Per
haps too prolific for his own good, the artist who was born Prince Rogers Nelson has released nine album’ worth of materiel in the past two years. Can you name any of them?

Touré



I’m deep inside Paisley Park. Past the front hallways, walls are painted sky-blue with real-looking clouds and the ceiling is night-navy with stars and galaxies. Past walls filled with platinum- and gold-album plaques – some commemorating sales in Sweden, Germany, Japan, Portugal, and Australia. Past the doves that live here. I’m in the back, in the rehearsal room. On one end, there’s a stage; on the other end, amid plush couches and sound mixing boards, there’s a basketball hoop. It’s set a little too high.

I’m paying two-on-two. My teammate jitterbugs around the court, a sleek little lightning bug in red-and-white high-tops, so fast he’ll leave a defender stranded and looking stupid if a defender’s not careful. I’ve got the ball at the top of the key, and I see he’s in a good position under the basket. I flick a quick pass toward him. The ball is floating safely through the defense, but then I realize he doesn’t know it’s coming. Instinctively, I call out to him, the man I’ve known, sort of, for 15 or 20 years. The man who, like Sinatra for another generation, made our official love-making music. I call out, “Prince!”

I catch myself, put my hands over my dirty mouth, and watch the ball fly out of bounds. Then, he smirks and says happily, to no one in particular: “He didn’t know what to call me.” Laughing at my quandary, forgiving my mistake, and being, just, cool. He didn’t know what to call me.

Two weeks earlier, I had flown to Paisley Park to interview The Artist. Paisley is a large, modern-looking building in a field just outside of Minneapolis, in tiny Chanhassen. From the outside, the large, white-tiled walls make it look kind of like a Mercedes dealership without windows. Inside, the decade-old Paisley, which houses recording studios, a large rehearsal stage, and offices, has a quiet manicness to it, like a music-lover’s Alice in Wonderland. Oversize, comfy chairs of all colors sit amid pillars topped with gold disks. Each door has a painted label of what’s inside: Storage or Studio A or Copier/Fax or Elevation, for the elevator. Open one door and there’s a museumlike corridor of photos for each Prince era, from a ’78 afro shot to a huge portrait of him holding his wife of two years, Mayte Garcia-Nelson. Behind another door is a rehearsal room and, in the corner, a box of vinyl records.
Flipping through it feels like peeking into a section of his head—Al Jarreau, Sam Cooke, the Horace Silver Quintet, Nancy Wilson, the Watts 103rd Street Band, Eddie Kendricks, Dave Brubeck, The Band, jimi’s Isle of Wight, and lots of Nat King Cole. Out back, a child’s jungle gym sits quiet.

I sneak into Studio B. No one’s there. This, the engineers say is where he recorded his latest album, NewPower Soul, and does most of his current work. On the floor are boxes of studio tape reels of unreleased songs:’ “don’t Talk 2 Strangers,” “Journey 2 the Center of Your Heart” and “This Crazy Life Of Mine” Inside the studio’s control room is a small black-and-white painting of Miles Davis during the ’8os. It stands in front of sepia photograph of a light-skinned black man. Could be his father.

As you can see, I had a few hours to myself. I was fourth in a line of five journalists at Paisley to interview The Artist. Since he is, or once was, a megastar, it seems only right to momentarily turn our cameras on the other cameras that were here to capture him: With the exception of Newsweek, they were from relatively small news outlets. When The Artist released his three-disc set Emancipation in 1996, he appeared on The Today Show and Oprah, and gave interviews to Time, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. But a string of underappreciated records since then has apparently shored up much of that mainstream interest Where was Rolling Stone? Vibe? Prince demanded they gave him the cover for an interview, and so far, they’ve both said no.

“People go on the covers of magazines for a variety of reasons,” says Joe Levy, the music editor of Rolling Stone. “ One is the impact they re having artistically. Another is the impact they’re having culturally. A third, sometimes, is the impact they’re having commercially. Right now, those factors are not conjoining to make it a given that we would put Prince on the cover.”

Danyel Smith, the editor-in-chief of Vibe explains Levy’s point further: “When 1999 and Purple Rain were hot, the people who were buying his records were the same age that he was then. Which was 16 to 24. Those are the kind of people who make pop stars. The people who buy Prince ’s records now, some of them are between 16 and 24, but most are between 24 and 32, or 32 and 38. Those are the kind of people who are loyal music buyers, but not the people who contribute to [making] platinum singles.
Which is not to say he doesn’t still have all the greatness that he ever had. [Like] with Michael Jordan: Yes, he sank that last basket, but he’s no longer the player he was at 25.”

It’s become cliché to point out that Prince—like Jordan and Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson— isn’t as great or as famous as he used to be. But it is telling that when comedian Chris Rock recently interviewed The Artist, it wasn’t broadcast on MTV, but on VH-1, the network tailored for a more mature audience. To many, The Artist seems to be heading farther away from the cutting edge and closer to some sort of R&ß Legends tour.

After a few hours of snooping, I was Finally ushered into a white conference room, dominated by a giant glass table, to meet The Artist. He sported a maroon velour Prince suit (a sexually alluring top and matching pant outfit that you can’t buy in stores), gripped a. gold-colored cane, and wore a ’sly, : smile. Base makeup covered face, and his five-foot-two frame seemed so wispy that a strong man could probably snap him like firewood. But I never once thought he was short.

Before I could ask him a question, le Artist began speaking in a deep, warm, masculine voice. “We’ve been talking about how freedom has affected our people,” he said. “It’s so liberating to work on music with no dogma at all. It’s freeing to record without a clock ticking, without knowing you owe someone money.” He was referring to his split from Warner Bros., his record of 18 years. The friction started in
1993, when Warner Bros. began pushing him to release music less often because he was selling fewer copies. In ’93, he began writing “Slave” on his face and announced that Prince was dead. He then changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to get off the label and distance himself from his past material and past life. Said funkmaster George Clinton, a friend of The Artist: “People didn’t realize that when he said Prince was dead, he really meant it.”

The Artist escaped from his Warner Bros. contract and struck a distribution deal with EMI, one that gave him tremendous autonomy (EMI s only role was to deliver the records to the stores). But EMI went out of business in 96, and now The Artist records for NPG (New Power Generation) Records, which he owns. He distributes the records himself, mainly through Web sites and 800 numbers. And with selling albums more incumbent on him, he suddenly became less press shy.

Record-label freedom is his current obsession. “The last time I saw him,” a young recording artist recalled, “his first words to me were, ’Did you get off the label yet?’ Not, ’Hi, how ya doin’?’ but, ’Did you get off the label?’” This new-found freedom, along with his marriage, has led to major changes to the Artist. Once a moody reclusive when not onstage, who was considered weirder than even Michael Jackson, he is now more at peace with himself. Says a former girlfriend of his who wishes to remain anonymous, “When I first met him, he was quite miserable. Now, he doesn’t have any negativity surrounding him. He’s totally happy and totally comfortable in his skin. When you look at his face, you can tell that a weight has been lifted.”

But that freedom has also led to albums that are under-promoted and over-long. The man who once wowed the world with nine songs on Purple Rain released the four-disc Crystal Ball this year and, in ’96, the three-disc Emancipation. Both sold respectably—Crystal Ball moved more than 250,000 units at $50 apiece, and Emancipation crossed over 500,000 cash registers. But despite some great moments on the records, both suffered from a lack of editing. And, like his latest release, NewPower Soul, all lack the complex thematic unity that characterized his greatest albums. Now that he’s working for himself, however, the profit margin is much higher.

“For me to create an album, tour all over night after night, and get less than the $140 million it grosses is ridiculous,” said The Artist.

“Of that, how much did you used to get?”

“I’d get, at most, $7 million.”

“Still, how could you call yourself ’Slave’ in light of the history of that word among black people?”

“Imagine yourself sitting in a room with the biggest of the big in the recording industry, and you have ’Slave’ written on your face. That changes the entire conversation. You know what they think of us. They said, ’It makes it real hard to talk to you with that on your face.’ And I said, ’Why?’ And it got real quiet. They don’t wanna get into all that. Adding that language into the conversation worked perfectly. It changed the dynamic.”

He dodged a follow-up question about a multimillionaire music-maker likening himself to a dawn-to-dusk cotton-picker. Meanwhile, I furiously scribbled notes... (Years ago, he banned tape recorders from his print interviews, though not video recorders from his television interviews.) He speaks quickly, often using parables and cryptic sentences that have little to do with the context of the discussion. “Sometimes,” his old girlfriend says, “he says things that make you feel like you haven’t gotten an answer. He leaves you to have to think about every word he’s said, which is kind of irritating.”

Early in his career, Prince courted the press, befriending certain journalists and even writing about them vaguely, in his classic ’All the Critics Love U in New York” from 1999. But at his peak, he became Katherine Hepburn-esque recluse, refusing all interviews, then summoning one select journalist to speak with him every couple of years—thoogh banning them from even talking notes. For years, the few journalists who spoke with him spent lots of time running to the bathroom to write down whatever they could remember.

“Why are you being so open now?”

“As the millennium approaches, we all must look inward and check the fiber and speak the truth,” said The Artist. “I had a boss, and I didn’t like it. No more than you like it. I feel free now that there’s no daddy around to spank me. It’s time for us to stand up for what we believe in.”

“Is there a difference between Prince and The Artist?”

“Only that Prince owns nothing. None of those songs.”

“So you’re happier now. Did the old music come from a place of pain?”

“I won’t speculate on where the music came from. I look back in awe and reverence. It’s made me become courageous.”

“Courageous around music?”

“Regarding everything.”

“Do you think you’ve changed a generation with your music?”

He became defensive. “I don’t think about that. Why would I? There’s no gain in that. Being in control of someone’s thoughts? You’ll second-guess your writing.”

“So,” feeling stifled, recalling photos of Mayte and him at Lakers games, I said, “you like basketball?”

He seemed to loosen up a bit. “Yeah.”

“What’s your team?”

“Bulls,” he said—like, of course.

“Still? You think they’re comin’ back?”

With an oh-please air, he said, “Jordan’s gonna be player-coach. That’s why Phil Jackson left. Scottie’s gonna get paid, Rodman’s gonna get paid. It’s gonna be rock ’n’ roll time next year. The Bulls are gonna be like the Beatles. [Jordan’s] Superman. He don’t have to do that much to whup them people.”

Then a moment later, somehow, he was back to money. He expressed admiration for the music of Erykah Badu, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and D’Angelo. “D’Angelo’s really gotta search his heart deeply on being part of the problem or the solution. What’s his whole consciousness? He’s got to own his masters,” he said, referring to master tapes that confer true ownership of a song, and are generally owned by the record label, not the artist. “Black Americans are walking away and getting nothin’! How can you not own your masters and try to uplift the community? Let’s all of us be part of the solution. Or we gonna get our problems solved for us. The situation in Africa is testament to that. Twenty-one million with AIDS! Don’t that spook you? We got to solve our problems, or they’ll be solved for us. And a man can’t solve your problems for you. You and your faith will solve ’em for you.”

He told me that another journalist had asked him, “Do you ever get tired of being so flamboyant all the time? Don’t you ever want to wear a T-shirt and jeans?” – at which point he reared his head back, eyes wide in mock indignation, as if to say, How ridiculous! Don’t you know who I am? Full of macho bravado, he thrust the cuff of his maroon Prince suit toward me and said, “Feel that! If you could wear that every day, wouldn’t you?”

I felt the cuff. It wasn’t a rare and special feeling. It felt manmade. “What is it?” I asked.

Immediately, his entire demeanor switched. He went from larger-than-life to hushed and humble. “Oh, I don’t know,” he answered quietly, dismissively, feigning ignorance of the fabric of his fabulous garment. “If you have money, you should act the same. It’s currency. It’s supposed to move like a current. You ain’t supposed to hoard it. You get sick otherwise.”

I walked out feeling as though he’d never truly shared himself, as though I’d been given the day’s propaganda, along with a few tasty side bites, and sent on my way. I felt I understood what actress Kirstie Alley said, in the role of frustrated interviewer, on Prince’s 1992 so-called Symbol album: “Just once will you talk to me, not at me, not around me, not through me?”


By The Artist’s design, much of his early life remains an impenetrable mystery. “The background story depends on who you’re talking to,” an associate of his says. “It’s never very clear. Minneapolis is a tight-knit community, and people aren’t really willing to talk about him.”

Indeed, in researching Prince’s pre- and nonpublic life’ it’s nearly impossible to get a straight answer about anything. Almost everyone who comes in contact with The Artis—girlfriends, employees, journalists—must sign a confidentiality agreement, and people tend to take these things seriously. Many who know Prince decline to give interviews because of their confidentiality agreements. Others refuse to speak about him because they so closely guard their relationship with him. They either fear being cut off or want to protect him, but the point is, those who know Prince won’t tell.

We do know this: He was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7 1958. the son of pianist and factory worker John Nelson and Mattie Shaw (or possibly Mattie Baker), a singer in her husbands band and, later, a social worker. are Seventh-Day Adventists (as is one of Prince’s later guardians, Fred Anderson),  a strict faith that encourages vegetarianism and abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and all drugs. (The Artist is a vegan has always maintained  that he has never smoked, drank, or taken drugs). Contrary to lingering rumors, both of his parents are black.

Prince grew up in North Minneapolis, in a middle-class multiracial oasis in the Wonderbread-white Twin Cities. When Prince was around nine, his parents divorced. His mother (who nicknamed him “Skipper") soon remarried, and Prince began spending lots of time playing the piano his father had left behind and listening to Minneapolis radio, the latter leaving an imprint on his sound. “In New York, or D.C., or Chicago, or Atlanta, you had great black radio that was 24-7,” says Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager and the vice president of Paisley Park Records from 1983 to ’92. “If you got tired of one station, there,was another one up the dial. He didn’t have that in Minneapolis, so he was forced to listen to pop radio and absorb pop records as much as black music. So as he grew up, for every James Brown record he heard, there was a Beatles or a Rolling Stones record. And all of that mixed together so that you hear all of these things in his music.” But problems with
his mother s new husband landed Prince in his aunt’s home, then his fathers, then a friend’s—and during all of this time, he struggled to find a place where he felt wanted.

The family trouble and ensuing struggle to find somewhere be belonged led to a deep interest in music. During his teens. Prince taught himself to play 14 instruments and led a band first called Grand Central, then Champagne. In high school, Prince voraciously studied the business of music, and wowed his fellow music students—including future super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—with his ability to play so many instruments so well. Still, late in his high school career, he became a total introvert and loner, opting to have his picture omitted from the yearbooks in his junior and senior years. (Further investigation becomes difficult—stories begin to conflict. Some sources said Prince was a D student who cared not at all for school. Others called him a good student.)

But while he was a loner, he became increasingly obsessed with becoming a star. “He sat down as a youngster and designed himself to be a rock star. Not a musician, but a rock star,” says Leeds.

"There was an acceptance and power and security that he envisioned could come from massive appeal. He was ostracized. He was the shortest kid in school; he was an excellent basketball player, but nobody took him seriously because he was too short. His older
brother got all the girls because he was taller. He was constantly in the shadow of everybody and everything. So he said, ’Okay, here s how I can get back at the world Here’s how I can get the girls and be the number-one guy and get the attention that I never got.’"

In 1976, shortly after graduating from Minneapolis’s Central High School, Prince charmed recording-studio owner Chris Moon into allowing him to have a set of keys to his Minneapolis studio. Prince taught himself everything about studio technology. Moon hyped Prince as a Stevie Wonder-level talent to a local manager, and Prince soon had a legal representative: Owen Husney. Husney financed Prince’s demo tape—on which Prince wrote and played every note of some very lewd funk—then flew him out to Los Angeles and booked studio time. One day, while Prince was rehearsing, Husney quietly brought in some record-company executives to watch. Shortly after, Prince became a corporate cousin of Bugs Bunny when he signed a record contract with Warner Bros.

In 1978, the 19-year-old released the first of his 25 albums, For You. Prince unveiled a new album nearly every year, each one surprisingly different than the one before, up until 1984, when more than 13 million People bought Purple Rain. Suddenly, it seemed, the whole world had one eye on Prince. Artists old and young took note. George Clinton says he;s been influenced by “his way of doin’ pop music and makin’ it blues music.” Nineties soul artist D’Angelo says, “Listening to [Prince] taught me to not really give a fuck lyrically. He taught me that when all of the music is coming from you, that’s the best way. He taught me everything, really. I can’t stress that enough.”

Prince came to be dominated by music. “His friendships are not normal,” says [Alan] Leeds [Eric’s brother and Prince’s tour manager for many years]. “He doesn’t have normal relationships. It’s not like he’s got guys that he hangs out with on Friday night. He’s not one for small talk or casual conversation. If he’s on a tour bus, he may have some conversation that’s relatively casual, but 9 times out of 10, even that will be something related to the show or the album or something. Almost everything in the 10 years I was with him—save some very specifically allocated leisure time—was somehow about music or the show. He’s so strictly defined by his career that there really hasn’t been a normal life away from that. I sense that with Mayte and the marriage, he’s trying to find something like that now. Certainly, the Prince that I know is not a guy who just picks up the phone and says, ’Hey, how ya doin’?’ He’s a very distant personality.”

Leeds does recall occasionally seeing a jovial, glib, outspoken side of Prince. Every once in a while, Prince would cancel the almost-constant rehearsals in favor of a cookout and some hoops. “Once,” Leeds says, “We were rehearsing for a tour, and suddenly there was the first warm day of the year. When everybody showed up for rehearsal, we found out that Prince and his assistant had bought 10 baseball gloves, a couple softballs, a couple bats, and we went to the local school field and played baseball all day. But, in the midst of that, he’s constantly talking about the last record he did and the tour we’re gonna do and what we should do tomorrow in rehearsal. That function never ends. You’re at a club somewhere, where he suddenly says, ’Hey, you got a notepad?’ And he starts dictating orders of what we’re gonna do the next day in rehearsal.”

After the explosion of Purple Rain, the high school outcast was, as he’d long dreamed, one of the biggest stars in the world. Prince toured the globe, putting on concerts that were mixtures of and sex and soul and Baptist church-like ecstasy—and then, after the concerts, he’d pop up unannounced at some tiny local club and do another two hours for free. He opened nightclubs in Minneapolis and Los Angeles called Glam Slam. He was awarded his own vanity label, Paisley Park, which, as an imprint of Warner Bros., released his. albums. He made four movies—the semiautobiographical Purple Rain in 1984 (he won an Oscar for best film score); the forgettable Under the Cherry Moon, costarring Kristin Scott Thomas in 1986; Sign o’ the Times in 1987, widely considered one of the best concert films ever; and in 1990, the silly Graffiti Bridge. He became a modern Casanova, dating a string of gorgeous women, some of whom he would make famous, at least for a moment—Vanity, Apollonia, Sheila E, Carmen Electra, Cat, Nona Gaye—and some oft hem already famous—actress Kim Basinger, singer Sheena Easton, model Troy Beyer, actress Vanessa Marcil. How much of the sexual legend was overblown? “Like most things, it’s exaggerated,” says Leeds. “But he’s got a very impressive scorecard.”

History will record that at the very top of the ’80s musical mountain, Prince’s sole company was Michael Jackson. In The Death of Rhythm & Blues, his comprehensive history of black music, Nelson George called Prince and Jackson the most important artists of the ’80s, as well as the era’s “finest music historians, consistently using techniques that echoed the past as the base for their superstardom.” In our interview, The Artist refused to consider Jackson his main competition, saying he wasn’t “worried” about people as famous as he, but other “guitar killers.” “I’m just a guitar player,” he said. “I look out for the Johnny Langs tearing up the guitar. I don’t stress nobody else.” (Lang is a teenage blues phenom from Minneapolis.)

But while Prince was the star he’d dreamed of being, he was still unsatisfied. “The person I met,” says Leeds, who joined Prince shortly before Purple Rain, “was suspicious and paranoid of people and life in general, and sarcastic and cynical and clearly troubled by his personal demons. And, of course, the more we learned about his background – his mother basically walked away from him, and his father struggled to raise him and threw in the towel, and the kinds of rejection he suffered as a youngster – it certainly doesn’t add up to a very secure, well-rounded individual.”

“People think I must miss the old days,” says The Artist. “No way. I was doing the 75th Purple Rain show, doing the same thing over and over—for the same kids who go to Spice Girls shows. And I just lost it. I said: ’I can’t do it!’ They were putting the guitar on me and it hit me in the eye and cut me and blood started going down my shirt. And I said, ’I have to go onstage,’ but I knew I had to get away from all that. I couldn’t play the game.”

After Purple Rain, he continued making great music—journalist Anthony DeCurtis who interviewed Prince in 1996, says: “Between ’82 (1999) and ’87 (Sign o’ the Times), he was in the zone. It was the moment when the zeitgeist flows through you, and as it moves through you, you’re shaping where it goes once it passes you. He was channeling, man.”

Sign o’ the Times was a creative zenith. After two quirky, under appreciated records – 1985’s Around the World in a Day 1986’s ParadeSign was a critical watershed that remains the favorite Prince album for many musicians and non-musicians. “His best album to me is Sign o’ the Times,” says Ahmir, drummer for the hip-hop band The Roots. “That’s his all-look-ma-no-hands record. No one but him would put that coda at the end of ’U Got the Look.’ No one but him would put backward drums on ’Starfish and Coffee.’ No one but him would write a song like ’Starfish and Coffee!’ And put that shit sixth on his record! Artists today put all their eccentric shit way toward the end because they’re all worried about makin’ sure the first six songs are absolute bangers. Meanwhile, he covers the whole spectrum of music in the first four songs. He covered Santana, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield —just as far as styles—Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, all within the first five songs.”

But, in retrospect, Sign o’ The times was perhaps Prince’s last high point. It didn’t sell incredibly well and, despite some near-scintillating moments on 1988’s Lovesexy and 1992’s so-called Symbol album, he would never again sell superstar truckloads or unveil genius albums. Diamonds and Pearls (1991), a critical disappointment, moved more than two million albums, but his subsequent seven albums only moved a combined three million – some, like 1996’s Chaos and Disorder, sold a mere 100,000 copies.

“When he came out,” says [music author Nelson] George, “he was the most controversial artist of the time, dealing with incest and raw sexuality and sexual ambiguity and racial ambiguity. All that worked for him. And then a new movement came in called hip-hop. Once the Rakim, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane era came in, the whole level of masculinity was different. There was no room for ambiguity. There was definitely a cultural backlash among men. A lot of people suddenly said, ’Prince? He’s a sissy.’” However, George added, not all Prince fans changed with the times: “Of all the artists I knew, I don’t know anyone who’s had so many unabashed women fans who love him to death.”

Warner Bros. believed that the reason Prince’s sales were slipping after Sign o’ the Times was that he was over-saturating the marketplace: between 1978 and 1992, Prince released 13 albums, 2 of them double sets. In that same period, Bruce Springsteen, known for his hard work, released only 8.

For years, Warner Bros. had given Prince unusual latitude. “He was less a slave than any black artist I know of!” says George. “There’s no other black artist you can look at during his era who had more artistic freedom than Prince. They really let him have control of his career in ways that black artists never have. They let him pick the singles. With the Sign o’ the Times album, ’Housequake’ was never a single. It was the biggest record in the country at one point, but never a single. ’Adore,’ [many people’s favorite Prince ballad] was never a single. They put out ’If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as a single, which was a great record, but it wasn’t an obvious commercial single. And those were his calls.”

George continues: “As the stories go, Prince could do anything he wanted and Mo [Ostin, then the chairman of Warner Bros.] would co-sign it. Prince would go in his office and literally get on top of his desk and dance and sing for him and make Mo spend money. They never pigeonholed him as a black artist, at least internally. They put out two-sided singles and double albums and gave him mad tour support. They supported him as an artist to the highest level for most of his career. But the freedom they gave him at Warner Bros., he became a victim of it. They’d spoiled him for so long and indulged him for so long that when they started trying to rein him in, they couldn’t.”

In ’92, Warner Bros. signed Prince to a new contract, reportedly worth $100 million, and which was announced as one of the richest in record-business history. He received a reported $30 million in cash up front and a $10 million advance per album – but only if the previous one sold more than five million copies.

The size of the deal made Warner Bros. more interested in slowing Prince’s release schedule so that the label could have more time for its promotion and marketing, and Warner Bros. pressured him to slow his release schedule. But to Prince, the problem was with how Warner Bros. was promoting his records. And besides, impeding his creative process was completely unacceptable. The situation would only get worse. “He’s on some hard-core militant shit now,” says Ahmir. “Like, ’You got to control your shit and let no one else control your shit for you.’ I was like, ’Yo man, what brought this on?’ He was like, ’I’ve been through hell and back and I’ve been through hell and back again.’"

In 1993, Prince announced that he was changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (he was soon called The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and, eventually, The Artist). In our interview, he said, “I changed my name to get out of the contract. They said, ’If you change your name, we don’t want any more Prince albums.’ I said, ’That’s the name on the contract.’ They said, ’But that’s not the name people will know you by.’ I said, ’You didn’t sign him.’"

Warner Bros. struck back in 1994, dropping its distribution deal with Paisley Park, and, afraid he would never record again, releasing a pair of albums against his will: the long-underground Black Album and Come, a collection of outtakes. At the time, The Artist told a journalist: “You don’t know how much it hurts not owning your own material. When a record company goes ahead and does something with a song you wrote. . . it can make you angry for a week.”

The disagreement deepened when Warner Bros. consented to allow The Artist to release a single, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” on another label, the tiny Bellmark. It was an international success, and it convinced The Artist that his decreasing record sales were not his fault. At the time, Bob Merlis, senior vice president of Warner Bros., told The New York Times: “He wanted to release more albums than his contract called for... Eventually we agreed that his vision and ours didn’t coincide.” Warner Bros. agreed to end the contract, though it retained ownership of his voluminous—and lucrative—back material.

In 1996, The Artist signed a deal with EMI to distribute the records he put out on his NPG label. He would finance his own albums and videos and release them at his own whim. EMI, which allowed The Artist to retain ownership of his master recordings, got a small cut for employing its own distribution system. At the time The Artist told journalists that EMI representatives were like “hired hands, like calling a florist to deliver flowers to my wife.”

On Valentine’s Day 1996 The Artist married Mayte Garcia. She grew up around the world, a military brat family was stationed longest in Germany. At the age of five, she belly danced on the television show That’s Incredible. In her teens, Mayte became a prima ballerina with the Wiesbaden Ballet. According to various sources, at one of his concerts in Germany, The Artist caught sight of her and said to a friend: “That’s my wife.” She was 16 (he was 32).

Now 24, and taller than her husband, Mayte has an angelic smile and a shapely dancer’s body, two overly friendly Yorkshire terriers, Mia and Mary, who scamper around Paisley at will, a hotpink BMW 750iL, a five-carat diamond ring, and a sweet, just slightly Spanish accented voice not unlike Jenifer Lopez’s. Described as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” she choreographs for NPG Dance Company, in which dancers move to Prince’s music in ways based on classical, modern, and hip-hop styles. She also directed the video for her husband’s latest single, “The One” and plans to make others. (People who know the couple say her being a natural dancer is a large part of his attraction to her.)

"Their marriage is the best thing that could ve happened to him,” says a former girlfriend. “That woman obviously is for him. All that has transpired in the last four years, in making him more human and willing to be open, is because of her.”

Asked how he knew Mayte was the one, The Artist said: “God tells you who’s the one. If you don’t have a relationship with God you’re in trouble. That gives you something to put everything in line.” Then asked if he enjoyed being married he said, “I’m not afraid of the rain anymore, because my wife built me a garden. Now the lightning and thunder put energy in the vegetables and give me energy to talk to you.”

Mayte soon became pregnant. Prince sampled the baby’s heartbeat for. a song on Emancipation, and transformed Paisley Park into the eye-popping wonderland it is now. In our interview, he said: “There was no color in this building before I got married. It was all white with gray carpet. For 15 years, I was just in the studio every day, on a grind, not even thinkin’ about it.” But though he spoke of the changes in Paisley, it was made clear to journalists that they were not to ask about the sad outcome of the event that inspired the changes.

In October 1996, according to published reports, Mayte gave birth to a boy with Pfeiffer Syndrome, a skull deformity. After seven days on life support, he passed. The Artist has said that “Comeback,’ a short, lonely, beautiful ballad from his oft-sublime acoustic album The Truth, the fourth disc from Crystal Ball, is about the child: “Spirits come and spirits go/ Some stick around for the after show/ I don’t have to say I miss you/ Cuz I think you already know.” There are plans to a children’s hospital on the land across, street from Paisley, where vacant shacks now stand. “It’s part of his commitment,’” a friend says, “to get his own money and spend it the way he wants.”

Needing more quotes and more substance after our first interview, I e-mail The Artist with 12 questions, mostly about music. Then, at the last moment, I tack on one more—Will you play one-on-one basketball with me? Two days later answers float back. On music he’s a little more open, shunning any specific discussion of his past songs except to express an awe toward his own oeuvre, as though it was created by someone else. He writes: “Ultimately, spiritual evolution is the axis on which inspiration and creativity spin. . . there r so many songs that I’ve written and recorded, sometimes it is hard 4 ME 2 believe it all comes from one source!” And, intriguingly: “All of my musicality comes from GOD.... The blessing/curse ensued when I kept sneaking back in2 the talent line dressed as another person... I got away with it several times be4 they caught me!”

Then, at the bottom, in response to my hoop question, he writes: “Anytime, brother.”

For three hours, the ICON photographer sets up in a Paisley Park sideroom adjusting the lights, prepping the film. Then, suddenly, a white BMW Z3 roars up to Paisley, and in strolls Prince—not That Artist who’s offered us this awkward parody of a name that seems designed to militate against familiarity, but a real person—Prince. “The name thing has become a punch line,” says DeCurtis. “I mean, can you imagine an artist who’s sold tens of millions of records suddenly confronting the audience with the problem of how to say his name?” Anyway, word is that friends and family still call him Prince. According to Ahmir, “He lets black people call him Prince.”

So Prince, in a long, flowing buttoned-up, basketball-colored top that stretches down to his knees – and cream colored heels – sits down in front of the camera and, for a little while, lets the wall down a bit, keeping us all in stitches with his dry, quick-witted humor. Outside of interview mode, he shows off more of the changed man, a freer, more relaxed man.

Already wearing one ear cuff in each ear, he contemplates adding a hoop earring to his right one. He holds it up to his ear, “Earring or no?”

“Yes!” the female assistant says. “Wear it.”

“Who buys the magazine?” he asks.

“Men,” he’s told.

Right on the beat, he drops the earring to the ground. “Women always get me in trouble,” he teases. Then, in a womanly voice he adds, “Oooh, you look so nice in that.”

A Paisley employee runs in. Prince says to him, “Ask them to clear out in the back to play basketball.”

A moment later, flipping through a Vanity Fair with Chris Rock on the cover, he comes to a story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“Think Reagan has Alzheimer’s?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Who doesn’t?

He gives me a sly look as if to say, don’t believe it. I’d heard Prince was a conspiracy theorist. I laugh and begin writing.

“Don’t write that,” he says playfully. “I already got enough trouble. I’ll have the Secret Service at my door.” He adopts a mock-federal agent voice. “You say somethin’ about Reagan?”

We all crack up. When the laughs subside, I ask: “Why would they lie about that?”

“To keep him from answering questions.”

The shoot concludes, and the photo team and I are led into a rehearsal room in the back. When we arrive, he’s changed out of the basketball-colored top and into a tight, almost sheer, longsleeve black top and tight black pants. But then he tucks his gold symbol necklace into his top, slips off his cream-colored heels, and laces up some old, but not tattered, red-and-white Nike Air Force high-tops. And the one-time Central High sixth man (he played guard) is ready to play,

"He’s not a person who finds it easy to share, whether it’s his thoughts or his time or his energy,” Leeds told me. “If it isn’t within the context of a specific purpose, he doesn’t enjoy or solicit sharing life. Everything has an agenda.”

But now he seems willing to share. He seems spontaneous and playful. Maybe that’s the agenda. (Don’t put it past him, suggested someone who knows The Artist, to decide now, at this low point in his career, with a men’s magazine watching to play basketball with a writer for the first time.) Or maybe he just feels comfortable.

He picks up the ball, makes a face understood in international shit-talking parlance to mean I’ma kick yo ass, and starts knifing around the court—moving quick, dribbling fast fast, sliding under my arm to snatch rebounds  I thought for sure I had. with his energy and discipline, it’s a rapid game, but never manic or out of control. Still we’re bothy rusty, so most shots just miss. clunking off the side of the rim, and after a little while, there’s not much of a score. Finally, I score on a drive that feels too easy. As the ball drops in, I look  back at him. “I don’t foul guests,” he says. then on the next paly, I drive again, and the joker bumps my arm tough fouling me.
 
He and I ream up against the photographer (Prince had told him not to take pictures of the game) and Morris Hayes, the six-foot-four, dyed blond afroed keyboardist. Prince takes the point, a natural leader, sets picks, and makes smart passes. Then he takes it boldly to the hole, twisting through the air in-between both opponents sometimes a bit too aggressively, but ex exhibiting the confidence of a man who’s taken on the world by himself and won. And sometimes, in those too-bold drives to the hoop, he scores.

Prince plops down on a nearby couch and blurts: “Now I can put my pimp clothes back on.” Everyone laughs. “That’s a joke!” he says, teasing himself. “An old self resurfacing.”

He and I, alone now, walk back toward the front of Paisley Park. After a moment of quiet, he’s talking music. “There’s nobody worth seeing anymore. Sinbad’s bringing the Ohio Players back, but really, there’s no one.”

“If you could get Sly Stone out here, that’d be something.”

“If he’s still with us. I keep getting conflicting reports,” Prince says.

We fall quiet. I have two million questions, but I hold back. Now I know that’s not how to play the game. He breaks the lull. “Rhonda plays tennis.” Rhonda is the bassist in his band. “I was too small to play” – he points back toward the basketball court – in high school. I like tennis better than that.”

“I thought you were gonna play ball in heels,” I say. (I’d heard he sometimes does.)

“Oh, no,” he says. Then, “Can’t play guitar in tennis shoes.”

“Why?”

“Sacrilegious.”

“I’ve heard that you do play ball in heels.”

With a confident smirk, he says: “A jealous man told you that story.”