Over the course of his music career, Prince was a hugely successful recording artist but his impact on music reaches far beyond his record sales. Why was he so famous?
Prince was renowned for his singing ability, his talent on a variety of instruments, and his willingness to experiment in many genres. He was a highly esteemed performer and songwriter, as well as a generous philanthropist, the full extent of which was not known during his lifetime.
For more on Prince’s impact on music and culture, read on.
Prince was a multitalented musician who played multiple instruments, most notably as an extremely high-level guitarist. He had a wide vocal range and was willing to experiment in numerous genres including pop, soul, R&B, new wave, psychedelia, hip hop, and more.
In the late 1970s, Prince innovated the “Minneapolis sound”, which blended funk-rock, synth-pop and new wave, named for Prince’s home city. The subgenre was a significant influence on the music of the 1980s.
Prince was a prolific artist and released 39 albums during his lifetime, with dozens more rumored to have been left in his home vault when he died in 2016. He released more than a hundred songs under his own name and aliases, with 47 of these charting on Billboard’s Hot 100, including five number 1s.
Following Princes’ death, publications went into great detail about his musical genius. The Los Angeles Times called him “among the most versatile and restlessly experimental pop artists of our time.”
In 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Their description calls him “the rare artist that could do everything well: sing, dance, write and arrange songs, produce music and lead a band”. They also call him as the successor to the “funk crown” of James Brown.
Prince is one of the best selling musical artists of all time, having sold more than 100 million records worldwide. In 2016, he had the highest number of album sales of any musician in the United States, with millions rushing to celebrate his immense musical legacy by revisiting his discography.
Prince’s direct impact on music went beyond his own recordings, as he was also a prolific writer and producer. There are too many to list, but here are a pair of memorable examples.
After watching an early Bangles performance in LA, Prince sent them a tape containing two songs he had written, one of which was “Manic Monday”. The song was the band’s first hit and reached number 2 in the charts.
Perhaps the most famous (and notorious) example is “Nothing Compares 2 U”, originally recorded by “The Family”, a Prince side project. Sinead O’Connor’s emotional cover was a huge hit, spending 21 weeks on the chart and spending four weeks at number 1 in the US.
O’Connor later made claims about Prince’s reaction to the song, stating that he summoned her to his home for an encounter that turned violent. Incidentally, Prince was highly complimentary about O’Connor’s recording, so it’s unclear why this is alleged to have happened.
Prince’s legacy was more than just musical. He was reluctant to talk about his charitable donations and only after his death did we get a true sense of his philanthropy. This included significant donations to inner-city education and anti-poverty and environmental programs.
While it has been said that Prince “traversed boundaries of genre, gender, and race”, it is also fair to say that these were key features of his music and important qualities that he embraced and celebrated.
He also was also a significant figure in fighting to see artists financially compensated for their work by record labels, famously making an overtly racial protest when he wrote the word “Slave” on his cheek.
Prince’s impact on music and society as a whole goes far beyond his many millions of record sales.