Hanif Abdurraqib reflects on Prince's legacy in emotional new book intro
The following is an excerpt from PRINCE: The Last Interview, a collection that cobbles together the first, last, and best interviews Prince conducted across his 40-year-career. The book’s introduction, which you can read below, is a tribute to the musical legend by Hanif Abdurraqib, the poet and essayist who most recently published a book on A Tribe Called Quest called Go Ahead in the Rain. PRINCE: The Last Interview is now available for purchase.
Like so many other American kids of the late 80s and early 90s, I stumbled my way to musical consciousness during a time when music was become very self-conscious and, rather than feel otherworldly, I was listening to music that sounded like it was being made by regular people.
That changed when I was eight years old. At a friend’s house, I discovered a copy of Prince’s Dirty Mind, the cover of which features with a photo of Prince in nothing more than a bandana slung across his bare chest, adorned only by a leather jacket and underwear. It had a strange power: when my friend’s mother saw the album in my hands, my eyes magnetized by Prince’s image, she scolded me and took it away.
But Prince was unavoidable and provocative, someone who looked regal sitting on a purple motorcycle, his back haloed with smoke; someone who could dance with his ass out on television whether the parents of young viewers liked it or not. That the sight alone of this person could allure and frighten, that he seemed to exist outside of the streets of hip-hop and the suburbs of grunge, that’s how I came to fall in love with Prince and what he stood for.
Dirty Mind had been released before I was born, and my generation would not inherit Prince the sex symbol. Instead we were given Prince, the literal symbolist — an era when Prince replaced ostentatious lyricism with hermetic gestures towards ideas — both musical ideas and ideas of the self. He was “The Artist Formerly Known As,” and then “The Artist,” and then “The Gifted One,” and then just “,” a glyph that could not be spoken out loud.
To call a musician ahead of their time is an oft-used phrase that — far too commonly — gets attached to some mundane or uneventful exercise: a suggestive lyric here, or a music video there. For Prince, to be ahead of one’s time meant to have an active hand in both shaping music — how it would be heard, how it would be interpreted, how it would be distributed — and how he would use it to shape himself for generations to come.
In 1996, around the time that Prince released Emancipation — a three-disc, two-and-a-half hour album — I embarked on a quest to “figure out” why Prince no longer wanted to be Prince. Even though by this time I was old enough to buy his albums for myself, this was surely a rash undertaking on my part. 1996 alone had been one of Prince’s most prolific years — along with Emancipation there had been another album (Chaos and Disorder) as well as a soundtrack to the Spike Lee film Girl 6. You would not be able to define Prince by this material, instead what you are given is a display of his inhuman capacity to hold so many other people inside of himself — the sexual Prince, the ambitious Prince, the political Prince, the historical Prince — and his ability to satisfy each of their sonic and aesthetic needs. Simply put, I ended up grasping at a multifaceted figure.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Emancipation was the first work Prince released after he shook himself free of his Warner Brother’s contract. Hence the title, hence the and a pair of unshackled hands on the cover. I remember expecting an album as good as Purple Rain or Dirty Mind, but instead found the album uneven. It had the creative excitement and optimism of an artist tapping into an unbound imagination. I even recall pulling out the scroll of liner notes and finding every usage of the pronoun “I” replaced by a drawing of an “eye” symbol. But it challenged the very notion of curation. Warner Brother’s didn’t want to control the artist, I would later realize, they wanted to filter his output. And it was that difference and its implications that made my quest that much more difficult.
One thing I did not have to aid me were words from Prince himself. He was a notoriously guarded interviewee, sometimes offering nothing more than a “yes” or “no” to an interviewer’s question. This stance goes back to even his earliest interviews. While happily conversant for 1976 interview with his high school paper, only a year later, in an interview for the Minnesota Daily, a reticent 18-year-old Prince had emerged. The interviewer only includes, or is only allowed to include, a paltry number of quotes. Yet what she takes away is juicy, even if, as she notes, Prince’s impatience at having to sit through an interview is obvious.
Though Prince could be a difficult interview subject, I can’t help but sympathize with his reasons for being so. Interviewing at its best is a match between what a speaker is willing to give of themselves, and what a listener is willing to take away. I’ve been on both sides of that table; I have sympathy for both speaker and listener. Interviews can fail when there is an expectation that something large must be revealed: some long-held truth, finally unraveled for a waiting public. I find the best interview — as both speaker and listener — is one of restraint, where the tools necessary to unearth something during the more silent moments — patience, a sharp ear, and a ready pen — are used to bring about some of the best moments of the conversation.
Reading these interviews now is to see just how much Prince adhered to this type of negotiation. Not included here are several interviews where Prince barely offered up more than one-sentence answers, and even in the more substantial interviews this collection gathers, interviewers clearly had to work to get Prince into an actual dialogue, sometimes with wincing results. In an interview for Q magazine in ’94, when pushed on a question about why sex was such a dominant theme in his work, the interviewer insists “Come” the title track of his then newest album, had to be about orgasm. Prince responds:
“Is it? That’s your interpretation? Come where? Come to whom? Come for what? (laughs) That’s just the way you see it. It’s your mind.”
In pugnacious moments like these, Prince is not rude or combative, but he does make it understood that anyone speaking to him should work hard to get the good stuff. He knew he didn’t need to answer any question asked of him or to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to. Even when he did, these conversations could be hard to come by. Back when I first started my informal study of Prince, the internet was too young to be useful: You couldn’t google “Prince interview” because Google wasn’t founded until 1998 (it’s worth noting that Prince, adaptable to changing technologies, had launched his website nearly a year prior).
Sometime after the dust had settled over his battle with Warner Brothers, Prince became more gregarious. It seemed to suit his image to make yet another shift, to maneuver the language surrounding him from grandiose and guarded toward something more intimate and convivial. In a 2008 interview with the New Yorker, Prince tells a story about a woman who had been lingering on the swings outside of his Paisley Park residence. He went out to talk to her, telling her that his security suggested that he call the police, but he instead wanted to know what she wanted. “In the end, all she wanted was to be seen,” he says. “Just for me to look at her. She left and never came back.”
The true gift of these interviews is not finding out some previously unknown bit of information about Prince, as much as it is to confirm that he could astound even himself. That’s the trick, I suppose, at being someone like Prince. You had to stay immersed in the unbelievable to achieve it. In what would be his final published interview, in a 2015 conversation with the Guardian, Prince tells the interviewer of having a recent “out-of-body experience” playing and singing alone at his home in Paisley Park for three hours straight. “That’s what you want,” he tells the interviewer. “Transcendence. When that happens…oh, boy.”
This thing happens when a musician dies where stories about them overflow and fill every corner of the internet. If there is a bright spot in the absence death leaves, it is this one — people recalling their encounters with figures who could seem entirely mythological. For a lascivious figure, he followed for much of his life (and up to a point) the strict orthodoxy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. No alcohol or drugs; he didn’t even swear. On Twitter, Talib Kweli recounted the story about DJing gangsta rap at a party that Prince had attended. He approached Kweli to tell him: “I ain’t get dressed up to come out and hear curses.”
But he loved to be active and athletic. There was the story Questlove told about Prince on a singular and bright pair of roller skates, outdoing everyone else at the roller rink. He was rumored to be a talented basketball player as well, something which lent Dave Chappelle’s famous skit of him challenging Charlie Murphy to a game of hoops, a bit more gravitas.
And then there were those facts that simply defied logic. Old friends of Prince like Corey Tollefson and Kandace Springs, insisted that you could tell Prince was about to enter a room because the smell of lavender would arise. Also mysterious was how, in one performance of “My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he finished an astounding solo by throwing his guitar up into the rafters. It never came back down.
The moment that best captured his magic for me occurred during his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show. He played amid a torrential downpour, bouncing on a slick stage shaped in the symbol that once stood in for his name. He ripped through a cover of “Proud Mary” and reinvented “Best Of You” by the Foo Fighters, a song that, by then, was less than two years old. But it was his performance of “Purple Rain” the finale to his performance that night which still gets me. During the guitar solo Prince tears into to close out his signature track, I noticed specks of rain water marching slowly down Prince’s face and kissing his bright blue suit and the orange shirt beneath it. I had watched that performance live with friends and remember joking with them that the water did not appear to be touching him, a confirmation that he was not of this world. But when I rewatched this performance soon after his death, and it was only then, so many years later, that I confirmed that the water had always there. Prince was getting rained on just like everyone else packed into that football stadium.
For a lifetime spent first trying to figure Prince out, only to end up attributing him with an over-imagined lore, it was easy for me to detach from the idea that Prince — as mystifying as he managed to be — was also very human. It was there in his music, his visuals, his passions and his curiosities — his humanity. And toward the end of his life, it seemed the being human was his biggest shift yet. During a 2014 interview for Rolling Stone, Prince tells Brian Hiatt that he is entirely uninterested in talking about the past, despite that his past had, by that point, held so many gems worth unearthing and unraveling. “there is no place else I’d rather be than right now,” Prince tells Hiatt. “I want to be talking to you, and I want you to get it.”
This is the joy of Prince — all of him. Not only what is contained within this collection of beautiful, challenging, and brilliant conversations, but the entirety of the life which the book is honoring. Prince was spectacular, unfathomable ways, yet at his core, he came to conversations asking to not be made into some God, demanding any asker of questions to understand him beyond his inhumane capabilities. Before anyone else could, it was Prince who recognized his mortality, could sense it creeping up on him, and accepted it. That’s what brought Prince down to earth for me. Even if the adoring public missed it the first time, even if were easy to deify him, Prince, the man, was always there, pointing to the raindrops on his jacket.