Decades before we started communicating via 😢 , 🎸,or ☔️ there were the idiosyncratic lyrics of Prince, the visionary rebel musician who died today at age 57. As early as in 198os, Prince decided his lyrics would not conform to traditional notions of written language, popularizing a form of shorthand that would become ubiquitous in the age of instant messaging.
As the blog Feel Numb pointed out in 2012, many of Prince’s early songs contained U instead of “you,” 2 instead of “too” or 4 instead of “for,” like in his 1984 song “I Would Die 4 U:”
U – I would die 4 u, yeah
Darling if u want me 2
U – I would die 4 u
Other early examples of this textspeak are “All The Critics Love U In New York” (1982), “Do U Lie?” (1986) or the hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” which was made famous by Sinead O’Connor in 1990.
Prince also famously substituted the pronoun “I” for an eye pictogram, a symbol he favored, and with which he was honored after his death on Twitter. The so-called “third-eye” is an important spiritual sign, which is associated with clairvoyance.
The artist also used his unique way of expression in his fight against the music industry. In 1993, annoyed that his label, Warner Bros. wanted him to cut back on releasing new albums, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, a combination of the traditional male and female signs.
It was then that media started referring to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” He went back to “Prince” in 2000, when his contract expired. According to Rolling Stone, sales of his albums lagged in the interim, although his conviction remained strong.