He revolutionized pop, pushed style 2 the limit, and celebrated sex 4 all. Inside the wild world and final days of music's enigmatic icon.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Buy that issue here.
During Prince’s intimate show at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on April 14, the 57-year-old pop icon performed not one, not two, but three separate encores for a crowd that included stars like Janelle Monáe and CeeLo Green. It was the second of two performances that evening. At one point, as he hammered out indelible hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “Cream” with just a piano and that unmistakable falsetto, he was so overcome with emotion that he briefly left the stage. He told fans that night, “I’m going to take this time to thank each and every one of you for coming out and enjoying this time with us.” His gratitude echoed what he had told EW in 2004 while reflecting on his remarkably long career: “You’ve read the magazines, the gossips. I’m not supposed to be here. But here I am.”
And so, we thought, he would always be. With his ageless appearance, lithe figure, and inexhaustible musical output, Prince was one of the few music pioneers who possessed an air of immortality. Yet right after his last-ever performance that Thursday night, while Prince was en route to his Paisley Park home in Chanhassen, Minn., his plane made an emergency stop in Moline, Ill., where he was rushed to the hospital. His rep told EW in a statement that he had been battling the flu, and by all accounts he appeared to be on the rebound days later, hosting one of his frequent parties at home on April 16, where he eerily told the crowd to “wait a few days before you waste any prayers.” But nearly a week later, fans around the world were saying them anyway: Prince was found unresponsive in an elevator at his home on April 21 and pronounced dead at the scene. While the cause of death has not yet been revealed, his friends and family — which includes one sister, Tyka Nelson, and several half siblings — celebrated his life with a “private, beautiful” cremation ceremony, according to his rep, on April 23.
The heartbroken reaction from the world was immediate: Two of his releases, The Very Best of Prince and Purple Rain, rocketed to the top of Billboard‘s album chart. Meanwhile, artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to the cast of Hamilton paid tribute with live performances. The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye captured fans’ collective shock when he astutely wondered on Twitter, “We live in a world where Prince passes away???”
Since his 1978 debut album, For You, Prince was in constant motion. He broke down the barriers of race in America, redefined what it meant to be a sex symbol, and melded musical genres like no other artist before him — all while decked out in a feather boa and a pair of his trusted high heels. And perhaps no pop star in history had transcended cultural and political barriers as effortlessly: On 1981’s “Controversy,” he asked, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”For all his trailblazing, he was rewarded handsomely, scoring seven Grammys, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. “When I first started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom,” he said during his induction speech. “Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to…. I embarked on a journey more fascinating than I could ever have imagined.”
Madonna Louise Ciccone invented Madonna, David Robert Jones morphed into David Bowie — but Prince was always Prince. That was true of both his name and his royal talent. He was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, the son of a singer, Mattie Shaw, and a jazz musician, who performed as Prince Rogers. He started playing piano at age 7, around the time his parents split, and would soon naturally gravitate toward guitar and drums. “I was always blown away by his talent level,” Prince’s junior-high classmate, producer James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, tells EW. The same was true of his friend’s basketball skills: Despite Prince’s 5’2“ stature, Harris says, ”he could handle the ball so well. He didn’t have the height, but he was amazing.“
Prince would never stray far from his hometown, but in those formative years he found Minneapolis restrictive. ”I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good,“ he told his high school newspaper in 1976. He would eventually be proved wrong: He signed with Warner Bros. Records and played two dozen instruments on his 1978 debut, released when he was just 19 years old. ”He had total command of not only the songs but of the production and the ability to do it all on his own,“ music producer Lenny Waronker, the former Warner Bros. executive who signed Prince, tells EW. ”There was no technology. You didn’t have drum machines, you didn’t have anything — the only other person I can think of that was really capable of doing that was Stevie Wonder.”
Prince’s first few records established a daring, never-before-heard mix of funk, R&B, pop, and disco that would later be dubbed the Minneapolis Sound. He was its chief architect, both as a solo artist and as a key songwriter for bands like the Time and the Family. Early solo songs like ”Soft and Wet“ and ”I Wanna Be Your Lover“ also introduced listeners to Prince’s erotic side — an essential aphrodisiac for generations. ”I think I had my first kiss, first love, first a lot of stuff while listening to Prince,“ Nicole Kidman, who covered ”Kiss“ for the 2006 movie Happy Feet, tells EW. ”He was there for a lot of firsts in my life.“
The artist’s early efforts at boundary-pushing were nothing compared with the lewdness he unleashed with 1980’s Dirty Mind, an album whose cover pictured him in nothing more than a jacket, bandanna, and black briefs. (Such a skimpy outfit wasn’t just for attention: ”I’d see him run by in his black bikini underwear through the house to mess with us,“ recalls Tina Kahn, the daughter of one of his longtime bodyguards. ”It was like naked Prince, prancing around…in a teeny bikini, giggling!“) Dirty Mind took on unprecedented levels of salaciousness. ”Head“ described a steamy encounter between Prince and another man’s bride-to-be, while ”Sister“ hinted at incest. ”We’ve all used shock value to sell things,“ Prince told EW in 2004. ”Back when I was doing freaky songs in freaky outfits, we were exploring ideas.“
His kinkiness sometimes rubbed people the wrong way — 1984’s ”Darling Nikki,“ with a graphic reference to masturbation, reportedly motivated Tipper Gore to co-found the Parents Music Resource Center the following year — but his frankness about sex and his embrace of androgyny inspired generations of fans to question taboos. As Frank Ocean wrote in a tribute on Tumblr: ”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.“
After Dirty Mind and Controversy, Prince released some of his most successful and influential albums: 1982’s 1999 pushed his sound into the realm of synth-heavy dance, while 1984’s game-changing Purple Rain earned Prince his first two No. 1 singles (”When Doves Cry“ and ”Let’s Go Crazy“) on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as his only box office smash. Even as his celebrity rose, his passion for music never wavered. ”He’d come to rehearsal, work us, go work his band, then he’d go to his studio all night and record,“ recalls Harris. ”Then the next night he’d come to rehearsal with a tape in his hand and he’d say, ‘This is what I did last night.’ And it’d be something like ‘1999,’ and you’re just like, ‘Who does this?'”
He also took a keen interest in developing and shaping female artists. His first — and perhaps most notorious — protégées were the girl group Vanity 6, a lingerie-loving trio whose namesake member, the late Vanity (born Denise Matthews), had been eyed by Prince for the lead female role in Purple Rain. (It eventually went to then unknown Apollonia Kotero.) He also wrote and produced material for artists like Scottish singer Sheena Easton and dancer Carmen Electra, while Sinéad O’Connor and Chaka Khan scored massive hits with their covers of his tunes. ”He just loved so many songs that there was no way that he was going to be able to release all these songs on his own,“ Sheila E., his onetime drummer and musical director, tells EW. ”He loved working with women and helping them and encouraging them and saying, ‘Hey, I think this would be a good song for you.’“
Prince was so prolific, it led to conflicts with his label. After clashing with Warner Bros. over artistic ownership and the company’s reluctance to release music as fast as he created it, he famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993; around that time, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince began scrawling the word slave on his face. (Prince has left behind vaults of unreleased material: ”There are songs…no one’s ever heard,“ he told Rolling Stone in 2014.) Of the label’s initial reaction to Prince’s protests, Waronker remembers, ”We were worried that at some point [his output] would saturate the marketplace and that it could hurt him. That was the beginning of feeling like he didn’t have the freedom to release the music the way he wanted to.“
After fulfilling his contractual obligations and reinstating his name as Prince in 2000, he continued to be passionate about artistic autonomy in the face of a changing technological landscape. In 2007, he threatened lawsuits against eBay, YouTube, and his own fansites for violating his copyrights. But he was hardly a Luddite. In fact, he launched one of the first digital subscription music services, the NPG Music Club, in 2001, and he released his final two albums, HITNRUN Phase One and HITNRUN Phase Two, through Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service last year. (And who can forget his embrace of Twitter: ”PRINCE’S 3RD TWEET: DID EYE ADD 2 MUCH PEPPER?“) ”The system is old and it doesn’t work anymore,“ he told EW in 2015 of his distaste for the label structure. (Interestingly, Prince re-signed in 2014 with Warner Bros., which allowed him to regain control of his master recordings.)
While Prince joyfully shared his art with the world, he was intensely guarded about his private life. He notoriously prohibited reporters from tape-recording interviews — ”Some in the past have taken my voice and sold it,“ he told Billboard in 2013 — and discouraged them from taking notes. Still, certain facts regarding his life outside the spotlight have emerged. He was married twice: to singer Mayte Garcia from 1996 to 1999, and to Manuela Testolini, who met him while working at his charity organization, from 2001 to 2006. (Garcia gave birth to a son, Boy Gregory, in 1996, but he died within a few days due to a rare genetic disorder.) In 2001, Prince declared he had become a Jehovah’s Witness, ushering in a more conservative era of his career. ”It changed his life,“ says Sheila E. of his conversion. ”He wanted to be more outgoing and more approachable at times. [Becoming a Witness] helped him try to do that. Imagine you’re so popular that you can’t walk down the street or go to the store and just sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee at a café without people taking Pictures.“
In his final days, Prince was hardly a Norma Desmond of pop music. In March, he announced plans to publish a memoir, and he continued to host his fabled parties at Paisley Park, which friends say he was doing with increased frequency. While People confirmed he had struggled with a painkiller addiction in the past, local residents spoke of seeing their most famous neighbor around town in April. ”He looked laid-back and just kind of breezing through…. It looked like he was just enjoying a nice sunny day,“ McKensie Hasse recalled of one mid-April encounter. For Prince, life was always ”about the present and moving forward,“ as he confessed to EW in 2004. ”New joke, new anecdote, new lesson to be discovered. You know that old lady in Sunset Boulevard, trapped in her mansion and past glories? Getting ready for her close-up? I don’t run with that.“
Reporting by Ariana Bacle, Eric Renner Brown, Joe McGovern, Rose Minutaglio, Jeff Nelson, and Kevin O’Donnell.