In honor of Prince’s 60th birthday, I want to highlight a time period that many people don’t talk about. His name change–from Prince to an unpronounceable symbol is one of the most incredible and risk-taking moves that I ever heard an artist do. This decision shows that creatives can and should be in full control of their artistry. As a writer and poet, the name change impacted me through his passion, his happiness, and his determination to create no matter what. It’s sad that only a few years before he died, he FINALLY was able to own his master recordings–which makes it even more difficult for me to express my frustrations. However, on a happy note, the music that he left behind during the period of 1994-1999 contain a few memorable classics, and I’ll share just a few of them.
I never grew up on Prince’s music, and I’m still not sure how that happened. I remember seeing Purple Rain on the television every now and then, and the fact that he had this mysterious reputation, but that was all I knew about him…until he died. I remember that day very clearly because I was upset at the fact that he was alone, and the fact that he was still very young at 57. I remember looking through countless articles documenting timelines of his life, and I was shocked that I knew nothing of the most influential portion of his career, the 90’s.
For those who don’t know, Prince was very strict about having his music and videos on internet platforms like YouTube and streaming services, until he made a deal with Tidal back in 2015. Even before then, he was also aware of bootleggers and did whatever it took to protect his music. Because of his overprotective, yet necessary ways, it may have hindered some of those in the younger generation, like myself, to see more than just his commercial material. Within 2016, I went to nearly every record store to find rare Prince albums, and only found two in the process. I did so much research on his career and life after Purple Rain, and eventually found out the situation between him and Warner Bros Records–hence why I adore Prince today.
“There’s paths that you can go down in life that are dead-end, one of them is being manipulated by another mind source other than your own. Being tied up in contracts & having ceilings over you, especially when you’re an artist, is very confining” – Prince as “The Artist” in 1997
I’ve grown to be a big Prince supporter, mainly because of his individuality and the many risks that he took as an artist. Because he was already established and respected by 1992, most of his albums during his name change was quite successful. To my knowledge, he’s the first artist who completely re-branded himself with a new name, demeanor, and style of music to fight for his artistic freedom. Today, we always hear about independent artists, especially Chance The Rapper, whom are successful without major labels. In the 90’s, however, there are many stories of artists either signing horrible contract deals, not owning their master recordings, or simply struggling to make it without a record label. Although record companies are great for artists who are new and in the process of creating their image, the harsh reality is that most of them own an artist’s brand and image, and the artist has little to no control of the amount of music to be released, and the timing of the releases. Not only did Warner Bros want to control when and how Prince would release his material, despite their allowance of him putting out 2-3 albums a year, but they also owned his master recordings. Prince was basically owned, and I admire his decision to protest and re-brand himself. This is why Prince wrote “slave” on his face, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol , and I love the music that came out of that era. He talks about his name change in his 1998 interview with Tavis Smiley here (you can stop at 14:55, or watch the whole interview):
To be honest with you, I get disappointed when mainstream media only play Prince’s music from the 80’s, and not much after that. Purple Rain was an incredible album, but he was more than that era of his career. It’s obvious that some people are comfortable with just his commercial success, so much that you rarely hear about his songs from the albums, The Gold Experience, Emancipation, Crystal Ball, or Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. So in honor of that, I want to present to you a few songs that you may or may not have heard before, while he was known as his symbol, AKA “The Artist” and “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” Let’s start with a song from his 1998 album, Crystal Ball.
Note: Due to YouTube, some of these videos might be replaced with the songs because footage of Prince is known to be taken down for reasons I’m not too sure.
1. Acknowledge Me – “The Artist”
I wanted to start with this album because it’s a boxed set of unreleased music spanning from 1983-1994, that was previous bootlegged. He wanted to sell the music with better and clearer quality. This particular song on the album is one of my favorites. Two other songs that I love are “Lovesign” and “So Dark”, which are hard to find on YouTube if you don’t have this rare album. In other songs like ‘Days of Wild” and “18 & Older” showcases his rapping skills, which is quite a different style than what people usually visualize him doing. It seems that he was very inspired by Hip Hop, but he has publicly condemned its images of violence and disrespecting women, especially in the early 90’s. The dancer in the video is Mayte Garcia, Prince’s first wife.
2. Shhh – “The Artist”
This song is on his 1995 album, The Gold Experience. I now have a different ear for music because of this song, and the many live versions of it. Prince was best known for his incredible guitar skills, and I love that some artists today, like Trevor Jackson, were influenced by Prince to learn the guitar and other instruments for their music. In this performance he did in Paris in 2011, is by far my favorite guitar solo (starting at 2:43). Starting with the strong drum intro, this song is completely led by the rhythm and sounds of the band, and it’s really enjoyable to hear. A few more songs that I love from this album are “Now”, “Billy Jack B**ch”, “I (Eye) Hate You”, and “We March.”
3. Face Down – “The Artist”
(Warning: Explicit Content)
This song is from his 1996 album, Emancipation, which is the first album he released independently with his label, NPG Records. This album was somewhat of a celebration of his new found freedom, and it includes 36 songs—separated into 3 discs. In this song and video, he addresses the situation with him and Warner Bros., the fact that “Prince” is killed off and mourned, and how “The Artist” is free to make his own lane. This is my favorite Prince album of this era, and it was so hard to find. In 2017, I finally found a copy of this album on eBay at a really low price, compared to how costly it was after his death. More songs that I love from this album are “Jam Of The Year,” “Right Back Here In My Arms,” “Emale,” “Somebody’s Somebody,” and “Mr. Happy.”
4. Come On – New Power Generation
This rare video and song comes from New Power Generation’s 1998 album, NewPower Soul. Although Prince’s name or symbol wasn’t credited to this album, it is technically his album that is rarely mentioned. When I first heard this song, I loved it because it’s very groovy. The video is also humorous and authentic. Hopefully in the future, this video will be officially released so it will always stay on YouTube, but for now watch it and dance to it. Another song that I love from this album is “The One.”
Fun fact: At the time of this album, he produced two other albums for Chaka Khan and Larry Graham. Prince is the reason why Chaka Khan decided to leave Warner Bros, and the album she made under his independent label, NPG, is the first time she majority written all of her songs.
5. The Greatest Romance Ever Been Sold – “The Artist”
Last, but not least, this song is from his 1999 album, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. This album is very different, and is somewhat of a transition since he decided to go back to his original name just a year later when his contract to Warner Bros ended. I enjoy some of the songs on the album like “Beautiful Strange,” “Hot Wit U,” “Man’O’War,” “Silly Game,” and “Strange, But True.”
I wanted to write about Prince because he’s a great example for creatives who don’t want to be labeled, or have their art being controlled by other people. He basically started a movement of independent artists creating labels, making their own rules, and having the freedom to experiment. This image of him is not being talked about as much as it should be, and a huge part of his legacy is the moment he decided to separate himself from the ego, commercial success, and widespread image of Prince. He took a necessary and revolutionary risk, and I will forever admire him for that. Rest easy Mr. Nelson.
Happy Prince Day.