Prince is one of the greatest, most eclectic, influential, fascinating and virtuosic artists of all time and simply MUST be regarded a creative music genius. If we take the standard definition of genius as one with “an exceptional, creative power or natural ability in a particular field” Prince will easily fit that bill, yet any number of artists will too, my aim here is to show how this man, while barely 5’2” in the flesh, stands as an absolute creative COLOSSUS without any equal in his field (that field being a rather staggering mix of funk, soul, pop, rock, R&B, piano balladry, jazz and much more).
Aged just 19 Prince entered a studio to record his debut album, he was starting as he meant to go on, despite being given a major label development budget there was no producer present, Prince was the producer, there was no hotshot team of backup musicians, Prince was his own backup, there was no songwriters or A&R men to point him in a certain direction nor did there need to be, as it would for the next 35 years (and counting) the only creative vision that mattered was his own.
Prince plays some 21 instruments, he ranges from highly proficient as a drummer, bassist and programmer to an outright virtuoso guitarist, vocalist and keyboard/pianist. His production skills led no less a legend than Brian Eno to call him “the producer’s producer”.
Yet being a virtuoso in itself does not make one a creative genius. A virtuoso guitarist will use any opportunity to show off his excess widdling chops but a creative genius will know when it’s time to refine those chops into the simplest 3 chord pop bliss of Kiss
. A virtuoso producer will begin his big conceptual double album by throwing in every impressive bit of studio flash he knows but a creative genius will begin his with a stark minimal drum machine track and lyrics about AIDS and addiction like Sign O the Times
. A proficient bassist will find the right line for any groove but only a creative genius will pull off the novel concept of an R&B hit without a bassline (When Doves Cry
). Furthermore a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist has the ability to fly solo his whole career but a creative genius will put together several incredible backing bands like The Revolution, New Power Generation and, at time of writing, a cracking female rock trio 3rdEyeGirl.
The Creative Whirlwind-
Prince’s prolific nature is legendary, 27 studio albums, 5 soundtracks, 10 internet only albums, his hits collection alone was a 3 disc set. Yet this doesn’t even scratch the surface of his full output, there’s the unofficial releases and ‘lost’ albums that have kept several bootleg labels in business for years, hardcore fans talk in hushed tones of his ‘vault’ of unreleased tracks, said to number in the hundreds if not thousands. Then there’s the list of full albums he’s written and recorded for his multiple protégés, a full list would more than eat up my word limit but ranging from the great (The Time, Jill Jones) to the good (Sheila E, The Family) to the rather forgettable (Carmen Electra, yes Prince discovered and named her).
The common critical consensus is that while Prince hit his peak in the 80’s, the early 90’s would see a sharp decline in musical quality and relevance as he became mired in an ugly contract dispute leading to a name change and bizarre behaviour that saw him become a figure of media ridicule before returning to public favour in the early 2000’s via some stunning live spectacles and a growing influence among a new school of performers (as disparate as Alicia Keys to Beck and many more).
While it’s true his catalogue varies, none of this should diminish his stature as creative genius, after all it was his very unquenchable thirst to create and evolve that led to his troubles in the first place as his label couldn’t keep up with his abundant output. Inconsistency is a trait common to all geniuses, especially ones with a 35+ year career, there doesn’t exist a musical genius from Mozart to Dylan who hasn’t suffered slumps (also common is that there will be many underappreciated gems hidden in these dark periods).
No discussion of Prince’s art can be complete without touching on its sexuality. How this, by all accounts, weird and painfully shy young man was able to appropriate his various kinks into his musical aesthetic and play with gender roles the way no mainstream star has before or since. The straight man with the pimp moustache and chest hair on equal display with the high heels, satin and make up. Visually Prince stands out in any crowd, even in the early 80s when androgynous pop was in vogue his gender bending seemed more genuine and part of his art.
The countless songs of raw male lust next to the ballads shot from the feminine perspective. The use of female protégés as a delivery mechanism for his feminine side. If I Was Your Girlfriend
– what even is that song? A lesbian fantasy? An appeal at a deeper understanding of a partner? What it is is a great song delivered with total commitment by its creator. Just as he takes on the roles of performer, writer, producer, choreographer and video director to convey his creative vision, here he takes on the character in the song completely.
The superbowl halftime show, 12mins to go out and entertain 100+ million people, keep it safe, play the hits, mime, don’t throw in disparate covers or superfluous solos, and certainly don’t simulate sex with your guitar. That’s what a good performer does. This
, however, is what a creative genius does…
By all means award this debate to my opponent if they’ve done a better job showcasing the man’s greatness, just don’t award it to anyone foolish enough to consider Prince anything less than a true, creative musical genius.
(he’s still rockin)
(Prince’s press conferences are better than most people’s gigs)
I disagree that Prince is a musical genius. He is not a musical genius because he is THE musical genius of the past 35 years. There is no ‘a’ about it.
1980’s Dirty Mind
fused funk with rock, mixed it with soul and sprinkled a little bit of punk on top. This had never been done before and it defined Prince as the game-changing, genre-crossing revolution that would eventually see him become the father of all modern pop music.
The uninitiated might find that claim to be too bold, but maybe I’m just like my father. And maybe Prince is just like your mother because he’s never satisfied, continuing to fuse not only synths and drum machines with funk, dance and RnB, but also new wave electronic sounds with brain-melting rock guitar solos.
Wait, isn’t Michael Jackson the father as he’s the King of Pop?
PRINCE vs THE KING
It’s an absolutely relevant comparison to this debate because Jackson is not only THE contemporary of Prince but also widely considered to be a genuine creative musical genius.
So, in the black corner, weighing in at something like 50lbs probably, it’s PRINCE! And in the slowly turning white corner, Michael Jackson: a man whose musical genius is so great that even multiple paedophilia accusations haven’t affected the affection in which his music is held. Jackson, after all, is the man behind THE album of the 1980s, Thriller
Let’s talk about Thriller
. It’s one of the best selling albums of all time and propelled Jackson and producer Quincy Jones to superstardom, placing Wacko firmly at the Genius Table. Brian Banks played synths on Thriller
and has this to say
“Quincy came to us. He said, 'There's this sound… there's this new artist that nobody's ever really heard of but he's great, he's hot, he's got this great song.' And he pulled out the album and it was Prince, '1999'. And you know the opening sound on that? Duh-da da, Dur-duh-duh? That big, bitey chord sound at the opening of '1999' - he wanted that.
If Jackson is the King of Pop because of Thriller
, then Prince is the Almighty fucking God.
Also note that Jackson only wrote 4 of the 9 tracks on Thriller
while Prince writes all of his songs while also playing all the instruments as well. Try and name a 'popstar' who did that before Prince.
Talking of instruments…
PRINCE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST GUITARISTS EVER
Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists
placed Prince ahead of other genuine guitar geniuses like Mark Knopfler and Robert Johnson, not to mention a full 22 places ahead of John Lennon. I could also point you towards the progressive and oft-imitated guitar work of tunes like When Doves Cry
and Purple Rain
. But fuck pointing. Fuck talking. Just watch.
Skip to 3:25 if you’re too lazy for context.
Now his beyond exceptional guitar-playing talent is in no doubt, let’s examine his song-writing ability a bit closer. After all, it was pure song-writing ability that got Bob Dylan declared a creative musical genius. It certainly wasn’t Dylan’s singing voice, which is somewhere between a leaky gas pipe and a cat stuck in a scorpion cross-lock.
PRINCE’S SONG-WRITING & INFLUENCE
If you don’t already know about Prince’s countless hits, then as a pointer realise that Prince is the songwriter with the most songs appearing in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
(The Beatles have more songs in there, but there are three songwriters in that band).
Now consider that Prince has written more great songs than he can even use himself. There’s Sinead O’Conner’s Nothing Compares 2 U
, The Bangles’ Manic Monday
and Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You
as well as countless others.
Now add in the fact that Prince is one of the most covered and sampled artists of all time. I can only afford a brief glimpse here because the list seemingly never ends. There’s Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Tina Turner, Foo Fighters, Mariah Carey, Beyonce/Jay-Z, Tori Amos, Patti Smith, Green Day, Gary Numan and Corinne Bailey-Rae.
Of course, even a complete list isn’t conclusive evidence, but it certainly lends itself to the notion that Prince might just be a creative musical genius. Well, unless you add onto that list all the artists who have been influenced
by Prince. Then, well, yeah, that is pretty fucking conclusive.
But what’s remarkable here is not the quantity of musicians gushing in their praise and claimed influence of Prince, but the range and diversity of those musicians. You can find artists as diverse as Trent Reznor, Daft Punk, Bruce Springsteen and Pharrell Williams all influenced by something Prince originally created. Whether said aloud or expressed openly in their music, other artists have been siphoning-off creativity and inspiration from Prince for decades, including those already considered musical geniuses.
Why? Because in creating something new by fusing all the sounds of funk, rock and soul with modern electronic sounds and drum machines Prince did something that had never been done before. It’s commonplace now, but it wasn’t before Prince.
HOW DOES PRINCE’S ORIGINALITY RELATE TO GENIUS?
Hugely influential philosopher Immanuel Kant
(he of Kantianism – yes, he has his own ism
), believed that ‘originality is the essential character of genius - the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person
’. Most philosophers agree with him.
Now consider all the music that existed before Prince and compare it to the music he created by himself. Prince is the crossroads; the conjunction; the head-on collision of so many styles that the facts dictate that he is one of the most creative and original musicians that has existed since classical times because he invented a fusion of sounds that has defined modern music ever since. And he arrived at this invention all by himself.
And that, according to someone who has his own ism
, is the very definition of genius.