Mercurial. That would be the one-word description I would use for the recently-deceased rock star whose given first name was Prince. Shiny, hard to contain, impossible to pin down, temperamental. I also choose it because of the word's reference to the Roman god Mercury (Greek name: Hermes), the flighty, mischievous, androgynous (or is it hermaphroditic?) messenger of the gods.
Prince's life does leave us a message: it is the triumph of sheer talent and bravado. When it comes to musical talent, he had every aspect of it, in abundance. He was a great songwriter, with well-crafted lyrics, simple but effective musical structures, and his songs told interesting, evocative stories. He paid great attention to recording standards, and he was a fabulous performer until the end. He could and did play all the instruments in the standard guitar-rock ensemble, and his voice was a flexible instrument. He had a broad range, not to mention his trademark emotional squawk, though I would say he might have overused his "sexy" falsetto. The only person to whom I can compare the range of his talents in the field of popular music is Stevie Wonder, and I would suggest that the arc of their careers (so far, for Stevie) are similar.
His earliest songs were among his best. "Little Red Corvette" is a hit with timeless qualities (like the car, I suppose), a song that sounded like a classic from the first time I heard it. Next came "1999"--a song that may have captured the true nature of the '80's better than any other. 1984 was, for me, his peak, with the album "Purple Rain", which produced several hits, and a hit movie. In it, Prince may have given us a glimpse about what made him tick: The story of the movie is a fictional one, about a bandleader like Prince, with a background like Prince's, and a lifestyle like Prince's was. The song that I have always loved best, and for which I will be forever grateful to Prince for doing, is "When Doves Cry"--the album version, please. It is a passionate plea--with Hendrix-like guitar riffs--to stop all the fighting, both domestically and, implicitly, more broadly.
He had a few more hits--"Raspberry Beret" being one of his better post-P.R. tunes, and "Kiss" is truly a high-water mark in the history of pop song seduction. He also contributed excellent songwriting that others capitalized upon, such as Chaka Khan with his "I Feel For You" and Sinead O'Connor with "Nothing Compares 2U". His singular achievement, which has been highly influential ever since the '80's, was the degree to which he successfully integrated rock and funk. The breadth of the tributes coming after his death shows the degree to which his formula has remained hugely popular, though hard to imitate.
Here, though, I have to kvetch a bit. The question a fan like me, interested but not intently following his career, has to ask is: What was he doing the last 20 years? It seems he was doing some good things behind the scenes, helping some out with their careers, some community service that he insisted on keeping out of the public eye, performing live shows when he felt like it. I have read--but cannot confirm--that he converted to Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001, gave up drugs and reduced his carousing behaviors. We could recall that Bob Dylan had a conversion experience at a similar age; the difference for Prince, unfortunately for his legacy, is that he did not live long enough to snap out of it and return to the level of creativity with which he began his career.
I would not speculate on the reason he died; we may eventually learn, and maybe it doesn't matter so much. As far as I know, he doesn't leave behind bereaved spouse or offspring, and I don't claim that he owed the public anything; he earned the right to be as weird as he often acted. I think his messages--when comprehensible--were always positive, in favor of tolerance, understanding, peace.
So, Rest In Peace, our Prince.