If we were now reaching the end of 1993 instead of 2013, the legacy of Prince Rogers Nelson would look much different.
By then Prince had already changed his name to the title of his latest album — a symbol nobody could pronounce — and what emerged was a laughable series of nicknames: The Love Symbol, The Glyph, The Symbol, Symbol Guy, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, The Artist, and so on, because what the hell should we call this guy.
"Carmen Electra," the album he produced for everyone's favorite future temptress, wasn't burning up the charts, because it was terrible. Warner Brothers would soon deliver a death-blow to his Paisley Park label by ending their distribution deal, and subsequently The Artist began showing up in pictures with the word "Slave" painted on his face. It was the end of — something.
Oh, how Signs O' the Times have changed. Prince will play three shows at Mohegan Sun Arena Dec. 27 to 29, with special guests Janelle Monae and Esperanza Spalding, and it just feels right, the return of rock royalty to our state after a decadelong absence. (Prince last played Connecticut in 2004.)
Prince deserves the hubbub. He's re-gained our trust over the last 10 years, beginning with the 2004 release of the above-average "Musicology"; that same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at the ceremony he showed up the rest of that year's class with a blazing Telecaster solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (written by fellow inductee George Harrison). His next studio album, "3121" debuted at No. 1, and three more decent efforts followed. He showed his knack for staying current by collaborating with such young stars as Monae on "Givin' Em What They Love," a single from her critically acclaimed "The Electric Lady" album, released in September. Prince sounds content, and that makes us happy for some reason.
Still, when many of us talk about the greatness of Prince, we're stuck in 1984, when "Purple Rain," the record that won the whole world, came out. The stats on "Purple Rain" — 20 million copies sold, two No. 1 singles, 24 consecutive weeks atop the albums chart, two Grammys — don't lie, but they also don't tell us the extent to which Prince dominated pop culture. (Gen-X-ers still swap stories about seeing him live during that remarkable, bed-humping stretch, and anyone who missed the tour remembers catching the movie, which took in $80 million at the box office.)A
What burned "Purple Rain" into our memories forever, though, was the music. All of it: the hits ("When Doves Cry," "I Would Die 4 U," "Take Me With U," the title-track); the deeper cuts (the slow-jammed "The Beautiful Ones," or the famously naughty "Darling Nikki," used by Tipper Gore and the PMRC as evidence of pop music's terrible, filthy promise); the flat-out chutzpah of the vocals and ferocious guitar on "Let's Go Crazy"; the willingness to show off his band, The Revolution, after playing all the instruments on his first five albums. Opening the recording studio and training the cameras on his photogenic fellow musicians helped him to transition from the black-panty-wearing, lonely sex-fiend of "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy," to the bandleader, big brother and spiritual leader he became. Sharing the spotlight only seemed to heighten his personal charisma, and it also signaled to suburban teens (and, more importantly, their parents) that he was (for now) a passable house-guest, one the kids invited through the all-important pop-culture portal of MTV. ("Erotic City," left off of "Purple Rain" but used as the title-track's B-side, was more of the earlier, pervy isolated guy, singing in a chipmunked voice about copulating into the dawn.)
"Purple Rain" offered something for everyone — R&B, New Wave, glossy proto-hair-band rock, Kraftwerk-like instrumentals (check out "Computer Blue"), dirty, nasty funk — without typical '80s production gimmickry. But it's just one album. There are dozens of records in Prince's catalog to dig through: good ones ("Dirty Mind," "1999," "Parade," "Sign O' the Times"); bad ones ("Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," "The Rainbow Children"); and in-between ones ("Around the World in a Day," "Batman," "Musicology").
Prince dipped his toe, then his whole foot, into straight funk with "Kiss," and now he's our principal torch-bearer, the Gen-X James Brown. ("Kiss," with 6 million plays, is the most popular Prince song on Spotify, followed by "Raspberry Beret" at 3.4 million.) We've heard a sizable body of his music sung by other people, both male (Warren Zevon, backed by members of R.E.M., on "Raspberry Beret," or Tom Jones slathering "Kiss" in sweat and superfluous swagger); and female (Sinead O'Connor on "Nothing Compares 2U," Sheena Easton on the "U Got the Look" hook, Revolution members Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones on "1999") and so on.
"Purple Rain" happened a lifetime ago, and Prince moved on a long time ago, even if a segment of his audience has not.
There's a lingering cultural timidness toward his recent albums, but Prince bears no grudge. He enjoys extended venue engagements, like the three-day run at Mohegan, that let him stretch out and Dylan-ize (i.e., change up the arrangements of revered songs) his back catalog. At the Billboard Music Awards earlier this year, Prince played a slinky, rocked-up, slowed-down "Let's Go Crazy" that quoted the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein," his symbol-shaped guitar replaced by something browner and more organic-looking.
There's no telling what Prince will play at Mohegan — long-forgotten dance tracks, weird covers, far-reaching dance routines, mega-hits or all of the above — and that's a beautiful thing. A beautiful, funky thing.
Prince plays the Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Dec. 27 to 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $125-$195. Information: mohegansun.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun