Prince seemed to have a thing about the number seven. It comes up again and again in his lyrics:
“Her favorite number was 7” - Starfish and Coffee
“At home there are 17-year-old-boys and their idea of fun is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples” - Sign o’ the Times
“To sevens together like time indefinite” - Reflection
“If I see 11 you can say it’s 7” - I Wish U Heaven
Maybe he liked the sound of it. Or maybe it’s because he was born on June 7th, 1958. The genius behind songs like Purple Rain, Kiss, and When Doves Cry would have been 64 years old today. In honor of this legend, we’ve put together a list of seven things we learned from the life and art of this legendary creator.
Plus, we’re giving away a free Silicone Taster (in purple, natch) with every order of $75 or more. Add the taster to your cart and use code FORMERLYKNOWN at checkout.
But that’s enough about us. Let’s talk about Prince.
1. Confidence is hot
Prince was a huge personality in a tiny package. He stood at a diminutive 5’ 2” tall, and he is said to have weighed just 112 pounds. His speaking voice was soft, nearly a whisper. His look was androgynous, with ruffles, skintight spandex, and crop tops to show off his tiny waist.
People went apeshit for him, and it wasn’t due to his size, stature, or muscled physique. No, the women and men of the 80s and 90s swarmed to Prince because he knew who he was and knew he was great. As he said himself, “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on.”
I have to imagine that even if he’d received no critical acclaim and performed to tiny clubs instead of packed stadiums, he’d be the same charismatic jewel. Confidence in yourself is hot, and Prince had it.
2. Genius comes from consistency
Prince’s musical output was prolific. For many years, he wrote a song a day. Not all of those songs were hits, and many didn’t even make their way onto albums. But the purpose wasn’t to write a hit—the purpose was to write.
Aristotle said, “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.” Many of the best artists, writers, and successful creatives would agree. There is a pervading myth that creatives receive bursts of inspiration, with songs or chapters of their novels pouring out of them like turning on a tap. It’s baloney. The act of creation usually comes through consistency.
Prince released 39 studio albums in 37 years, a truly astonishing output. He also wrote songs for other artists, like Nothing Compares 2 U performed by Sinead O’Connor and Manic Monday performed by The Bangles. And he has a vault full of unreleased songs and fully-produced music videos that we’ve never seen.
Working on songs day in and day out, he honed his craft. There were duds. And there were moments of genius. But he never would have written Sign ‘o the Times or Purple Rain if he didn’t bring consistency to his work.
3. Greatness can be found in risks
In 1984, Prince had already released five successful albums, including the wildly popular Controversy and 1999. At just 26 years old, he was one of the top-selling artists of the early 80s.
What to do next?
How about make a movie? He would write it, star in it, and (of course) create the soundtrack for it. This was a bananas idea. He did it anyway.
The resulting film, Purple Rain, grossed nearly $70 million against its $7.2 million budget, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. The album eventually was certified 13x Platinum.
Five years later, director Tim Burton was taking on a risk of his own with a little film called Batman. This was decades before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or the Marvel Cinematic Universe had revitalized the comic book film genre. But Prince was a huge fan of the Caped Crusader. When he was approached to contribute a few songs to the film, he upped the stakes, offering to write the entire soundtrack. The resulting soundtrack album stayed at #1 on the Billboard 200 for six weeks and was certified Double Platinum.
Not all of his risks paid off. He made a sequel to Purple Rain in 1990, which was a commercial and critical flop. But even when he got it wrong, Prince followed his art where it led. There can be greatness in risks!
4. You have to look out for yourself
In 1993, Prince made a controversial choice. He had a contractual obligation to release a certain number of albums with Warner Bros, but the relationship wasn’t working and Prince wanted out. So he fulfilled his side of the arrangement by quickly putting together albums so his contract would end. But Warner, not wanting to release him, drug their feet on the releases. He felt held hostage.
For the consummate artist, this bureaucratic delay and lack of control over his own work were intolerable. Even his name was trademarked and controlled by the label. And this frustration was particularly stark, as “Prince” is not a stage name. It’s the artist’s real first name.
So he took some of the only actions he could. He legally changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, a combination of the male and female symbols that he referred to as the Love Symbol. In conversation, he was referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or just The Artist.
The Artist also began appearing in public with the word “Slave” written across his face. At the time, his behavior wasn’t met with much sympathy. He was a rich, successful artist—what did he have to be mad about?
But now we know how cruel and controlling the music industry can be to its artists, treating young stars more like cash commodities to be controlled than thinking, feeling people.
Prince’s move may have been controversial, but it helped to shed light on label control in a time when artists had no social media and fewer methods of communication with the public. He took a stand against an abusive system because no one else was going to look out for Prince but Prince.
5. Do something wild—just because you can
When Prince released his first album—1978’s For You—the liner notes revealed some interesting facts. The entire album was composed, arranged, produced, and performed by Prince, then age 19.
In addition to all vocals, Prince provided, "electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, bass synth, singing bass, Fuzz bass, electric piano, acoustic piano, mini-Moog, poly-Moog, Arp string ensemble, Arp Pro Soloist, Oberheim four-voice, clavinet, drums, syndrums, water drums, slapsticks, bongos, congas, finger cymbals, wind chimes, orchestral bells, woodblocks, brush trap, tree bell, hand claps and finger snaps".
It’s famously said that he played 27 instruments based on this list, although I’d argue that bass and Fuzz bass are not different instruments and that hand claps and finger snaps don’t really count. Still impressive.
Got a wild idea? Do it. Think of a teenager from Minneapolis playing the water drums and do what’s in your heart.
6. We never know what’s going on behind the scenes
For all his success, Prince wasn’t always happy.
We know that he passed away in 2016 from an accidental fentanyl overdose. He’d become addicted to the opioid after he was prescribed it to deal with terrible arthritic hip pain. He refused to get surgery for the condition due to his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness, which prohibits blood transfusions.
He had a long list of short-lived romantic relationships, and two marriages that both ended in divorce. People who knew him described him as terribly lonely, with bouts of depression and boredom.
We saw the flamboyant genius, parading around a stage in front of thousands of screaming fans singing songs about sex, love, and passion. But we had no idea what it was like to be Prince. Just like we don’t know what it’s like to be Britney Spears, or your boss, or that one barista who’s always really grumpy.
7. Judge for the quality of the work
Let’s let the man himself take it from here, from an MTV interview in 1985:
“I was brought up in a black-and-white world. Yes: black and white, night and day, rich and poor. Black and white. And I listened to all kinds of music when I was young…I always said that one day I was going to play all kinds of music, and not be judged for the color of my skin but the quality of my work. And hopefully that will continue.”
Happy Birthday, Prince
Let’s wish His Royal Badness a wonderful birthday today. Drape yourself in royal purple, listen to some of his greatest hits, and be the most you you’ve ever been.