Genius in short
Sex-obsessed pop polymath? Jehovah's Witness? One thing is certain, the artist known as Prince is back to his dazzling best. Catching up with the superstar in New York and at his home in Los Angeles, Barney Hoskyns unravels a continuing enigma

Sunday February 19, 2006
The Observer

'HEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRE'SPRINCEY!!!!' Yes, folks, we're live tonight in New York City for The Prince Show, complete with sidekick Beyoncé Knowles and special guest Drew Barrymore. The set is a gaudy conflation of psychedelic shack and beaux arts boudoir, with our host kitted out in black turban and purple jacket. Except that he's barely deigning to speak, communicating his thoughts and wishes through buxom Beyoncé.

Prior to the entrance of La Barrymore there's an unscheduled appearance by a silver-haired Frenchman claiming to be Prince's chef. He says he's been preparing meals for His Royal Highness for many years 'but it's an honneur to finally meet you'. Prince isn't too thrilled to see the guy, complaining that he burned his tongue on his pancakes that morning. Turning away from the chef he picks up an ostrich-feathered eye-mask and contemplates himself in an ornate gold mirror.

'Prince is gazing into the mirror of reflection,' Beyoncé intones in a bored voice. Confused? You should be. Amused? Possibly not.

Beyoncé, of course, isn't Beyoncé at all. This particular night in early February, she's Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph, just as the silver-haired chef is none other than Steve Martin, hosting SNL tonight for a record 16th time. Prince himself is being royally impersonated by Fred Armisen, another regular on the late-night show.

Like a lot of SNL these days, the Prince sketch isn't very funny. But it does suggest that America still believes Prince to be mildly insane. You wonder what the miniature maestro himself, sitting backstage tonight in some green room at NBC's Rockefeller Plaza studios, feels as he watches on a TV.

'Why does everyone think I'm mad?' he once asked his British press person. 'Because,' the PR replied, 'you do weird things and you don't explain them.'

Prince does do weird things, but he also performs live with a stage presence and a charisma that's unrivalled in American entertainment. Appearing on Saturday Night Live for the first time in 25 years, 10 days before his hotly-anticipated performance at the Brit Awards in London, he gives television debuts to two songs from his forthcoming album, 3121. One of them, 'Fury', is a decimating blast of pop-rock, complete with squealing guitar arpeggios and fabulously sexy choreography. When the number finishes, Prince lays his souped-up Stratocaster on the stage and casually upends his microphone stand before moseying towards the exit with the cockiest smirk you ever saw on a pop star's face.

The smirk says 'I killed 'em again' and it's an expression I've seen on Prince's face for a quarter of a century, ever since I watched him play in this very city in February 1981. That night, at the Ritz Theatre, I saw rock'n'soul's future: a devastatingly assured set of taut new-wave funk from a kinky genius who made Michael Jackson look like the buppie boy next door. I saw the smirk, too, when I went on the road with Prince and the Revolution two years later, accompanying the 1999 tour on several dates through the Midwest.

A decade later when I met him again in a hotel suite in London, it was more Mona Lisa than Cheshire Cat - coolly supercilious, ultimately indecipherable. Then, he took me to task for things other people had told me about him, hooting uproariously at the notion that any of them was in a position to talk about him. The fact that one, engineer Susan Rogers, had sat by his side on hundreds of occasions at his Paisley Park studio carried little weight with him.

'You think Susan Rogers knows me?' he asked. 'You think she knows anything about my music? Susan Rogers, for the record, doesn't know anything about my music. Not one thing. The only person who knows anything about my music [pause for very pointed effect] ... is me.'

I see, I said.

As the conversation continued, Prince became progressively tetchier. 'All these non-singing, non-dancing, wish-I-had-me-some-clothes fools who tell me my albums suck,' he jeered. 'Why should I pay any attention to them?'

Right, I said.

At the very end, his pique at a peak, Prince declared that language was so confining that 'I might just stop talking again and not do interviews'. Everything, it seemed, had come full circle - back to his announcement in 1983 that he'd never talk to the press again.

Flash back a quarter of a century to the doldrums of the early Eighties: flouncy-haired synthkids, fading AOR veterans, flocks of seagulls and hosts of Haircut 100s. Vapid and sexless, pop was little more than a Smash Hits remake of American Bandstand three decades earlier. Who were Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw if they weren't blow-dried throwbacks to Fabian and Frankie Avalon?

'What's missing from pop music is danger,' Prince proclaimed in November 1982. 'There's no excitement and mystery - people sneaking out and going to these forbidden concerts by Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix.'

Danger is an overly mythologised quality in pop, but at the dawn of that decade Prince embodied something so thrilling and so category-smashing that within five years he'd all but turned pop on its head. Of the four stars who bossed the Eighties - Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince - the 5'2" prodigy from Minneapolis was the only true maverick in the pack.

'Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold,' he sang memorably in the heartrending 'When Doves Cry'. 'Maybe I'm just like my mother, she's never satisfied ...' He was an oddball and an introvert from his earliest days as a child prodigy, the son of jazz bandleader John Nelson and a Louisiana-born mother, Mattie Shaw. Brilliant but unhappy, he found a sanctuary in music that he couldn't find in a home where his parents often fought.

He played in covers bands but was happier working alone, overdubbing himself with primitive tape recorders in the basement of his friend Andre Anderson's house. Adopted by studio owner Chris Moon and manager Owen Husney, he began plotting his route to a record deal, cultivating a canny air of mystique while playing up to an X-rated image he'd developed after an early immersion in pornography.

If Husney was astounded by Prince's talent, he was also mildly alarmed by a teenager who seemed considerably older than his years. 'At 17 he had the vision and astuteness of a 40-year-old,' Husney told me. 'He was the kind of guy who could sit in a room with you and absorb everything in your brain and know more than you by the time you left the room. Prince might hang late, but it was all for music. He wasn't looking to get high with the guys.'

His first big hit, 1979's 'I Wanna Be Your Lover', was irresistibly catchy: black pop with a funk-lite guitar riff and a playfully androgynous falsetto vocal: 'I wanna be your lover/Wanna be your mother and your sister too ...' Coming at the tail end of disco, it didn't sound like anything else on black radio. Black media approved but found him as hard to pigeonhole as white media did. Warner Brothers, which had given him unprecedented license to produce himself, understood that he was as much a mercurial, Todd Rundgren-esque rock boffin as a strutting funk god.

In 1984 he went for broke: a self-mythologising movie based on his own life and on the friendly competitiveness of the 'Uptown' scene he'd spawned in Minneapolis. Cheap but oddly charming for all its puerile sexism, Purple Rain was the pop sensation of the year, its soundtrack album shifting over 18 million copies and keeping 'When Doves Cry' at number one for six weeks. 'In some ways Purple Rain scared me,' Prince later confessed. 'It's my albatross and it'll be hanging around my neck as long as I'm making music.'

Twenty-two years later, Prince may have finally shaken off his purple albatross. In 2004 he was the highest-grossing live performer in America, netting a cool $56.5 million. His influence, moreover, could he heard in the music of everybody from Beck to Basement Jaxx via Alicia Keys (who had a huge hit with 'How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?', one of Prince's great Eighties ballads).

A string of masterpieces followed Purple Rain: the Beatle-esque Around the World in a Day (1985), the funked-up Parade (1986) and 1987's Sign O the Times. Recorded at the new Paisley Park studio he had built in 1986 on the outskirts of Minneapolis, Sign was devilishly eclectic, travelling from the doom-saying title track - an unsettling mix of hypnotic electro rhythm, bluesy guitar and fragile, semi-rapped lyric - to the Philly rhapsody of 'Adore' via the frantic power pop of 'I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man'.

The follow-up, Lovesexy (1988), felt, however, like a disappointment, and with the dismal critical reception accorded the Graffiti Bridge movie (1990), Prince for the first time tasted failure.

He also began to regard his career differently. If the Nineties began with the big hits 'Cream' and 'Diamonds and Pearls', the next few years were dominated by his battle with Warner Brothers, the label that did so much to nurture his talent through the early stages of his career.

'The reasons that he felt the contract was unfair had little to do with money,' lawyer L. Londell McMillan would later claim in his defence. 'His interior life revolves around music, its creation and performance. But with Warners he didn't own his own creations, the masters of his recordings.'

The sight of Prince with the word 'SLAVE' daubed on his cheek will always be associated with the period in which he chose petulantly to be known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Then on 7 June 1993, it was announced that Prince had changed his name to because he had been dispossessed 'in perpetuity' by his record company.

Three years later he finally severed his ties with the label, instead forming his own New Power Generation label for the purposes of releasing the triple CD Emancipation. Released as a celebration of Prince's marriage to dancer Mayte Garcia, the album was also intended to herald the arrival of the couple's baby boy. Tragically the child, Gregory, died in October 1996 from a rare skull disease called Pfieffer's Syndrome.

The baby's death marked the beginning of a profound change in Prince's worldview. Towards the end of the decade, with his marriage to Mayte over, he struck up a friendship with one of his musical heroes, the former bassist with Sly and the Family Stone. Larry Graham had recovered from a life of drugs and violence through being born again as a Jehovah's Witness.

'Larry goes door to door to tell people the truth about God,' Prince told me. 'That's why I told myself, I need to know a man like him. He calls me his baby brother.' By 2001 Prince had himself become a Jehovah's Witness, his new-found faith reflected in the arcane, for hardcore-fans-only album The Rainbow Children, which went some way to laying the ghosts of dire contract-fillers such as Come (1995) and Chaos and Disorder (1996). He had also remarried, to former Paisley Park assistant Manuela Testolini, and committed himself to a new life of monogamy.

Gone were the X-rated lyrics that had dominated so many of his songs from Dirty Mind to the Black Album. Instead the new record - released through NPG - pursued a narrative about 'the Wise One' and his struggle with 'the Banished Ones'.

'When I went back to the name Prince and released Rainbow Children, that was the beginning of where I am now,' he told Ebony magazine. 'But you have to do the work ... That's what independence is. It's my catalogue, my dynasty.'
Three days after the Saturday Night Live taping we are at a private party that Prince is hosting at his palatial Beverly Hills home to launch 3121. To describe the singer's stately pleasure dome as Paisley Park West would be to undersell it: as LA pieds-a-terre go, this marbled movie-star crib takes some beating.

For the new record he has teamed up with Universal/Island, just as he signed a one-album deal with Columbia for 2004's Musicology. The onus is on the world's biggest major to prove it can keep the upward momentum of Prince's 'comeback' going. Asked about 'jumping aboard the biggest slavery ship of them all', he has insisted that 'I got a chance to structure the agreement the way I saw fit as opposed to it being the other way around.'

We are here to get a first listen to the album and then to watch His Nibs perform in the comfort of his own living room - sorry, make that ballroom. When the album comes on we're instantly launched into one of those patented Prince jams, dirty and grinding with deep funk bass and sped-up 'Camille' harmony voice. Moving through a smorgasbord of Prince turns, we jump from pop to rock to Latin to viciously pounding funk. The switch from the Latin croon of 'Te Amo Corazon' to the brutal industrial groove of 'Black Sweat' is typical.

That last song is an affirmation of black pride - a reminder that when Musician magazine's Pablo Guzman, in an overview of 'black rock' from Hendrix to Rick James, once asked him if he was competing with Devo or the Clash, Prince sneered: 'Maybe, but those guys can't sing.'

Unlike Rainbow Children, 3121 seems pitched at the mainstream - some of it is Prince on autopilot, but there are moments that prove there's still fire in the guy's belly. 'Fury', its keyboard riffing redolent of '1999' or 'Let's Go Crazy', kicks like a mule. 'Satisfied' is smoochy soul with one foot in Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On.

With the playback concluded, its creator takes the makeshift stage with his band but stays off to one side as protégée Tamar and foxy twin sisters Mya and Mandy shake and shimmy their way through hooky originals and infectious covers.
'Support real musicians,' Prince mutters after Tamar has torn the heart out of 'When a Man Loves a Woman'. 'Ain't a loop on this stage.'

Tonight Prince confines himself to the role of sideman, occasionally sauntering out to fire off a splintering guitar solo. Halfway through the set, Prince's former drummer Sheila E arrives to add timbales to the sturdy beats supplied by the impressive Cora Coleman Dunham.

What remains awesome after all these years is Prince's command of pop history, that effortless ability to reach into a personal tote-bag of songs and riffs from rock, soul, television. At one point he teases us with the intro to 'When You Were Mine'; at another he wittily picks out the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. The guy's charisma is undiminished, his pocket-size physique unchanged in 28 years.

By 3am it's all over. The Prince who 20 years ago would have jammed until dawn thanks us for coming, sweeps out of the ballroom, and retires for the night.

As I exit Prince's LA Xanadu and head out into the balmy California night, I ask myself how much he actually cares about being a superstar again. Did he strike the Universal deal because he genuinely wants to compete with the Kanye Wests and Mariah Careys of the world, or is he actually quite content - and certainly wealthy enough - to have the kind of funky fun he had backing up Tamar tonight?

'A strong spirit transcends rules,' he told me back in 1999. 'As RZA of Wu-Tang said: "I ain't commercial, it's y'all who tell me whether I'm commercial or not".'

Purple reign: 10 essential albums

Prince (1979)
His debut album, For You, had appeared a year earlier, but songs such as 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' first suggested the brilliance to come.

Dirty Mind (1980)
A collection of demos that Prince decided to release as a proper album: stripped back, and intended to strip off your clothes.

Purple Rain (1984)

His first US number one. Stylistically promiscuous, often filthy, it peaked at seven in the UK but sold 18 million copies worldwide.

Parade (1986)

Just pipping Around the World in a Day (1985) and Lovesexy (1988), this was Prince at the peak of his powers . And it featured Kiss.

Sign O'the Times (1987)

But this double-disc remains the pick from this dazzlingly fecund period. And at first the 29-year-old singer wanted this to be a triple-album!!

Diamonds and Pearls (1991)

The daring had gone, but half a dozen pop gems such as 'Cream' and the title track still shamed his rivals.

The Black Album (1994)

Prince at his funkiest. Intended as the follow-up to Sign O' the Times, it was originally pulled from release before he belatedly recanted.

Emancipation (1996)

This was a triple album but stuffed with filler material. Nonetheless, his happiness at marriage to Mayte was evident for all to hear.

The Rainbow Children (2001)

Most likely Prince's strangest album, musically adventurous and concerned with arcane matters of faith.

3121 (2006)

Released in March, this will be Prince's 24th album in a career spanning 28 years. Singles 'Te Amo Corazon' and 'Black Sweat' are crackers.

Lovesexy: his women
From the start of his career on songs such as 'Soft and Wet', Prince' s interest in the fairer sex has been evident. His rumoured conquests include pint-sized Scot Sheena Easton, drummer Sheila E, actress Kim Basinger, Bangles vocalist Susanna Hoffs, future Baywatch star Carmen Electra and even Madonna. He has also been married twice, the first time to actress and former bellydancer Mayte Jannell Garcia. The pair met when she was 18; then she became a member of his group the NPG between 1992 and 1996. They were married on Valentine's Day that year, and she bore him his first and only child who died from a rare skull disease shortly afterwards. Mayte and Prince were divorced by June 2000. Prince went on to marry Manuela Testolini in 2001, 18 years his junior.