He was singing about Y2K when the rest of us wer​e dancing to Thriller. With his first commercially viable album in years and a newfound sense of joy, the man who once was Prince wants to party like it’s 1982.

Dimitri Ehrlich

Are movies real?” The man sitting , across from me in the multi-million dollar recording studio asks the question patiently the first time. “Are-they-real?” he asks again, enunciating each word as he grows more animated. I stammer. He continues. "Just tell me your first thought: are they real or not?"

”Umm, I guess not,” I say, unsure of his line of questioning, and of why he seems to be interviewing me. rather than the other way around.

”Okay then. Just stay with me, brother. What’s the scariest movie you ever saw?”

”Umm, Silence of the Lambs, I would have to say.” “Ok, good, that was scary. Now did that movie have an effect on you? Do you still remember it? How long did it take for you to get over being scared by it?” He is almost bursting with glee as he builds the logic of his argument.

”About a year,” I admit sheepishly.

”So how can you say movies aren’t real?

See what I’m saying!?!” He jumps out of his chair laughing. “That's what I'm saying, my brother! Movies are real. Music is real. If it affects people, it's real!” He is chortling and pacing around the limited space behind the million-dollar SSL recording console, pivoting on his feet, swivelling back to face me, and stabbing his finger in the air like a preacher.

”Okay, I see your point,” I say. “You’re saying that whatever entertainment we expose ourselves to, it's almost like we're being brainwashed by the particular set of values in it, right?”

At this, The Artist, who used to be known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, who used to be known as Prince (which is what most of his staff secretly still call him behind his back) leaps into the air with a Rasputinlike blaze in his eyes. “That’s it!”

The Artist is talking about hip hop, using horror movies as a metaphor. It’s not that he's a hater—after all, he did tap Eve to make a cameo on “Hot Wit D”, from his new album, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. And it's not that he finds rap's trademark four-bar loops repetitive from a musical point of view; nor is he jealous of others' gifts for flipping the script. No, the reason he's holding forth on why it isn't all good has to do with something less expected—it's the violent imagery and all the foul language in hip hop that he doesn't like.

”The other night,” he says, “I went to a club and I watched the DJ control the entire room. Even politicians can’t do that. I watched this DJ, Brother Jules, reach for the new album by B.I.G. and put it on, and the crowd went crazy. I asked him, 'Do you know what he's saying in those lyrics?' He said he didn't know. Then he tried to tell me he wasn't playing it for the lyrics, that for him, it's all about the beat. But it's affecting people. Everything we put out there is affecting people. The message matters, my brother!”

Wait a minute. Run that back again. Is this the same guy who wrote “Sexy Motherfucker?” The same guy who released the infamous Black Album, arguably the most listenable example of porn on wax ever recorded? Yes and no. That guy has been slowly disappearing for a few years. There are several reasons for the change: one, to be sure, is his relationship with Mayte Garcia, a dancer he married in 1 996. The intensity of their bond has induced him into some semblance of settling down. (He may also have simply grown up a little with the passage of time. He’s now 41.) On the career tip, he's also come into his own, having managed to free himself from an onerous relationship with Warner Bros. and negotiate a conspicuously liberated agreement with Arista Records. The latter are handling the distribution and promotion of Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic through an unusual agreement. An attorney for the label says The Artist's contract is "unprecedented"). But perhaps the most important factor is the arrival at The Artist's NPG records of Larry Graham.

Graham, best known as bassist for Sly and the Family Stone, is now a recording artist signed to The Artist’s label. And ever since Larry Graham showed up at Paisley Park, the tail, quiet, ever-smiling bassist has brought about a major transformation inside the House that Prince Built. A deeply devout Christian, he's engaged The Artist in countless hours of biblical discussion, and slowly but surely brought about some remarkable changes. For one thing, The Artist doesn't perform “Sexy Motherfucker” anymore. He's dropped it from his playlist. He no longer curses during his concerts—in fact, nobody curses inside the Paisley Park complex. Nobody smokes or drinks there, either. And nobody brings any meat or fish in the building. But those aren't the important changes. The transformation of The Artist has been immense, and if it's not been obvious to the outside world, that's because unlike changing his name, this has been an inner change, an attitude adjustment. The fact is, The Artist is more calm, clear, and relaxed than he's been in decades.

According to one staffer who asked not to be identified, he used to demand that every piece of communication be done by memo. He never used to talk to anyone. No crew members were allowed to look at him or talk to him. I literally saw him fire a guy for looking at him. He just said. ’Why is that guy looking at me? Tell him to leave.”' But over since Larry came around, “he's relaxed. He's just a lot happier.”

On musical terms, The Artist had idolized Graham for years before meeting him. but Graham, for his part, had never even listened to any of The Artist’s albums until being signed to his label and joining The Artist's band. He now refers to his boss affectionately as “Baby Brother,” a term few others could get away with, and the warm synergy between the two men is remarkable.

The Artist used to be surrounded by bodyguards. Now he and Larry go out at night by themselves, rent movies, go grocery shopping—The Artist even pumps his own gas. He used to periodically fire his entire staff, and has had 46 guitar technicians, none of whom lasted more than a year. But his current guitar wrangler has been with him for three years and running, and despite occasionally making mistakes, has been graced with forgiveness. What is going on at Paisley Park?

The Paisley Park Complex is a sprawling modem building set on a couple of tightly manicured acres of lawn amid the fields of corn, soybeans, and crumbling farmhouses of Chanhassen, Minnesota. Surprisingly not purple, the building exterior is covered with huge white blocks, each about four square feet. Inside, the walls are painted sky blue with tufts of cumulus clouds; columns are purple with leaf trim. One hallway is lined with showing the evolution of The Artist from 1979 to Present Therels a marble floor with his name-symbol inlaid. There’s a huge television and movie sound stage, three state-of-the-art recording studios, and a lot crushed velvet furniture. There are statues from every imaginable award show on earth, including the Oscar he won for the soundtrack to Purple Rain, the movie. And for those of you who've ever wondered, “Just what does it sound like when doves cry?” at Paisley Park, you find out. It's an eerie rooster-like crowing that comes from a cage kept upstairs, where four white doves make an unearthly sound all day and night.

Nobody records at Paisley Park now, except for The Artist and his friends, but for years he ran it as a commercial and film studio (Grumpy Old Men was shot there, for example). The Artist is a basketball fanatic, so inside the room where his band rehearses every day, a net and backboard are mounted on the wall; he’s known to take on all comers. (Once, during a concert in Montreal, the Chicago Bulls were in game three of the playoffs and he was watching the game from a TV at the side of the stage while he played guitar solos. He had his wardrobe girl draw up big cards and flash the score at him.) It is from within this airplane hangar-sized building that The Artist runs NPG records, sells CDs and merchandise, records new music, and generally emanates his purple majesty.

The Artist’s home is just up the road from Paisley Park, and he often races back and forth in his purple 1999 Plymouth Prowler. These days, under Larry Graham's tutelage, as The Artist becomes ever more conscious of his actions and their effect on the world around him, he says he prefers to just ride his bike. If he does decide to put the pedal to the metal, he can pretty much do it without fear of consequences, because according to one staffer, the cops in Minneapolis don't give The Artist speeding tickets. He is, after all, a one-man tourist attraction, and he frequently plays benefits for the city. (There's that, plus the fact that what he pays in local taxes alone probably equals more than the combined value of alt the speeding tickets issued statewide.)

A brief glance back at The Artist’s career trajectory thus far: signed to a seven album deal with Warner Bros. in his late teens, The Artist amazed the world by writing, singing, producing, and playing all the instruments on almost every track he released. His first massive success came with 1982's 1999, which sold three million copies, but it was 1984's Purple Rain that made him a superstar, (Today, he has a total of fifteen multi-platinum albums to his credit.) The problem was, after Purple Rain, which sold 13 million copies, The Artist looked around and realized that his own success had caused him to lose his way. There was no place to go but down. He knew he could never satisfy his audience's need, or his own need, to match that height. “You can't be that again—everything to all people, and I knew it was gonna be rough.”

But nobody knew how rough—or weird, it would get. After entering into a long legal war with Wamer Bros., during which he attempted (but failed) to win back the right to own the masters of his albums, he left the label under acrimonious terms, but not before accepting a $100 million package in 1992. (Part of the reason he changed his name to a symbol was to wrangle himself free of his contract.) He felt so bitter about the deal that he wrote the word slave on his face and he is now in the process of rerecording all of his Warner Bros. albums from scratch so he can sell them and cut into the company’s sales of his back catalogue. He's also about to release a 7-CD set of samples from his vintage music so that people can sample him without having to pay a licensing fee to Warner Bros. You gotta admit it, the guy knows how to hold a grudge.

After releasing one album with EMI in 1996, he began to sell his music under the auspices of his own NPG label, which sold CDs directly to stores and via the internet. He had all the freedom he wanted but his sates weren’t exactly phenomenal. Although there aren't any verifiable SoundScan figures to rely on, The Artist claims to have sold 250.000 copies of his 5-CD set Crystal Ball, at 50 bucks a pop. Without any advertising or promotional overhead, The Artist got to keep most of that $50 ticket himself, but even so, it amounts to a fraction of the amount of records that say, 1999, sold. His new album, released through Arista, allows him to retain complete control over his master recordings while giving him the formidable marketing muscle of a major label. True to form, The Artist remains defiant, refusing to acknowledge the new deal as a retreat. “I don't sell the records, I record them. When I did sell them, we did just fine. The media casts a spell, talking about how many records I'm not selling. But when you count what the label charges you for packaging, video promotion, advertising, and so on, I got more money from selling 250,000 copies of Crystal Ball than Warner Bros. paid me for 13 million copies of Purple Rain.”

While it’s unlikely his new album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic will even come close to the success of Purple Rain, it's still his most commercially viable album in years. Gone are the esoteric leanings of his last few independent releases, and the sense that he was searching for a new direction. The new album offers up simple new wave ditties and throwaway funk pop jams that sound like they were played for the fun of it. The real gem on the album is “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” which features an inventive Arabic melody and an ultra-lush harmony in the chorus, featuring all three of The Artist's voices: the liquid tenor, the gravelly bass, and the serpentine falsetto. Most importantly, there's a new lightness about The Artist, and it comes across on the album.

The day I met him, The Artist had his hair blown out straight, cut shoulder length and held back with a purple hankerchief, slightly housewife-ish. He wore slender velvet boots with small heels, velvet bell-bottoms that hugged his thighs and ass, and a loose-fitting purple shirt, unbuttoned. On one hand, this is clearly a guy with too many yes-men around him, but on the other hand, who could sit around the house in that outfit and not be a rock star?

Another typical rock star trait that The Artist displays is his slight persecution complex. His vision of the media as a magical caster of spells ties in neatly with his stance on horror films and hip hop; we are all being duped by the Matrix, and we need to wake up. “The media is very important,” he acknowledges, "but they get people entwined in a spell. And once that spell is there, that’s it. For me, the media is doubly dangerous because I'm everchanging. They're always reducing things to soundbites. A few years ago, it was 'His royal badness.' But the fact is, that has very little to do with who I am.”

"People want to sit around, play games, and say nothing. The writer is the spell caster. I give them the opportunity to say what I really think and believe. But they just want to cast a spell. The truth is the truth. It transcends all names and perceptions. That’s what I'm studying: the truth. The truth is simple. Is it good? Is the new album by B.I.G. good? Was The Blair Witch Project a good movie? Was there any good in it?”

I say, “Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. I love Biggie but sometimes I feel a little guilty bobbing my head to some of the ’kick the bitch in the tummy' lyrics.”

He freaks out. “Did you hear what you just said?” he demands, incredulous. Write that down. I’m not mad at you my brother, but I want you to WRITE THAT DOWN!” He is now yelling at the top of his lungs, so I start writing it down. He then patiently leads me through a didactic debate during which he frequently bursts out of his chair and shakes his finger at me, the main point of which is that if something doesn't stack up well against the ultimate truth, it's just no damn good.

”Eve cleaned her rap up to be on my record,” he points out with some satisfaction. “When Larry walks in the room, we all become more aware, not only of swearing but even of what we talk about. He’s gotten us to the point where nobody swears in the building anymore. In fact, I'm gonna have to start fining you and make you put a nickle in the jar every time you curse. Eve stopped cursing for my record. And I did it too. One day Larry asked me, 'Have you ever tried doing your concert without cursing?' And I was like, 'Wow, I never even thought about that.' I used to swear so much, but nobody should have to hear that. Some people might be offended by that. My crew looks to me to lead the way. They're around me a lot and what I do is gonna have a big influence.'

What’s remarkable is that The Artist's newfound sense of propriety did not come as Part of some wholesale Bob Dylan-style born again revelation, so tiresomely common and predictably short-lived among rock stars. Instead, he seems to be undergoing a slow, reasoned process of spiritualized therapy. He talks about the “Truth” more than about Jesus, suggesting that the changes he's been going through have just as much to do with reason as with faith. Ultimately, the sense one gets is that despite having done a lot of thing that might seem weird from the outside (taking on a giant multinational corporation in an extended legal battle, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, etc.) mostly, The Artist makes a lot of sense.

Of course, it isn’t always perfectly logical sense, like when pressed on the fact that his new album is released by “The Artist,” but says it's produced by "Prince.” Exactly what is the relationship between the two? "Our relationship is not contentious. It's an agreement. Prince has the final say. He's the producer. And basically he came in and took a look at that old linn drum machine we used on our early hits, and he said, This is how we rolled in '92, and this is how we rollin' in '99. And that was it.”

Then there’s the slightly illogical gap between the fact that he's waged massive lawsuits in the name of freedom, but also sued nine different websites for using unauthorized representations of his name and likeness. I ask him why he's been so hard on his fans, but he contends they're mercenary pirates. “Is it a fan if someone comes to you and says, 'I really love your car...and now I'm gonna take it?' We should define the word fan. It comes from fanatic. Look at what people do in the name of fanaticism. They steal property. So let's call it what it is: theft of property. One of these websites had an unreleased track of me and Miles Davis, stolen from here. This is my art!”

In a recent conversation with Arista Records chief Clive Davis, The Artist found out about something called the law of compulsory license, which basically means that anybody can record anyone else’s song as long as they pay for it. The Artist was none too pleased to learn this law. “Ginuwine did a cover of my song, 'When Doves Cry.' I walked up to him at a party and told him I didn't appreciate it. He said it was some kind of show of respect. I said, it's cool if you like my song. Just call a brother up and say so. You don't have to cover it. That law doesn't make sense.”

The fact is, The Artist likes to keep the reigns in his hand. This extends even to his relationship with his guru: the odd thing about the relationship between Prince and Graham is that the older man, so clearly in the teacher role when it comes to matters biblical, is subservient when it comes to almost everything else. This is partly because The Artist runs Graham’s label, and partly just by dint of personality. There isn't even a question of anybody defying The Artist's will when it comes to being musical director at Paisley Park. When The Artist says, “Let's play piano duets,” Graham happily obliges. When he calls for a guitar tech to stick a bass in Graham's arms, the radiantly smiling bassist switches instruments without a thought.

When I ask The Artist how he feels about the widely-held perception of him as, shall we say, doing things on his own terms, he : quickly sees through my euphemism. “You ; mean like being a control freak?” he asks. "It’s about being free. When you're free, you can hear it on tape. It's a wonderful sound. I have a clearer understanding of myself and love now. It's harder to understand love when you're in a bad business relationship, like being an indentured servant to somebody, it shows in the music.

”When I was on Warner Bros. I never wrote songs about getting jacked on the business side. When I got free, I did. When you get clear you see that the record company isn’t the enemy. I made the choice to get with them, utilize their services. It was like being in school. I had to get up at six in the morning, like it or not.Now I can play in other people's sandboxes.” He lets the lurid ring of this last sentence hang in the air for a moment before continuing on another favorite topic: his new business deal with Arista Records, which lets him own the master and call the shots. “I got back into the industry to prove that contracts don't work, and agreements do. I had a contract with Warner Bros. That says what I can't do. But I wasn't free. Now I can make an album with Lenny [Kravitz] if I want to. But he can't 'cause he' still under a contract.” The Artist now begins picking up steam, laughing between sentences and speaking with a more southern accent. "He's still on the plantation. But that's his choice, I'm not knocking Lenny. But he's down south. I'm up north.

”Now, ain’t nobody gonna tell me I can't own my master tape—because t made such a big noise about it, that's me now. I'm known for that. I don't even have to bring it up. Clive Davis said, 'Of course you can own your own music. It's yours.' I didn't even have to ask, How many musicians own their own masters?' Not a lot. And very, very few of African American descent.”

Another artist who does own her own masters is Ani DiFranco, who, along with Chuck D, Eve, Sheryl Crow, Maceo Parker. and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, makes a cameo on Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. DiFranco happened to be playing in Minneapolis last July, and The Artist came to see her show. “When I left the stadium. there was a huge white limo waiting out back; the window rolls down and there's

this most vivid sumptuous man sitting there,” she recalls. “He just said, -What’s up?' And then he invited me and Maceo Parker up to the studio.” She wound up playing guitar on "I Love U But I Don't Trust U Anymore” and was amazed by his prowess. DiFranco, too, noted Larry's influence on The Artist. "If you're a growing person, as we get older we tend to think about spirituality more. With The Artist being a realty dynamic, ever-deepening person, he was bound to just become more and more reflective and maybe that's helped him to deal with strife, to find his center. It seems tike he's in a really good state of mind right now. And Larry is like a Buddha himself. He is so beautiful. The vibe around Paisley Park was really nice.'

But a pleasant work environment cannot by itself explain why The Artist seems not to have aged in the last ten years. And it’s not just his forever '80s fashion sense; he's got a Peter Pan-like youthfulness that's downright weird, considering he's a 41year-old workaholic who sleeps two hours a night and does zero exercise. How can he be so well preserved? When pressed for his secret, he leans in and says, “Your magazine probably won't print this, but I don't believe in time. I don't count. When you count, it ages you. If they say you have to retire at 65, you get old at 65. People get hung up on numbers, they push their kids into it and everybody's walking around counting and becoming alcoholic, getting ulcers, evil tempers, and just being realty mean. I said to Mayte, 'One day you'll be 35,' and she just jumped. She still needs to work on it.” This is the first time he's mentioned his wife, Mayte, who now lives in Spain where she's working on starting her own dance company. They're not technically married, because as part of The Artist's disavowal of all things contractual. he had their marriage contract dissolved. But it's obvious that he stilt loves her. While Graham may have been responsible for the philosophical education of The Artist, Mayte seems to have had an equally significantly impact on his emotional growth. "One thing Mayte taught me was how powerful it is to ask someone for forgiveness. Just think about what an aphrodisiac those words are: Will you forgive me? Because deep down. what we all want most deeply is to learn to forgive. If you can't, you're already in hell.”

It’s also because of Mayte that he's begun to confront his intense possessiveness” it wasn't long ago that he wouldn't allow her to be interviewed without him in the room, “I had this thing where I didn't like anyone to touch Mayte: someone would come and hug her and I would shoot her a look, and this change would happen. At first I didn't know where all the tension was coming from, but it would be like there was suddenly air in the room if I saw someone touching her. And then I realized the tension was coming from the words, "my wife.” Before she was "my wife” Mayte was a child of God. And if a man hugs her wrong. that's just another child of God doing wrong and he will ultimately pay a price for that." The Artist pauses for a moment and then adds. "and I'll be there to watch him as he gets kicked down the stairs."

After the interview ends, The Artist calls his recording engineer, Hans (who refers to himself as “Buff Daddy") and instructs him to start recording. Then he looks at me and says, "Me and Larry are gonna jam. You wanna join us?”

Being invited to jam with The Artist is a little liko having Roy Jones Jr. ask you to have a slap fight. To call it intimidating would be an understatement. I manage to get the word “yes” out of my mouth and he hands me an acoustic guitar, recently given to him as a gift from Ani DiFranco. "But don’t play any originals,” he warns, "we don't want to have to pay you any royalties!” It was a joke, of course, and a self-effacing one, poking fun at his own protracted fights for ownership of his music. But just in case he wasn't kidding, I sheepishly promise not to. "We'll follow you," he says mischievously. I protest but he says, "You lead, or come back.” When The Artist says, "come back," he means, "go away," so I acquiesce and begin playing a fairly simple blues groove. But a few seconds into it he interrupts: "You gonna call out those chords?"

Umm, I was just making it up,” I offer, somewhat disbelieving that he couldn’t (or more likely wouldn't) just get loose and respond to an unknown set of chord changes. But he's the boss, so I just stay on one chord, and vamp on a James Brown riff, too frightened to modulate or even vary what I'm doing. Just when it's getting good and The Artist and I start doing a call-and-response thing, shouting guitar phrases back and forth at each other, he decides the song has gone on long enough and that was it. My fifteen minutes of bliss hasn't even lasted fifteen minutes. But it was still cool, and one day I'll tell my grandchildren. They'll probably roll their eyes and say, “Who's Prince?” But fuck those little bastards.