image courtesy HMD, Prince, Wired
“I can’t imagine the world without Prince in it.
Who’s going to make the world safe for black people?”
“And beyond that,
Who’s going to make the world even tolerable for freaky black people?”
~Lisa Jones Brown, in conversation with Greg Tate
My comrade Greg Tate has captured my feelings—as no one else yet has—in his tribute “Prince: A Eulogy.” Though not a Prince aficionado as my husband is, I am a bonafide Prince fan. And I am a 70s baby who continues to vacillate between stages two and four of the Five Stages of Grief made infamous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—denial and depression. I do not yet know when I will reach any point of acceptance. The toxicology report made public last week and official news from the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office declaring Prince’s death from “Fentanyl toxicity” has deepened my sadness.
As Prince has reminded us in his own words, though, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing call life…” I cannot yet imagine this world without Prince in it, and thankfully, because of his music, I do not have to. My sadness about his transition from among the living to among the dead is lessened when I consider the amazing legacy Prince Rogers Nelson has left for us.
I have previously written about the soundtrack as “another form of historicized data collection” and discussed works that have textually captured the ethos of the soundtrack. In keeping with that form, I now honor the inimitable Prince Rogers Nelson, the Beautiful One himself, in the best way a fan can, through the music.
So today, on what would have been his 58th birthday, I offer my homage—the PrinceSoundtrack— complete with my version of liner notes. The 28 songs below, a “double-disc” of sorts, are vetted from an initial list of 40 (and include a few honorable mentions). Visually, I have relied largely on album cover art (be sure to review Moses Wiener’s “A Visual History of Prince’s Album Covers” from 2014), and have tried to insert videos where feasible.
This soundtrack includes my personal favorite Prince jams and a selection of songs and performances that summon “that masked Race Man Supreme.” The music I have chosen spans the wide arch of Prince’s musical career, documents his deep spirituality, hones in on his full-blown sex appeal, scratches the surface (barely) of his inimitable artistry. The additional songs especially invoke—or rather respond to—the call to community Prince notoriously captured in his music through those possessed performances, that sultry falsetto, and, of course, guitar rifts and instrumentation par excellence.
Prince and the Revolution—“The Ladder” (Around the World in a Day, 1985)
This song gets little love, but Prince’s earnest prayerful tone is one that he maintained throughout his life. “Everybody’s looking 4 the ladder/Everybody wants salvation of the soul/The steps U take are no easy road/The reward is great 4 those who want 2 go.”
Common—“Heaven Somewhere” (Electric Circus, 2000)
Common gathers the best in the business—Omar, Cee-Lo, Bilal (“Soul Sister”!), Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu—and his own dad, Lonnie “Pops” Lynn to take up an offering and raise-up a hymn. Not only do they offer their personal musical interpretations of heaven, but they do it through a range of vocals, styles, and evocative lyricism reminiscent of Prince’s highs and lows, and over a driving bass line no less. Prince approved of this heavenly portrait.
Prince—“Call My Name” (Musicology, 2004)
Delightfully understated. Invokes so many wonderful memories, especially from our wedding. The lines: “God forbid/if you belonged to another I’d have to steal you/I’d have to take you from your man/I might be tempted to break the law ‘roun’ here/Because your beauty it gives one pause/It slows me down.” The intermittent clapping and that baritone all suggest they knew it was a jam while they were recording—yes, Prince, yes!
Lenny Kravitz—“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way” (Greatest Hits, 2000)
Prince’s rock-n-roll heir apparent flexes on these two tracks. “It Ain’t Over’s” falsetto is vocally the clearest tie to Prince, but that driving guitar in “Are you Gonna Go My Way” rocks out like none other than Prince himself. Who’s not playing the air drums and guitar?
Prince—the up-tempo quad: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star” (Purple Rain, 1983)
Okay, I am cheating here, but I always think of these four songs together (please listen to them sequentially, really). Purple Rain is one of the best albums of all time—top to bottom. These four are Prince at his instrumental heyday (though arguably his latter music is actually his instrumental best) The eerie, slow-whining church organ in “Let’s Go Crazy” shifts into a possessing, driving pace. The grainy guitar lead and Prince’s screeching are twins in “When Doves Cry.” “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand” (touché). Who can forget that full body shimmy in “I Would Die 4 U”? The triumphant self-proclamation of “Baby I’m A Star” merely confirms what we’ve all known about Prince for some time. Anyone else feel like they’re at a Pentecostal church revival when they listen to this song? Chuuuurch! The details surrounding Prince’s death make “Let’s Go Crazy” the most striking of the four. L.A. Reid’s recent interview on CBS This Morning declared the elevator as the devil, and that Prince was found unresponsive, in his personal elevator is utterly haunting. “But I’m here to tell you/There’s something else, the afterworld.” Make sure you see the funky version that emerged from the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary party.
Beyoncé—“Blow” (Beyoncé, 2013)
Pharrell (Williams) really did it with this one—his musicianship shines. “Can you eat my Skittles/It’s the sweetest in the middle/Pink that’s the flavor/Solve the riddle.” Stylistically, lyrically, instrumentally, structurally, and vocally, this song drips (and literally pants) of Prince. The visual elements confirm what we feel in the music, that Prince’s reign in the 80s was supreme. “I want you to turn that Cherry out.” Oh my.
Kelis—“Till the Wheels Fall Off— (Kelis Was Here, 2006)
A much less known Prince-inspired jam. Kelis, like Prince, has always been in her own category of artistry. This song feels like summer. Ride it until the wheels fall off, sho ‘nuff.
Prince & 3rdEyeGirl—“STOPTHISTRAIN” (PLECTRUMELECTRUM, 2014)
So many folks stopped listening to and buying Prince’s music post 1990—mistake. Oooooh this joint grooves. You can hear Prince strumming that bass into a funky sweet spot. Close your eyes and enjoy this trip.
Janelle Monáe featuring Prince—“Givin Em What they Love” (Electric Lady, 2013)
Monáe flexes her edgy vocal chops, and her vocals match Prince’s guitar. This song’s vamp and that driving bass line makes you feel as if you’re revving up for something—an unexpected encounter perhaps? “…She was looking at me for some undercover love.”
Miguel—“Coffee” (Wildheart, 2014)
Miguel is frequently compared to Prince vocally, and this song echoes Prince’s freakiest musical moments. “Wordplay turns into gun play/and gun play turns into pillow talk/and pillow talk turns into sweet dreams/sweet dreams turn into coffee in the morning.” The structure and playfulness of this song, paired with its driving, ahem, stroke, are reminiscent of “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Taken together with Miguel’s vocal range, the song has a distinctively Prince-esque edge to it Miguel’s “Adorn” from his 2012 album Kaledioscope Dream gets an honorable mention.) The “grown and sexy” should listen to the version featuring Wale, entitled “Coffee (F***ing). “Old souls we found a new religion/Now I’m swimming in that sin, that’s baptism.”
Prince—“If I Was Your Girlfriend” (Sign O’ the Times, 1987)
Can any description really capture the ingenuity, and downright sexiness of this song— android-voiced and all? Penultimate homey-love-friend tribute. “If I was your one and only friend/Would U run 2 me if somebody hurt U/Even if that somebody was me?/Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be/Please!”
Outkast—“Prototype” (Speakerboxx, The Love Below/2003)
Andre 3000’s falsetto is the obvious aspect, but that bass line is quintessentially Prince funky. That, and the idea of anyone being 3000’s or Prince’s prototype (they are both, after all, out of this world) is mind-blowing. “Stank you smelly much.”
Prince & Angie Stone—“You Make My Sunshine” (single, 2000)
Are my husband and I the only two people on earth who know and love this duet? Yet we know that Prince doesn’t just sing with any old body, and this is a sleeper. Stone holds her own. Listen to Prince’s effortless falsetto, and then listen to D’Angelo in “Untitled (How Does it Feel).” The resemblance is utterly uncanny.
Prince—“When She Comes” (HITNRUN Phase Two, 2014)
“When she comes/Always unexpected/But never rejected surprise.” If anyone thought that Prince moved beyond the sultry and was merely stuck in his provocateur days of old, listen to this. Content aside, his falsetto is at its sexiest, and sounds unbound by time.
Maxwell—“This Woman’s Work” (MTV UnPlugged-Maxwell EP, 1997)
Hands down, the song that made almost everyone declare Maxwell Prince’s uncontested vocal heir. That scene between Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps in Love & Basketball solidified this as a straight up jam. Maxwell’s crooning is something else, and his live performance is stunning. Prince must have been proud.
Prince—Adore (Sign O’ The Times, 1987)
My absolute favorite Prince song. I had the cassette tape, and played this song so much the cassette popped (which I steadfastly repaired with a tiny screwdriver and scotch tape!). Prince harmonizes the word “darling” in four freaking parts! And that incomparable falsetto (“Do Me Baby” should come to mind.) “You don’t know what you mean to me/babyyyyyyy” (or whatever he scats). “Love’s too weak to define/Just what you mean to me.” Simply magical.
Has anyone sang the words “baby, baby, baby” better? People weren’t fans of Mariah Carey and Sisqó’s duet on Butterfly, but they sang it the way Prince makes us feel when he sings it. And who can forget the way Prince squalled to Apollonia in Purple Rain? “Do you want him/Or do you want me?/’Cause I want you.” Check out Beyoncé’s recent cover. Mercy.
John Mayer—“Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” (Continuum, 2006)
As controversial as Mayer can be for his turns of phrase, that man can play the hell out of the guitar, and the guitar sings on this song. The solo not only impress Mayer’s skills upon you, but the riffs and licks move in such a way that if you close your eyes, you might think it was Prince playing instead.
“All the flowers that you planted sugar/In the back yard/All died when you went away.” Sinead O’Connor’s version is “the popular” one but true fans know better. Nothing compares to the live version sung with Rosie Gaines, and they make such beautiful music together. Sung best as a duet—the call and response give the song the full expression it deserves. Similarly, listen to Prince’s original of “I Feel for You” (from his 1979 album Prince), which Chaka Khan transformed. Prince’s writing chops are incomparable, and, at the end of the day, no one can do a Prince song like Prince.
D’Angelo—“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” (Voodoo, 2000)
Can anyone ever stop thinking about that video? And the song’s climax, replete with build and a clearly Prince-inspired, squalling, gritty vibrato, “do you know what I’m talkin’ about baby?/hey, yeaaaaaah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, woo!…” Don’t forget that (Raphael) Saadiq is on the bass. Quintessential baby-making music, as only The Purple One Prince himself can do. Have mercy!
Alicia Keys—“Like You’ll Never See Me Again” (As I Am, 2007)
Notably, Keys is a true Prince fan. She has a great remake of “How Come U Don’t Call Me,” and can anyone forget her BET tribute to Prince while pregnant…and on a piano!?. But it’s this song’s obvious use of Prince’s “Purple Rain” chords in the chorus that make this the better comparison—that, and the heartfelt, elongated “whoa-oa-oa-oa.” Instant, Prince-inspired classic. The lyric haunts me when I think of Prince—“Promise that you’ll love me/Love me like you’ll never see me again.”
Prince—“Purple Rain” (Purple Rain, 1983)
No one can agree on what this song is about, which adds to its mystique. Certainly in my “Top Five.” If you listen closely, someone actually cries out “oooh!” at the 2:42 mark in the song. Best performance? Hands down, Super Bowl XLI (2007), which I watched live, completely rapt, with my husband. This performance give me chills: yes, he threw his do-rag; the way he sung “I only want to see you, see you laughin’ yeah, in the purple rain” in that guttural, sliding way; he asked, “Can I play this guitar?” knowing damn well we wouldn’t say anything other than yes; that phallic, possessed, screen-billowing guitar solo; FAMU’s Marching 100 slayed the horns—glow in the dark lights on their uniforms and all; that fervent “let it go, come on!” right at the “woooh ooooh ooo-oo-ooh” refrain; those acapella breaks, and all while floating on The Symbol. If you have not seen it, watch it now before it gets removed, and then (re)read Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “The Night Prince Walked on Water.”
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty images
Prince’s Wikipedia stats are astounding: 39 studio albums, 17 video albums, 6 compilation albums, 4 live albums, 136 music videos, 104 singles, 13 EPs, 1 remix album, numerous #1 hits in the United States and the World. Beloved of the black community, beloved of the global community, superstar and artist bar none.
“How bad was prince Rogers Nelson?” asks Greg Tate. Bad enough to mourn and celebrate him…forever.
Rest in Power.
Prince Rogers Nelson
June 7, 1958-April 21, 2016
 Margaret Rose, “The Fascinating Origin Story of Prince’s Iconic Symbol,” Wired Magazine, April 22, 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/04/designers-came-princes-love-symbol-one-night/
 Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone), 1969.
 Reid’s interview was held April 22, 2016, one day after Prince’s death.
 Hunt down a video of D’Angelo’s recent tribute performance “Sometimes it Snows in April” from The Tonight Show. It deserves as much attention as it can stand.