When an iconic musician passes away, there’s always the rush to commemorate them with grand adjectives and superlative statements about their courage, vision, and achievements. It’s understandable and usually even defensible. David Bowie really was one of the most important pop musicians of all time. Phife Dawg really did change hip-hop forever.
But there are no words that can do justice to Prince because his art and legacy go beyond our usual bounds for what makes something good, bad or even great. Prince’s music didn’t change the world; it invented an entirely new one in which he ruled like a benevolent god. He had total control over his own universe. This earned him a reputation as being curmudgeonly about the future (he famously hated the idea of other places streaming his music), but that misunderstands his intentions. He didn’t hate the future. He’d already created his own, and it was lightyears ahead of ours. His death is an incalculable loss.
So, no descriptors can do Prince justice, but let’s try anyway. An obvious one: genius. Another: hypnotic. Perhaps less obvious: visionary (Prince crowdfunded his own album on the Internet twenty years ago). A lot of people will reach for “brave”, but that doesn’t feel quite right because it implies Prince knew what he was doing required courage. If he did, it never showed. “Fearless” comes closer to the mark. Authentic. Devoted. Majestic. Powerful. And here’s a whole list just to describe his live performances: virtuosic, electric, unparalleled, and truly, literally, undeniably awesome.
But even all this sort of falls short, so if we’re going to commemorate Prince, let’s let the Purple One do it himself, as only he can.
The 2007 Halftime Show
This has been said many times before, but let’s put it again here for good measure: This is the best halftime show you could ever hope to see. But really, how could anyone melt your face off and then play “Purple Rain” IN THE DAMNED RAIN. It was lively, spontaneous and rebellious—everything a Super Bowl Halftime Show isn’t supposed to be. Calling it the best Halftime Show of all time doesn’t really do it justice. What else even comes close?
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” Live at the Capitol Theatre
This live recording of a 1982 show in New Jersey gets at the heart of a lot of what made Prince such a dynamic live performer. He shows off both the dynamic dance moves that turned him into a sexual dynamo and the guitar chops that made him the envy of rock musicians the world over. Also, this sixteen-minute YouTube video is just one song. Prince’s concerts ran famously long, and people loved him for it because they couldn’t get enough.
“She’s Always In My Hair” at The Arsenio Hall Show
Prince wasn’t a great fan of late night television performances, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he only agreed to stop by Arsenio’s show under the condition that he do a lesser remembered 1985 b-side with his late-career band 3RDEYEGIRL. It’s a tribute to his control and presence that this holds up as great entertainment.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions
Not a Prince song, and he doesn’t even really show up until about halfway through, but a terrific example of what made Prince such a unique and magnetic performer. He’s sharing the stage with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne—three well-respected guitar masters in their own right, and they’re all delivering a perfectly competent cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And then at the 3:27 mark, Prince makes everyone else look lazy and takes the entire thing into a whole different stratosphere with a fingernail-curling guitar solo.
Medley in Charlotte, NC
As part of Prince’s Welcome 2 America Tour (Prince was doing the numbers-as-phonetic-puns thing long before anyone else, and he never gave up on it), he let Live Nation upload this extremely dope performance of a concert in Charlotte, North Carolina. Behold the dance moves of a 50-year-old man.
Bonus: Prince Slays the Grammys
He didn’t play a single lick or sing a song, and Prince still had the most rock and roll moment of the 2014 Grammys.