By defying the confines of gender, Prince inspired artists to be themselves in the face of social norms that might tell them to do otherwise. The album 4Ever, the first to be released since his death in April, reminds us that we should keep celebrating the impact of his revolutionary life.
By the time I was born in the summer of '94, the height of Prince's popularity had already passed. My only gateway to hearing his most iconic works were the greatest hits albums my parents played in the car when I was a child. Entirely unaware of the meaning of the lyrics I memorized, I became obsessed. As I grew up, those records became the foundation of my evolving musical taste, but I could never articulate why they affected me so deeply. Then, one day, rifling through my parents' record collection as a teen, it clicked.
Prince's uplifting pop beats had reeled me in, but it was his fluidly feminine image that continued to enchant me. Black eyeliner, billowing lace frills, high-heeled boots—it was a male identity I'd never seen before. As a girl who constantly rejected the feminine ideals society threw at her, I could relate—and I wasn't the only one. Prince assured the generation raised on his music that they could be as masculine or feminine as they desired. Without him, so many of our favorite artists wouldn't be the same.
Celebrate Prince's legendary life with our essential playlist! Here are the stories behind some of his greatest hits.
Song: "I Wanna Be Your Lover"
The Story: Prince's first album, 1978's For You, didn't cause much of a stir with critics. It wasn't until his sophomore release, Prince, that he'd found breakout success. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" was his first Billboard Hot 100 hit, and it was the song that unleashed Prince on the world.
Standout Lyric: "I want to be your brother / I want to be your mother and your sister, too / There ain't no other / That can do the things that I'll do to you"
The Story: Prince was ambiguous in every sense of the word, which confused, and maybe angered, a lot of people. Both the track and the album for which it was named addressed the controversies he'd created and celebrated his unabashed sexuality as a symbol of the deep cultural shifts that society was undergoing.
Standout Lyric: "I just can't believe all the things people say (controversy) / Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? (controversy) / Do I believe in god, do I believe in me? (controversy)"
Song: "Purple Rain"
The Story: Prince described "Purple Rain" as a phenomenon created by blood in the sky, a sure sign of the world's end. The song itself, what some call Prince's magnum opus, is about embracing loved ones and allowing faith to guide you through traumatic times. Following Prince's death, it was the song the world decided they would remember him by: it instantly rose to number one on the charts when the news of his passing broke in April.
Standout Lyric: "Honey, I know, I know / I know times are changing / It's time we all reach out / For something new, that means you, too"
Song: "When Doves Cry"
The Story: Prince wrote what is arguably one of the greatest songs of all time in just one night. After completing Purple Rain, the producers of the companion film requested one more song, so Prince stayed up all night and came back the next morning with "When Doves Cry." The song felt too conventional in production, so Prince did what few artists of the '80s were brave enough to do: he removed the bass line entirely, which gave the song its haunting quality—a move that certainly helped Prince score his first number one hit.
Standout Lyric: "How can you just leave me standing / Alone in a world so cold? (World so cold) / Maybe I'm just too demanding / Maybe I'm just like my father too bold / Maybe you're just like my mother / She's never satisfied (She's never satisfied) / Why do we scream at each other? / This is what it sounds like / When doves cry"
The Story: Prince originally wrote this song as an acoustic demo for funk band Mazerati, but after hearing their rendition in production, he decided he'd reclaim it as his own and credit the band for the backing vocals he ended up keeping. His record label hesitated to release it as a single, which seems silly in retrospect: "Kiss" was Prince's third-biggest hit and continues to find its way onto the airwaves via various chart-topping covers.
Standout Lyric: "You don't have to be rich / To be my girl / You don't have to be cool / To rule my world / Ain't no particular sign I'm more compatible with / I just want your extra time and your kiss"
The Story: While in a long-standing contractual battle with his record label, Prince changed his name to a symbol and starting going by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. His 14th album, titled using that same symbol, marked the beginning of Prince's shift from funk to gospel, which would continue into the 2000s. The album's least sexual and least successful single, "7" paints a picture of a shiny new generation overcoming evil to create a world of love and acceptance. It always was, and will always be, my favorite Prince song.
Standout Lyric: "There will be a new city with streets of gold / The young so educated they never grow old / And there will be no death / For with every breath / The voice of many colors sings a song that's so bold / Sing it while we watch them fall"