On Thursday, I tweeted out the simple headline: “Prince dies on Queen’s birthday. Purple tears today. #RIPPrince.”
I still can’t believe it, but his death has given me a chance to rediscover the man who was a one-man diversity force.
As we mourn publicly and await results of his autopsy, you may have “Purple Rain” on repeat, but the one song that I think encapsulates Prince is “Controversy,” from the album of the same name.
I’m playing it over and over.
In 1981, “Controversy” was his third album, and well before the full blown stardom of “Purple Rain.” But it was a real harbinger of the greatness of Prince to come.
As far as music goes, Prince was the Mozart of our time. Young, prolific, revolutionary and sexy. He had a unique funk rhythm that was unmistakably his own.
And he was in-your-face with all of his uniqueness in “Controversy.”
Just in the opening lyric “Am I Black or White, am I straight or gay?” he addresses race and gender head on.
I guess he couldn’t find a way to rhyme Filipino. Because in an 1981 interview, Prince spoke of his father, front man for the Prince Rogers Trio, as being of mixed race, African-American, but with some Italian-Filipino, too. His father left Prince’s African-American mom and family when the young Prince was just 11.
But the story says dad left the piano. And that’s when Prince got into music.
The multiracial Prince gets lost, as we see him marketed as a “Black artist.”
But he’s got some European and Asian blood, too, in his rhythmic DNA, enough for more than just a few syncopated sixteenth notes.
Prince is diversity in motion. But as usual in the multicolored world, all that gets lost.
But in the jaunty “Controversy” Prince poses the questions:
“Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be?”
He doesn’t stop there.
“Do I believe in god, do I believe in me? “Some people want to die so they can be free “I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?”
And then in the seven-minute version of the song, he breaks out into the full Lord’s Prayer.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses As we forgive those who trespass against us Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”
I admit I didn’t recall it until I went back to the original. I just knew the song for its funk and its James Brown-like shrieks. But it’s all there.
And then he breaks into the nursery rhyme aesthetic of pop music to plainly communicate to all his real message.
“People call me rude, I wish we all were nude, I wish there was no Black and White, I wish there were no rules,” he speaks, then shrieks. “Controversy.”
It’s no sad dirge. It’s just pure Prince on life and diversity.
And now, even as he departs, the full appreciation of his gifts has only just begun.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He blogs at https://www.aaldef.org/blog/
Follow him at http:/twitter.com/emilamok.