I'm paying two-on-two. My teammate jitterbugs around the court, a sleek little lightning bug in red-and-white high-tops, so fast he'll leave a defender stranded and looking stupid if a defender's not careful. I've got the ball at the top of the key, and I see he's in a good position under the basket. I flick a quick pass toward him. The ball is floating safely through the defense, but then I realize he doesn't know it's coming. Instinctively, I call out to him, the man I've known, sort of, for 15 or 20 years. The man who, like Sinatra for another generation, made our official love-making music. I call out, "Prince!"
I catch myself, put my hands over my dirty mouth, and watch the ball fly out of bounds. Then, he smirks and says happily, to no one in particular: "He didn't know what to call me." Laughing at my quandary, forgiving my mistake, and being, just, cool. He didn't know what to call me.
Record-label freedom is his current obsession. "The last time I saw him," a young recording artist recalled, "his first words to me were, 'Did you get off the label yet?' Not, 'Hi, how ya doin'?' but, 'Did you get off the label?'" This new-found freedom, along with his marriage, has led to major changes to the Artist. Once a moody reclusive when not onstage, who was considered weirder than even Michael Jackson, he is now more at peace with himself. Says a former girlfriend of his who wishes to remain anonymous, "When I first met him, he was quite miserable. Now, he doesn't have any negativity surrounding him. He's totally happy and totally comfortable in his skin. When you look at his face, you can tell that a weight has been lifted."
But that freedom has also led to albums that are under-promoted and over-long. The man who once wowed the world with nine songs on Purple Rain released the four-disc Crystal Ball this year and, in '96, the three-disc Emancipation. Both sold respectably -- Crystal Ball moved more than 250,000 units at $50 apiece, and Emancipation crossed over 500,000 cash registers. But despite some great moments on the records, both suffered from a lack of editing. And, like his latest release, Newpower Soul, all lack the complex thematic unity that characterized his greatest albums. Now that he's working for himself, however, the profit margin is much higher.
"For me to create an album, tour all over night after night, and get less than the $140 million it grosses is ridiculous," said The Artist.
"Of that, how much did you used to get?"
"I'd get, at most, $7 million."
"Still, how could you call yourself 'Slave' in light of the history of that word among black people?"
"Imagine yourself sitting in a room with the biggest of the big in the recording industry, and you have 'Slave' written on your face. That changes the entire conversation. You know what they think of us. They said, 'It makes it real hard to talk to you with that on your face.' And I said, 'Why?' And it got real quiet. They don't wanna get into all that. Adding that language into the conversation worked perfectly. It changed the dynamic."
He dodged a follow-up question about a multimillionaire music-maker likening himself to a dawn-to-dusk cotton-picker. Meanwhile, I furiously scribbled notes. . . He speaks quickly, often using parables and cryptic sentences that have little to do with the context of the discussion. "Sometimes," his old girlfriend says, "he says things that make you feel like you haven't gotten an answer. He leaves you to have to think about every word he's said, which is kind of irritating."
"Why are you being so open now?"
"As the millennium approaches, we all must look inward and check the fiber and speak the truth," said The Artist. "I had a boss, and I didn't like it. No more than you like it. I feel free now that there's no daddy around to spank me. It's time for us to stand up for what we believe in."
Is there a difference between Prince and The Artist?"
"Only that Prince owns nothing. None of those songs."
"So you're happier now. Did the old music come from a place of pain?"
"I won't speculate on where the music came from. I look back in awe and reverence. It's made me become courageous."
"Courageous around music?"
"Do you think you've changed a generation with your music?"
He became defensive. "I don't think about that. Why would I? There's no gain in that. Being in control of someone's thoughts? You'll second-guess your writing."
"So," feeling stifled, recalling photos of Mayte and him at Lakers games, I said, "you like basketball?"
He seemed to loosen up a bit. "Yeah."
"What's your team?"
"Bulls," he said.
"Still? You think they're comin' back?"
With an oh-please air, he said, "Jordan's gonna be player-coach. That's why Phil Jackson left. Scottie's gonna get paid, Rodman's gonna get paid. It's gonna be rock 'n' roll time next year. The Bulls are gonna be like the Beatles. [Jordan's] Superman. He don't have to do that much to whup them people."
Then a moment later, somehow, he was back to money. He expressed admiration for the music of Erykah Badu, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and D'Angelo. "D'Angelo's really gotta search his heart deeply on being part of the problem or the solution. What's his whole consciousness? He's got to own his masters," he said, referring to master tapes that confer true ownership of a song, and are generally owned by the record label, not the artist. "Black Americans are walking away and getting nothin'! How can you not own your masters and try to uplift the community? Let's all of us be part of the solution. Or we gonna get our problems solved for us. The situation in Africa is testament to that. Twenty-one million with AIDS! Don't that spook you? We got to solve our problems, or they'll be solved for us. And a man can't solve your problems for you. You and your faith will solve 'em for you."
He told me that another journalist had asked him, "Do you ever get tired of being so flamboyant all the time? Don't you ever want to wear a T-shirt and jeans?" -- at which point he reared his head back, eyes wide in mock indignation, as if to say, How ridiculous! Don't you know who I am? Full of macho bravado, he thrust the cuff of his maroon Prince suit toward me and said, "Feel that! If you could wear that every day, wouldn't you?"
I felt the cuff. It wasn't a rare and special feeling. It felt manmade. "What is it?" I asked.
Immediately, his entire demeanor switched. He went from larger-than-life to hushed and humble. "Oh, I don't know," he answered quietly, dismissively, feigning ignorance of the fabric of his fabulous garment. "If you have money, you should act the same. It's currency. It's supposed to move like a current. You ain't supposed to hoard it. You get sick otherwise."
I walked out feeling as though he'd never truly shared himself, as though I'd been given the day's propaganda, along with a few tasty side bites, and sent on my way. I felt I understood what actress Kirstie Alley said, in the role of frustrated interviewer, on Prince's 1992 so-called Symbol album: "Just once will you talk to me, not at me, not around me, not through me?"
Leeds does recall ocassionally seeing a jovial, glib, outspoken side of Prince. Every once in a while, Prince would cancel the almost-constant rehearsals in favor of a cookout and some hoops. "Once," Leeds says, "We were rehearsing for a tour, and suddenly there was the first warm day of the year. When everybody showed up for rehearsal, we found out that Prince and his assistant had bought 10 baseball gloves, a couple softballs, a couple bats, and we went to the local school field and played baseball all day. But, in the midst of that, he's constantly talking about the last record he did and the tour we're gonna do and what we should do tomorrow in rehearsal. That function never ends. You're at a club somewhere, where he suddenly says, 'Hey, you got a notepad?' And he starts dictating orders of what we're gonna do the next day in rehearsal."
How much of the sexual legend was overblown? "Like most things, it's exaggerated," says Leeds. "But he's got a very impressive scorecard."
In our interview, The Artist refused to consider [Michael] Jackson his main competition, saying he wasn't "worried" about people as famous as he, but other "guitar killers." "I'm just a guitar player," he said. "I look out for the Jonny Langs tearing up the guitar. I don't stress nobody else."
But while Prince was the star he'd dreamed of being, he was still unsatisfied. "The person I met," says Leeds, who joined Prince shortly before Purple Rain, "was suspicious and paranoid of people and life in general, and sarcastic and cynical and clearly troubled by his personal demons. And, of course, the more we learned about his background -- his mother basically walked away from him, and his father struggled to raise him and threw in the towel, and the kinds of rejection he suffered as a youngster -- it certainly doesn't add up to a very secure, well-rounded individual."
"People think I must miss the old days," says The Artist. "No way. I was doing the 75th Purple Rain show, doing the same thing over and over -- for the same kids who go to Spice Girls shows. And I just lost it. I said: 'I can't do it!' They were putting the guitar on me and it hit me in the eye and cut me and blood started going down my shirt. And I said, 'I have to go onstage,' but I knew I had to get away from all that. I couldn't play the game."
After Purple Rain, he continued making great music -- journalist Anthony DeCurtis who interviewed Prince in 1996, says: "Between '82 (1999) and '87 (Sign O' The Times), he was in the zone. It was the moment when the zeitgeist flows through you, and as it moves through you, you're shaping where it goes once it passes you. He was channeling, man."
Sign O' The Times was a creative zenith. After two quirky, under appreciated records -- 1985's Around the World in a Day, 1986's Parade -- Sign was a critical watershed that remains the favorite Prince album for many musicians and non-musicians. "His best album to me is Sign O' The Times," says Ahmir, drummer for the hip-hop band The Roots. "That's his all-look-ma-no-hands record. No one but him would put that coda at the end of 'U Got the Look.' No one but him would put backward drums on 'Starfish and Coffee.' No one but him would write a song like 'Starfish and Coffee.' And put that shit sixth on his record! Artists today put all their eccentric shit way toward the end because they're all worried about makin' sure the first six songs are absolute bangers. Meanwhile, he covers the whole spectrum of music in the first four songs. He covered Santana, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield -- just as far as styles -- Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, all within the first five songs."
But, in retrospect, Sign O' The Times was perhaps Prince's last high point. It didn't sell incredibly well and, despite some near-scintillating moments on 1988's Lovesexy and 1992's so-called Symbol album, he would never again sell superstar truckloads or unveil genius albums. Diamonds and Pearls (1991), a critical disappointment, moved more than two million albums, but his subsequent seven albums only moved a combined three million -- some, like 1996's Chaos and Disorder, sold a mere 100,000 copies.
"When he came out," says [music author Nelson] George, "he was the most controversial artist of the time, dealing with incest and raw sexuality and sexual ambiguity and racial ambiguity. All that worked for him. And then a new movement came in called hip-hop. Once the Rakim, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane era came in, the whole level of masculinity was different. There was no room for ambiguity. There was definitely a cultural backlash among men. A lot of people suddenly said, 'Prince? He's a sissy.'" However, George added, not all Prince fans changed with the times: "Of all the artists I knew, I don't know anyone who's had so many unabashed women fans who love him to death."
Warner Bros. believed that the reason Prince's sales were slipping after Sign O' The Times was that he was over-saturating the marketplace: between 1978 and 1992, Prince released 13 albums, 2 of them double sets. In that same period, Bruce Springsteen, known for his hard work, released only 8.
For years, Warner Bros. had given Prince unusual latitude. "He was less a slave than any black artist I know of!" says George. "There's no other black artist you can look at during his era who had more artistic freedom than Prince. They really let him have control of his career in ways that black artists never have. They let him pick the singles. With the Sign O' the Times album, 'Housequake' was never a single. It was the biggest record in the country at one point, but never a single. 'Adore,' [many people's favorite Prince ballad] was never a single. They put out 'If I Was Your Girlfriend' as a single, which was a great record, but it wasn't an obvious commercial single. And those were his calls."
George continues: "As the stories go, Prince could do anything he wanted and Mo [Ostin, then the chairman of Warner Bros.] would co-sign it. Prince would go in his office and literally get on top of his desk and dance and sing for him and make Mo spend money. They never pigeonholed him as a black artist, at least internally. They put out two-sided singles and double albums and gave him mad tour support. They supported him as an artist to the highest level for most of his career. But the freedom they gave him at Warner Bros., he became a victim of it. They'd spoiled him for so long and indulged him for so long that when they started trying to rein him in, they couldn't."
In '92, Warner Bros. signed Prince to a new contract, reportedly worth $100 million, and which was announced as one of the richest in record-business history. He received a reported $30 million in cash up front and a $10 million advance per album -- but only if the previous one sold more than five million copies.
The size of the deal made Warner Bros. more interested in slowing Prince's release schedule so that the label could have more time for its promotion and marketing, and Warner Bros. pressured him to slow his release schedule. But to Prince, the problem was with how Warner Bros. was promoting his records. And besides, impeding his creative process was completely unacceptable. The situation would only get worse. "He's on some hard-core militant shit now," says Ahmir. "Like, 'You got to control your shit and let no one else control your shit for you.' I was like, 'Yo man, what brought this on?' He was like, 'I've been through hell and back and I've been through hell and back again.'"
In 1993, Prince announced that he was changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (he was soon called The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and, eventually, The Artist). In our interview, he said, "I changed my name to get out of the contract. They said, 'If you change your name, we don't want any more Prince albums.' I said, 'That's the name on the contract.' They said, 'But that's not the name people will know you by.' I said, 'You didn't sign him.'"
Warner Bros. struck back in 1994, dropping its distribution deal with Paisley Park, and, afraid he would never record again, releasing a pair of albums against his will: the long-underground Black Album and Come, a collection of outtakes. At the time, The Artist told a journalist: "You don't know how much it hurts not owning your own material. When a record company goes ahead and does something with a song you wrote. . . it can make you angry for a week."
The disagreement deepened when Warner Bros. consented to allow The Artist to release a single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," on another label, the tiny Bellmark. It was an international success, and it convinced The Artist that his decreasing record sales were not his fault. At the time, Bob Merlis, senior vice president of Warner Bros., told The New York Times: "He wanted to release more albums than his contract called for. . . Eventually we agreed that his vision and ours didn't coincide." Warner Bros. agreed to end the contract, though it retained ownership of his voluminous -- and lucrative -- back material.
In 1996, The Artist signed a deal with EMI to distribute the records he put out on his NPG label. He would finance his own albums and videos and release them at his own whim. EMI, which allowed The Artist to retain ownership of his master recordings, got a small cut for employing its own distribution system. At the time The Artist told journalists that EMI representatives were like "hired hands, like calling a florist to deliver flowers to my wife."
Needing more quotes and more substance after our first interview, I e-mail The Artist with 12 questions, mostly about music. Then, at the last moment, I tack on one more -- will you play one-on-one basketball with me? Two days later answers float back. On music he's a little more open, shunning any specific discussion of his past songs except to express an awe toward his own oeuvre, as though it was created by someone else. He writes: "Ultimately, spiritual evolution is the axis on which inspiration and creativity spin. . . there r so many songs that I've written and recorded, sometimes it is hard 4 ME 2 believe it all comes from one source!" And, intriguingly: "All of my musicality comes from GOD. . . . The blessing/curse ensued when I kept sneaking back in2 the talent line dressed as another person. . . I got away with it several times be4 they caught me!"
Then, at the bottom, in response to my hoop question, he writes: "Any time, brother."
So Prince, in a long, flowing buttoned-up, basketball-colored top that stretches down to his knees -- and cream colored heels -- sits down in front of the camera and, for a little while, lets the wall down a bit, keeping us all in stitches with his dry, quick-witted humor. Outside of interview mode, he shows off more of the changed man, a freer, more relaxed man.
Already wearing one ear cuff in each ear, he contemplates adding a hoop earring to his right one. He holds it up to his ear, "Earring or no?"
"Yes!" the female assistant says. "Wear it."
"Who buys the magazine?" he asks.
"Men," he's told.
Right on the beat, he drops the earring to the ground. "Women always get me in trouble," he teases. Then, in a womanly voice he adds, "Oooh, you look so nice in that."
A Paisley employee runs in. Prince says to him, "Ask them to clear out in the back to play basketball."
A moment later, flipping through a Vanity Fairwith Chris Rock on the cover, he comes to a story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
"Think Reagan has Alzheimer's?" he asks.
"Yeah." Who doesn't?
He gives me a sly look as if to say, don't believe it. I'd heard Prince was a conspiracy theorist. I laugh and begin writing.
"Don't write that," he says playfully. "I already got enough trouble. I'll have the Secret Service at my door." He adopts a mock-federal agent voice. "You say somethin' about Reagan?"
We all crack up. When the laughs subside, I ask: "Why would they lie about that?"
"To keep him from answering questions."
He and I, alone now, walk back toward the front of Paisley Park. After a moment of quiet, he's talking music. "There's nobody worth seeing anymore. Sinbad's bringing the Ohio Players back, but really, there's no one."
"If you could get Sly Stone out here, that'd be something."
"If he's still with us. I keep getting conflicting reports," Prince says.
We fall quiet. I have two million questions, but I hold back. Now I know that's not how to play the game. He breaks the lull. "Rhonda plays tennis." Rhonda is the bassist in his band. "I was too small to play" -- he points back toward the basketball court -- in high school. I like tennis better than that."
"I thought you were gonna play ball in heels," I say. (I'd heard he sometimes does.)
"Oh, no," he says. Then, "Can't play guitar in tennis shoes."
"I've heard that you do play ball in heels."
With a confident smirk, he says: "A jealous man told you that story."