it.”

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Back In Bed with Warner

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In a move that once would’ve been unthinkable, Prince announced in 2014 that he’d re-upped with Warner Bros. — the label whose bosses he’d likened to slave masters — for the release of a new studio album. As it turns out, there were two: Art Official Age, a sci-fi-themed solo joint that marked one of Prince’s zaniest and most adventurous records in years, and PlectrumElectrum, a more straightforward rock album cut with his all-female 3rdEyeGirl backing band. Supposedly, the deal also gave Prince the rights to his old masters, and there was talk of deluxe reissues, including a 30th anniversary edition of Purple Rain. Unfortunately, nothing has surfaced, and with HitNRun arriving exclusively on Tidal, it seems Prince’s relationship with Warner has soured once again.

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Prince and the Internet, Part IV: Yeah, No, Still Not Feeling It

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For a while, it seemed Prince was ready to play nice with the Internet. He’d created Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote those two new Warner Bros. albums — one of which had a song inspired by a meme — but in November 2014, he quit social media, and in July 2015, he pulled a Taylor Swift and yanked his music from all streaming services, save for one…

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Prince of Tidal

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On September 7, 2015, Prince released HitNRun phase one exclusively on Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service. In interviews promoting the album, Prince praised Tidal for being a black-owned business committed to offering high-quality audio, and speaking with Ebony about his visions for the future of the music business, he sounded less like a Luddite than he had in years. “To stay afloat, it’s gonna need the Kanye Wests and the Kendricks and people like that who can make product and get people excited about stuff,” Prince said. “And they’re going to dictate what the deal is gonna look like. And that’s what’s fun about the times now.”

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