Prince, the wildly influential rock icon who died Thursday at the age of 57, had both incredible musical talent and an incredible knack for doing bizarre, attention-getting things. So it's no wonder that a lot of writers have been interested in profiling him over the years. Now, those profiles are a rich source of anecdotes and insight for grieving fans and people who just want to learn more about him.
Here are some highlights from some of the best profiles of Prince over the years:
On his physical appearance
Prince was known for his flair for style and for the dramatic, and his interviewers often had entertaining descriptions of what he was wearing and how he came across. Many commented on his charisma, and how it seemed to make him larger than life.
From a 2011 Guardian profile by Dorian Lynskey:
Perching himself on a banquette, he looks impeccable. His trousers and chunky polo-neck sweater are as black as his shiny, sculpted hair. His ring, ear cuffs and huge, shrapnel-like neck chain all gleam silver. His skin, uncannily smooth, does not look like that of a 53-year-old. Charisma seems to add a few inches to his height. ... He often seems mysteriously amused, cocking an eyebrow and pulling a coy, wouldn’t-you-like-to-know smirk, but he likes to laugh out loud, too. He is determined to be entertaining.
From Gail Mitchell's 2013 Billboard cover story:
The ever-slender Prince — a strikingly ever-youthful advertisement for the maxim "black don't crack" — is garbed in yellow pants and a long, oversized button-front white-and-yellow jersey emblazoned with "MPLS" on the front. His Afro is covered by an incongruous hat in the shape of a lion. His other eye-catching accessory: wedged silver shoes adorned with periodically flashing red lights. A full-fledged rock star, even in rehearsal.
From Claire Hoffman's 2008 profile in The New Yorker, "Soup With Prince":
Prince padded into the kitchen, a small fifty-year-old man in yoga pants and a big sweater, wearing platform flip-flops over white socks, like a geisha. ... Prince’s voice was surprisingly deep, like that of a much larger man.
From "I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love" by Hilton Als in Harpers:
And as if to complement the room — or have the room complement him — Prince was in black and purple, too. He was shoeless, dressed in dark tropical wool trousers and a black vest with wide lapels. The vest was cinched tightly around his waist. Under the vest he wore a purple shirt. ... I was immediately transfixed by his slight frame; his straightened hair, cut relatively short, but curled, added an additional one or two inches. (Prince stands 5’4″ tall.) There was more silence, and as it unfolded, I took in his face, which had the exact shape, and large eyes, of a beautiful turtle.
From a 2015 Guardian profile by Alexis Petridis:
We are literally sitting at Prince’s feet: feet, it’s perhaps worth noting, that are wearing a pair of flip-flops with huge platform soles teamed with socks. The socks and flip-flops are white, as is the rest of his outfit: skinny flared trousers, a T-shirt with long sleeves, also flared. As skinny as a teenager, sporting an afro and almost unnecessarily handsome at 57 years old, Prince looks flatly amazing, exuding ineffable cool and panache while wearing clothes that would make anyone else look like a ninny is just one among his panoply of talents.
On the places he lived and loved
"Nowhere But Here," by Dylan Hicks in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, offers a wonderfully in-depth look at Prince's artistic development, and how it was shaped by his Midwestern roots in Minneapolis:
[S]ome found Prince’s geographical origins as surprising as his precocious dexterity. After Prince and his band pantomimed to "I Wanna Be Your Lover" on American Bandstand, Dick Clark greeted the leader by saying, "This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota." And it was in some sense improbable, but in another inevitable.
Fame and fortune elude most musicians, but the artists in the R&B scene from which Prince emerged faced particularly long odds. They were dealing not only with the standard provincial problem — remoteness from the hubs of the music business — but doing so in an area with a small African American community. ... One could hope to attract an ethnically diverse audience, and some did, particularly the area’s multiracial groups. But there were obstacles along that path, including racist booking policies that kept bands out of downtown Minneapolis.
Most agree that the Twin Cities’ relative homogeneity encouraged versatility. Prince has attributed his eclecticism in part to the narrowness of local radio; with no R&B on at night, he tuned in KQRS and was shaped by Grand Funk Railroad and Joni Mitchell as well as Sly Stone and the Stylistics. "We used to listen to everything we could get our hands on," Charles Smith says, "and then learn it."
Prince would go on to live a rockstar life in some lavish places. Here's the Guardian's Petridis on the Paisley Park studio complex in Minnesota where Prince later died:
It sits behind a chainlink fence in the nondescript Minnesota suburb of Chanhassen, and there’s no getting around the fact that, from the outside at least, it looks less like a mystical utopia, more like a branch of Ikea.
Inside, however, it looks almost exactly like you’d imagine a huge recording complex owned by Prince would look. There is a lot of purple. The symbol that represented Prince’s name for most of the 90s is everywhere: hanging from the ceiling, painted on speakers and the studio’s mixing desks, illuminating one room in the form of a neon sign.
There is something called the Galaxy Room, apparently intended for meditation: it is illuminated entirely by ultraviolet lights and has paintings of planets on the walls. There are murals depicting the studio’s owner, never a man exactly crippled by modesty.
And there are two full-sized live-music venues: a vast, hangar-like space that also features a food concession – form an orderly queue for Funky House Party In Your Mouth Cheesecake ($4) – and a smaller room decked out to look like a nightclub. I am currently on the stage of the latter, along with four other representatives of the European press.
The New Yorker's Hoffman caught up with Prince over soup at his Los Angeles home, where Prince said he moved in order to "understand the hearts and minds of the music moguls":
The thirty-thousand-square-foot Italianate villa, built this century by Vanna White’s ex-husband, looks like many of the other houses in Beverly Park, a gated community in L.A., except for the bright-purple carpet that spills down the front steps to announce its new tenant: Prince. One afternoon just before the election, Prince invited a visitor over. Inside, the place was done up in a generic Mediterranean style, although there were personal flourishes here and there — a Lucite grand piano with a gold-colored "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" symbol suspended over it, purple paisley pillows on a couch. Candles scented the air, and New Age music played in the living room, where a TV screen showed images of bearded men playing flutes.
On his artistic versatility
From Hicks's "Nowhere But Here":
Few in pop history have matched Prince at doing so many things so well. Often simultaneously celebratory and reflective, he has songs for your sad dance party and songs for your happy apocalypse. His singing spans several octaves and styles, from new wave archness to gospel expressiveness. Adept on keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums, he can produce perfectly realized records all alone or with the aid of a single engineer willing to work extremely long hours. An iconoclast in black leg warmers and animal-print panties, he has challenged and indeed changed our ideas about race, sexuality, and animal-print panties.
That was part of the thrill of Prince, that he was protean, indecipherable. His deliberately multiracial, mixed-gender bands recalled Sly & the Family Stone and the collectivism of the ’60s, while his studio methods recalled ’70s insularity. He was an old-fashioned instrumentalist who made some of his coolest sounds by feeding a Linn drum machine into effects pedals. He was antiestablishment (see "Uptown")—no, a conservative (see the downright McCarthyesque "America"). His grandest gestures could seem shallow, his modest ones bottomless.
The Guardian's Lynskey:
Prince, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, was one of the regents of pop music in its blockbuster pomp. Unlike them, he could do everything: sing, write, play, produce, design, make movies, call all the shots. With 1984’s Purple Rain, he could simultaneously boast the No 1 album, single and film in the US. During his imperial phase, it felt like his only competition was himself. "I had creative control," he says proudly. "We had to fight for over a year before I even got signed. So whatever I turned in, they had to accept. They weren’t even allowed to speak to me!"
Prince alternates between guitar and keyboards, and the songs they play spark to life with every touch he adds. "What If" is followed by new arrangements of two Prince songs — the springy funk-rocker "Cause and Effect" from 2010 and the vintage "Around the World in a Day" B-side "She's Always in My Hair" — and all three songs provide a bird's-eye view of Prince's skills as an artist and multitasker. There's the singer/songwriter for whom music remains a deep-rooted passion-and above all, fun. There's the mesmerizing instrumentalist on guitar and keyboard, sounding just as improvisational, energetic and fresh as he did when he hit the scene in 1978. Then there's also the teacher/mentor who gets off on finding and molding new talent.
Here's Als, whose Harper's piece is a gorgeous rumination on Prince's black and queer aesthetics and powerful sexual presence, and how it affected the author and interacted with his own love life:
Prince’s best songs, like those of a number of black artists before him (Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder), have always been an admixture of the sacred (gospel) and the profane (sex). But what Prince has rewritten in his thirty-five-year career ... are the often racist and homophobic attitudes by which soul music was produced and marketed, not least by black artists themselves.
In general, artists forge one of two career paths for themselves early on. Either they reject the world in order to become the romantic hero of their own imagining, or they embrace the real, transmuting what they find in the streets and in people’s homes into tales an audience can readily identify with. Growing up, Prince did both. And he used urban black music and black gay attitude as it filtered through and got mixed up in his predominantly white Midwestern environment to express his quintessentially American self. And it was this self—which, visually, at least, he played as male and female, gay and straight, black and white—that Prince used to remake black music in his own image.
On his powerful sexual presence
Looking into Prince’s eyes must be like looking at the world. Or, more specifically, the world of one black man loving another. How freaky is that? And who’s on top in that kind of mind fuck? (Probably Prince, given that he’s capable of articulating this basic truth, as he does in his 1992 song "Sexy M.F.": "In a word or 2—it’s u I wanna do/ No, not cha body, yo mind you fool.")
Being enthralled—or, more accurately, frightened and turned on by Prince and what his various looks said about an aspect of black male sexuality—was that something only comedians could talk about? And when they did, did Prince’s weirdness have to be the butt of the joke, so to speak, along with colored queerness?
When I saw Prince at Madison Square Garden on the Lovesexy tour, in 1988, he wore a halter top and tight little pants. He danced, and his ass danced with him. In the colored world, a big ass is part of one’s physiology, one’s legacy. I could only show my ass with my mouth — that is, through language. Which felt distinctly different from the mouth and ass that fucked us up so beautifully in performance. Prince was showing his ass again, and everyone in the audience could taste it. He had the black-queen vote again: he was dressed in the height of trannywear.
But that didn’t last long. He wanted to be a boy and play in the world of corporate politics. He split with his record label, albums were released under other names, all that twisted righteousness forsaken so Prince could approximate being less a freak and more a man in the eyes of those white men he disparaged but must have admired for what they had that so few colored boys ever have: power. Maybe Prince was trying on power like he’d try on garters or fishnets. But he didn’t jettison the suits—or his suit—fast enough to win me back.
He had taken the measure of mainstream culture and found it both hypersexual and antiseptic, so he ratcheted up the bluntness, the strangeness, the ambiguity. He was passive, active, cocky, coy, aloof, needy; to virginal fans such as myself, he made sex sound liberating, funny, and boundless, as well as impossibly fraught. His 1984 B-side "Erotic City," a sort of secret song that everyone knew about, was, with its incessant bass line and whistling hook, at once irresistible and ominous, precisely what a parental-advisory jam needed to sound like in the early years of AIDS.
He sometimes had his licentiousness wrestling with his faith. More often, though, he took the approach Marvin Gaye often pursued, presenting sex and faith as two sides of the same impulse, a divine gift rather than a way to put us in a state of constant trial and temptation.
The point was underlined by the sensuality of Prince’s music: his seductive singing, his spine-tingling harmonies, his brittle funk, and his soaring refrains. "To be sensual," James Baldwin wrote, anticipating Prince’s doctrine and evoking his finest music, ". . . is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread."
Rumours circled him because he was such a defiantly outlandish presence: the pop star as inexplicable alien, with a sexuality as ambiguous as it was voracious, and so unsettlingly potent that the censorship lobby PMRC was spurred into existence by a single song, Darling Nikki. Did he work hard to make himself as fascinating as possible? "We were very fascinating," he says. "In Minnesota it was a clean slate. It was punk rock. There were a lot of fascinating people around."
On his race, faith, and identity
Prince was often the most fluid, and sometimes the most problematic, when it came to these topics.
To further complicate matters, Prince’s racial identity was somewhat in flux. Like the young Bob Dylan, Prince saw publicity as an arena for subterfuge and self-invention. For instance, though both John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw identified as black, in early ’80s interviews Prince more than once characterized himself as being of mixed race in the way the term is conventionally understood, telling interviewers that his mother was an Italian American, that his father was mixed, and not correcting the record when reporters kept repeating versions of the story. This understanding was reinforced byPurple Rain, in which the mother of Prince’s character is white.
In an interview with Jon Bream, Prince’s mother, Mattie Shaw, addressed the issue historically: "I think all blacks are racially mixed," and it was this sort of multiethnic heritage that a more forthright Prince described when he spoke to Neal Karlen for a Rolling Stone cover in 1985. Whatever motivated Prince to take his initial line, the story seemed to offer a ready-made explanation of his music’s hybridity. InThe New York Times, Robert Palmer wrote, "Prince himself transcends racial stereotyping because, as he once put it, ‘I never grew up in one particular culture.’ "
The tweaked biography could be seen as a trickster’s eschewal of restricting rules and a critique of the biological flimsiness of racial categories. It chimed with Prince’s vision of a utopian Uptown in which race and other classifications were both ignored and meaningless.
Before Prince, black popular music had been limited by its blackness, which is to say its fundamentally Christian, blues-inflected, conservative attitude toward everything pushed in Prince’s early shows with his backing band, the Revolution, and in his records ... Given Prince’s DJ-like mixing of homosexualist and heterosexualist impulses in his early work, it is not overreaching to imagine that Prince thought of race as a similarly fluid component of life.
And when Prince did sing about his personal politics, he did so with a knowing wink directed at those audience members who delighted—as Prince obviously did, too—in the confusion he generated among those blacks and whites in the early 1980s who could not get over his light skin, relaxed hair, tranny panties, and peep-show-creep raincoat. Unlike with Little Richard (Prince’s forebear in black American androgyny), it was impossible to imagine Prince becoming a preacher as a way of renouncing his love affair with eyeliner.
To enter Prince’s world, then, was to know that rules, racial or otherwise, were self-imposed and self-limiting. As Prince sang in his 1981 hit "Controversy": "I just can’t believe/ All the things people say/ Controversy/ Am I black or white?/ Am I straight or gay?/ Controversy/ . . . . Some people wanna die/ so they can be free."
But while Prince blended racial and sexual boundaries, he also had some problematic attitudes about faith and sexual politics — especially after he became a Jehovah's Witness in 2001.
Prince had his change of faith, he said, after a two-year-long debate with a musician friend, Larry Graham. "I don’t see it really as a conversion," he said. "More, you know, it’s a realization. It’s like Morpheus and Neo in ‘The Matrix.’ " He attends meetings at a local Kingdom Hall, and, like his fellow-witnesses, he leaves his gated community from time to time to knock on doors and proselytize. "Sometimes people act surprised, but mostly they’re really cool about it," he said.
Recently, Prince hosted an executive who works for Philip Anschutz, the Christian businessman whose company owns the Staples Center. "We started talking red and blue," Prince said. "People with money—money like that—are not affected by the stock market, and they’re not freaking out over anything. They’re just watching. So here’s how it is: you’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to this." He pointed to a Bible. "But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got blue, you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right."
When asked about his perspective on social issues—gay marriage, abortion—Prince tapped his Bible and said, "God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’ "
For inspiration he keeps coming back to Sly and the Family Stone, and it was that band’s former bassist, Larry Graham, who introduced him to the Jehovah’s Witnesses a decade ago. The faith seems to have made him calm and content, albeit at the loss to his songwriting of the anguish, combativeness and transgressive sexuality that animated some of his strongest 80s material. "I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant. You can’t be both. I had to learn what authority was. That’s what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction." He puts it another way. "If I go to a place where I don’t feel stressed and there’s no car alarms and airplanes overhead, then you understand what noise pollution is. Noise is a society that has no God, that has no glue. We can’t do what we want to do all the time. If you don’t have boundaries, what then?"
Sometimes he seems a little too fond of boundaries. "It’s fun being in Islamic countries, to know there’s only one religion. There’s order. You wear a burqa. There’s no choice. People are happy with that." But what about women who are unhappy about having to wearing burqas? "There are people who are unhappy with everything," he says shruggingly. "There’s a dark side to everything."