Prince Told the Truth About America Through His Music
Five years after the icon’s death, a deep dive proves his catalog to be timely — and political — as ever
Prince died as Donald Trump was on the warpath to becoming president in 2016, and I’ve spent the last five years fighting the superstitious urge to connect those dots. Trump was boorish (and criminal) enough during America’s four-year red fugue state to justify any disgust and blame that could be lobbed in his direction, and I haven’t yet fully pivoted into this shiny new age where we don’t have a boogeyman as president. It’s been a hard five years since Prince died, both because he passed away and, despite that fact, what with all the glowing-hot White supremacy and rampant communicable disease. I freely admit that I’ve occasionally whiled away the time picking at the scab of wondering what Prince would make of the world he left behind.
The good news is that we can, in part, know some things. As news of a new Prince album makes the rounds — the long-shelved Welcome 2 America — there is a prescience in its composition. Lyrical references to the failure of the American dream of capitalism, the dangers of social media, didactic takes on miseducation, racism, and a host of other social ills will mark this as one of Prince’s more political efforts, with some emphasis on the fraught relationship between America and Black people. As someone who wrote a whole book on Prince and dedicated half of that effort to pointing out his Blackness at every turn (largely in response to years of people painting him as some kind of color blind faun detached from reality), I’m excited for this record. Prince has always been political (at least since his 1981 record Controversy) but direct interrogations of Blackness — and American response to it — often had to be intuited by many fans, so I embrace any effort on his part to be crystal clear on the matter.
While Welcome comes off as a harbinger of things to come, the reality is that Prince still felt compelled to compile these songs two years into Obama’s presidency. At the same time, he shelved the effort. Details here are unclear, but regardless of what we may learn, one thing is sure: He could have put this record out at any point in his life and it’d still be relevant.
As time passes, reflections on Prince would do well to remember who he was as a person before all else: a 57-year-old Black man born six years before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, raised in a working class town, possessing a Napoleon complex out of this world, and who was no stranger to struggle. When you frame everything else after those realities — the music, the movies, the clothes, the shade, the women, the many reinventions — he becomes not less mysterious but easier to understand. In that light, a record like Welcome isn’t an aberration, but an inevitability.
None of America’s demons have been exorcised in the 11 years since Prince recorded Welcome. Quite the contrary: Its demons have multiplied. Boiling over with political struggle, social unrest, and the fifth season of a crushing pandemic, Americans have collectively been experiencing nothing if not a blues time. Noting this, I am drawn to a different Prince album that also did not see the light of day: The Undertaker.
You can’t play the way Prince does on ‘Undertaker’ without a little grit under your nails from scratching at the skin of America’s frustrating and murderous parallel realities.
Recorded in one day in June of 1993 with only two other musicians present (drummer Michael Bland and bassist Sonny T.), The Undertaker was yet another Prince album that got to the starting gate, only to be scuttled for one reason or another. Copies of the album were pressed and ready to be inserted with issues of Guitar Magazine the following year, but the recording eventually only made it into the world as a cobbled-together VHS release.
Considering its intended audience, it’s probably not a coincidence that The Undertaker starts with a 10-minute blues song, “The Ride.” In fact, The Undertaker is almost exclusively a blues record, sprinkled with hints of rock better in their brevity than the entirety of his dismissively released rock outing a few years later, Chaos and Disorder. As a blues record, it burns; it’s a guitar clinic. There’s a stamping of the boot to this affair, a grinding of the high heel into the heart of any assumptions about what it is he was capable of. It isn’t happenstance that Prince delivered an album that draws so hungrily from the Black roots of American music to make certain cases before the journal of record for guitar players. Black people invented rock — and before that the blues, gospel and jazz — and Prince wanted to let folks know that he was capable of taking any of those legacies back any time he saw fit. It is an album that knows thyself, and has to its creator been true.
In a way, both albums do the same work, but in different dialects. Welcome 2 America feels like it will be an Intro to Black Studies class, while The Undertaker is the graduate level course you can sign up for after you’ve completed the prerequisites. They’re both a repudiation and an invitation, not to dance so much as think about how you’ve been dancing and to whose drum.
This all makes me miss Prince more, of course. When I listen to The Undertaker (or for that matter Sign o’ the Times, Controversy, and The Rainbow Children) I hear a man striving to make sense of the world around him, to guide people down different social paths (albeit with his usual respectability politics firmly attached), and who sorely wants the world to be a better place. This is a Prince I can know; a cookout Prince that stands by the grill but doesn’t cook, holding court about the evil that men do, thinking that somehow in all that cherrywood smoke and red Solo drank testimony, something will change.
Five years after Prince’s death, there’s a triangle of Black murder drawn by the hands of police in the Minneapolis area. stretching from Falcon Heights (Philando Castile) to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue (George Floyd) to Brooklyn Center (Duante Wright). It’s impossible to know what Prince would’ve said or done faced with such intractable violence, but it is not hard to know what he would have felt. Every Black activist cycles through a particular kind of grief process in such moments: anger, an almost institutional despair, feelings of political impotence. Living in a city where law enforcement shot and killed two unarmed and innocent Black people in the span of a month, I can vouch for those steps. I don’t think you can write a song like the titular “Welcome 2 America” if you don’t know how to access those emotions. You certainly can’t play the way Prince does on Undertaker without a little grit under your nails from scratching at the skin of America’s frustrating and murderous parallel realities.
For some, placing Prince in proximity to such politics draws out a defensiveness that is the cousin to statements like “shut up and play ball.” The music fan’s shield of choice isn’t as crass as it’s shoulder-padded ilk, so you say something meant to suggest a classier brand of dismissiveness, like “I just listen to the music.”
To those who felt a shiv slide between their ribs just then, I have to ask: Do you feel divided from me as a Prince fan because I mentioned race? Do you feel as if I’ve tainted your Prince experience by mentioning his Blackness? Do you understand how suggesting that makes his race the problem, how his Blackness is a distraction to you? Do you not see how his Blackness should enhance your appreciation of his music? Do you see how the problem isn’t race, but you? Do you treat all your Black friends like this? And if you don’t have many, do you now understand why?
Five years later, I keep looking for the Prince that is not there, and that no amount of music can materialize. Regardless of where you come down on the afterlife, the here and now has no Prince. No new or bootleg album can change that.
Still, when I take pictures of various projects in my office and the camera lens captures one of several pieces of Prince art hanging in the background, the camera occasionally refocuses as if an actual human being were in the frame. The optical illusion is a testimony to the craftsmanship of the artists, but it’s also chilling. Can you be haunted by someone you did not want to let go? If you build shrines that then spring to life, what are you crying for? Wasn’t the whole point for a part of them to stay? I want to believe that the music keeps him alive for me, but the reality is that music keeps no one alive. At best, such revelry allows me to bask in the caprice of spirit for a while. More concretely, an unapologetic Prince song still delivers a good shot of strength and gut-fire to deal with these American machine blues. And some days, that is enough.