Black performers rarely get labeled as rock stars, but there’s no question that Prince was one. That’s part of why Around the World in a Day (1985) is my favorite of his albums. It’s a retro-60s hippie rock concept statement, in which Prince swaggers up and declares, “I can be a weirder fey psychedelic badass mushroom than you, Paul McCartney.” The dreamy single “Paisley Park” is one of most unique takes on rock’s synthesis of lust and the children’s song ever recorded. The tune toddles and hops along in a fruity McCartneyesque vein while Prince’s guitar growls and snarls. “Paisley Park is in your heart,” he declares, but the music insists it’s also in your groin. Innocence, grit, transcendence, joy, borderline nonsense lyrics—what could be more rock and roll?
Calling Prince a rock artist is not controversial. Alongside Jimi Hendrix, and probably ahead of Chuck Berry, Prince is the world’s most recognizable black rock performer, celebrated both for his blistering guitar playing and his eclectic ability to mix white styles of rock with R&B influences.
The fact is, while rock was invented primarily by black performers, it’s always incorporated a hybrid of styles. Chuck Berry borrowed Appalachian fiddle tunes; Elvis borrowed jump blues. And yet, when white artists incorporate black sources, they’re treated as genius rock stars, while black performers’ use of “whiter” styles is often seen as a novelty or just passed over in silence. The fact is, while rock was invented primarily by black performers, it’s always incorporated a hybrid of styles.
Al Green listened to the Beatles as surely as the Beatles listened to the Shirrelles. But when the Beatles cover the Shirrelles, it’s rock; when Green covers the Beatles, it’s R&B. When rock music is defined by and limited to white people, only white people get to fit in the critically acclaimed pantheon of rock geniuses. Black performers are made to seem an exception in the genre they invented. As Dee of blackrocktumblr says, “There’s a level of erasure happening because the idea of a mixed America is something that doesn’t sit right with many folks in America.”
Prince, of course, was an innovator in every aspect of his career. His band was famously integrated, and it sounded like it—even when, as happened not infrequently, he played all the instruments himself. For Prince, there was no line between white rock music and black R&B music; he didn’t so much blend the two as make it seem like they’ve always been indistinguishable. “Tamborine,” for example, is both one of the itchiest funk tunes ever and a New Wave classic; if Kraftwerk was about dancing robots, Prince made music that sounded like it was transforming robots into breakdancers and back again. “The Cross” from Sign of the Times makes you realize that the Velvet Underground should have really been a gospel group like the Ward Singers, and vice versa, while “Ronnie Talks to Russia,” borrows its pace and politics from punk while still being a sinewy dance rave up. Prince’s ability to turn the Beatles into James Brown into Fleetwood Mac into Jimi Hendrix is dazzling.
Prince’s ability to turn the Beatles into James Brown into Fleetwood Mac into Jimi Hendrix is so dazzling that it can seem singular and unprecedented. But, while Prince was absolutely a unique artist, he’s not the only black artist to take stereotypically white and supposedly black music, stir them together and make rock out of it. On the contrary, in that regard, he’s not the exception so much as the rule.
Rosetta Tharpe was spitting classic rock licks before classic rock existed, and basically invented the rock genre. Otis Redding, like Prince, fronted an integrated band, and drew from an eclectic array of influences, not least the Beatles. Minnie Riperton was flirting with folk-tinged easy listening a decade before Prince wrote “Condition of the Heart,” and about the same time as Stevie Wonder was showing Led Zeppelin the meaning of heavy. For that matter, many of Prince’s peers, from Michael Jackson to Public Enemy to Rihanna, have expressed their love of guitar solos. If Prince was crossing over to rock, then he was doing it in the company of just about every other major black artist of the last sixty years. “Crossing over” is a particularly bad way to describe black artists who enjoy rock music.
“Crossing over” is a particularly bad way to describe black artists who enjoy rock music. Prince’s career, influences, and collaborators scrambled expectations for who an R&B artist should be listening to, and what an R&B artist should sound like. But so did the careers, influences, and collaborators of Sly Stone, Patti Labelle, Brandy, Etta James, Sonny and Linda Sharrock, Bill Withers, Ray Charles, Valerie June, DAWN. You get the idea.
Part of Prince’s genius was that he made it so obvious that the line between “white music” and “black music” was meaningless. Listening to a Prince album, even the dullest rock critic couldn’t help notice that nothing went in the box it was supposed to.
What is “Little Red Corvette,” anyway? Motown confection? Power ballad? New-wave Marc Bolan tribute via Stevie Wonder? The artist sometimes formerly known as a symbol made it impossible for you to label him, and did so in part by insisting that the incredibly wide range of music he loved wasn’t so easily labeled either. Prince came from a long line of eccentric rock geniuses, and part of how he honored them was by forcing even the most obtuse listener to understand that rock was, and always has been, black music.