The Artist Formally Known As Prince plans to party until it’s 2999

Neva Chonin

THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS PRINCE IS STARVING. He and the Woman Formerly Known as Prince’s Wife, Mayte, have spent the afternoon foraging through the menu of New York’s Palace Hotel, looking for food items that don’t offend their shared palate. Being vegan is tough in a red-meat town.

Have you seen The Matrix?” he asks wearily, settling back into a plush couch in a suite high above the honking madness of Manhattan. “Life is just like that. We’d better be careful. Pretty soon it’s gonna be more like Big Brother than it already is. They tell us what to eat, what to think, what to believe in, even what to worship.”

When it’s noted that a good number of people seem to worship him, The Artist smiles. He brushes his long chestnut bangs from his exquisitely dark eyes and drapes one black-trousered leg over the other. “I can only speculate on why people deify other people,” he says innocently. “Maybe it’s because that’s what they’ve been told they should do.”

This particular autumn weekend, the Man Who Will Not Be Deified is accessible only by appointment or mutual fame: Today he’s holding court for journalists; last night he partied with Janet Jackson and Q-Tip. Even if his latest album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Arista) – a luscious blend of new recording technology and the old Minneapolis Prince sound – did get shut out of Billboard’s Top 10 by the likes of Rage Against the Machine, the Paisley Prince is still the apex of pop royalty. Now if he could only find a decent salad.

Looking young and lovely in a pink minidress, Mayte returns from the restaurant downstairs, bare-legged, high-heeled and empty-handed. The relationship between the former Prince and his princess is replete with the kind of high drama gossips love: Together they recorded Mayte’s self-titled debut album, which bombed. Together they had a baby who died soon after birth, and managed to keep the death a secret for weeks while speculation ran wild. Together they decided to divorce, citing a mutual distrust of contracts, but remain a common-law couple. Together they’re trying to start an orphanage in their home outside Gibraltar, Spain, in a location The Artist extols as “completely serene.”

Now, sitting together on the couch, their hands clasp like clamshells. They could be a lost Keene portrait of two wide-eyed, famished and impossibly gorgeous vegan kittens.

If The Artist’s stomach is empty, however, his spirit is sated. He’s spent the past year studying the Bible (New World edition) with his musical collaborator and spiritual mentor, former Sly & the Family Stone bassist and current Jehovah’s Witness Larry Graham. After much theological pondering and soul-searching, The Artist has adopted many of the Jehovah’s Witness tenets. And while he isn’t ringing doorbells or standing on corners hawking the Watch Tower yet, he’s more than game to preach.

“Larry Graham looks the way he did at Woodstock,” he enthuses. “He’s 52, but he looks 30 because he has a sparkle in his eye. There’s a light shining through. He don’t have to believe anything. No one does. We already know everything.”

As The Artist bounces in excitement, the heavy gold pendants around his neck – one bearing the NPG logo, the other his personal glyph – swing like pendulums. “Have you read the Bible?” he asks. “They talk about people living for 300, 400 years. But people now are so insane about age and time.”

This is one pilgrim, it seems, who doesn’t intend to see the inside of a pine box anytime soon. Whether through fear or the same will to power that enabled him to walk away from mega-stardom, he plans to party until it’s 2999. He’s off to a good start: With his oversized black sweater and shaggy, terrier hair, the 41-year-old could pass as his flamboyant 1984 incarnation’s Bohemian kid brother.

“People die because they give up,” he insists. “They’ve been told they’re going to die, and they accept that. Expectation has a lot to do with it. If someone tells you you’re going to live to be 1000 and you accept that, then you’re outside of time. You’re not counting anymore.”

The Artist begins ticking off points on his slim fingers as if reciting an ontological shopping list. “I don’t count time. I don’t count holidays. I’ve grown up, and I’ve gotten younger and smarter.”

The doorbell chimes. Without missing a beat, he bounds up from the couch and half-dances, half-skips to the door, where his publicist stands waiting with a fresh pot of cappuccino. “When I met Larry, I was searching,” he says, ushering her in. “I still saw a little simple God as being the matrix of truth. But we don’t need to get into a being or a spirit. We decide whether we’re going to live or die. We either create bad or we create good.”

The only person closer to The Artist than Graham is Mayte, whose support he credits for the success of his spiritual search. Raised in Puerto Rico, she was only 16 when they met. The aspiring singer immediately made an impression by being unimpressed by his fame. “I knew who he was,” she remembers, “but it was more like, ŒWow, you’re great. Let’s go eat.”’

The pampered star loved it. “She looked at me for who I was,” he says, regarding her lovingly. Mayte beams. “If I was being a jerk, she’d say, ŒYou know, you’re really being a jerk.’ She was my friend for years before everything started going click, click, click. She mothered me. She’s the only person I’ve never had an argument with. “Mayte may have seen through her future husband’s many façades, but for the rest of the pop world he remains a cipher. With the guilelessness of a holy fool, The Artist has pursued his shifting destinies with a combined disregard for public opinion and a keen awareness of his ongoing celebrity. The harder he tries to escape his own enigma the more he feeds it, and his career moves and personal life inspire the kind of microscopic scrutiny reserved for the very famous and the very weird.

By design as much as by nature, everything The Artist does smacks of unconventional melodrama. In a bid for artistic freedom, he blew off a contract with Warner Brothers to found NPG Records only to become an Internet-distributed recluse known as much for his peculiarities as for his hyper-prolific musical output. His bid to retain rights to last year’s signature song, “1999,” quickly moved from a question of songwriter’s rights to a high-profile verbal shootout that featured wildly entertaining and often abstract rants on his Web site.

And while The Artist doubtlessly sees himself as a crusader for all artists’ rights, he’s handicapped by his own guarded persona – he wants to save the world without ever venturing into it. Leave it to Eddie Vedder to publicly rail against corporate greed. The Artist fights his battles privately, through attorneys and cryptic Internet messages. Still, the goals are similar, even if the performers are not. Both want to wrest the recording industry from faceless corporations and give it back, if not to fans, at least to musical entrepreneurs.

Alas, the ex-Prince’s reputation for eccentricity often eclipses his good works. For years now, critics and fans alike have had a field day hooting over the speechless glyph he chose to replace his birth name. But his motivation was both justifiable and politically keen. He simply wanted to separate his sense of self from the marketing logo known as “Prince.”

“The first time I realized what was happening was the day of the Purple Rain premiere,” he recalls, shaking his head. “There’s a picture of me from then, and my eyes are just glazed over. I had just got out of a purple limousine, and I looked up and saw this huge image of myself. At that moment I realized the whole world is an illusion.”

If his output from his Internet-only label has been critically spotty, he has nonetheless established himself as something of an online music pioneer. NPG bypassed major labels and distributors to peddle The Artist’s works to the public at a time when MP3 technology was just a glimmer in some computer geek’s eye. Just because he’s deigned to release Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic on an outside label doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his Web strategy.

“The cool thing about the Internet is that you can get information for and by yourself,” he says. “People are more sophisticated now. They’ve got a direct line, and they don’t have to go through other people to find the music they want.”

Finding the music they want doesn’t include sampling his, though. The Artist’s fiercely protective stance toward copyright control isn’t just directed at the record industry. The idea of having his songs sampled and remixed – even through the proper legal channels – makes his perfect coif stand on end.

“Excuse me, but I’ll be the judge of what you do to my child,” he fumes when asked about DJs borrowing his beats. “You gonna take my creation from me? It ain’t about money, y’all. You’re messing with God. That music’s mine, I created it.” As a halfway measure, this year he’s releasing an officially sanctioned sampling disc of his work. “You can pay a one-time fee and do with it what you will.”

While The Artist always has several burners going, the expansive project that became Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic arrived like an unplanned pregnancy. He had figured on taking the year off, “just sitting and kicking back. It had been 20 years since I’d had a break and I felt I was due.” But workaholic habits soon prevailed. Collaborators ranging from Maceo Parker to Ani DiFranco began dropping by, and the new CD was off and running.

The sessions yielded their share of sonic epiphanies. “After finishing in the studio one evening, Ani, Larry, Maceo and I jammed all night long,” The Artist recalls, staring dreamily out the window at the crisp autumn sunshine. “Maceo was lying on the stairs as the sun was coming up, and he started playing this lonely saxophone. I thought, If the world ended now, it would be perfect.” The album marked a return to vintage Purple Rain-era funk, right down to a production credit for The Artist’s alter-ego, Prince. Don’t expect the Former One to make a full-fledged comeback, though. “I just thought it would be interesting to show that genesis, to make the album sound like Prince again,” he says. “So I went down and blew the dust off all the old instruments.” In another gesture of rapprochement, the major-label-shy star released Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic on Arista Records after striking a deal that allowed him to retain control of the masters.

The Artist’s next project is a classically Quixotic one: A rerecording of Prince’s entire Warner Brothers catalog. “People should have a choice. There’ll be two versions of the albums, and they’ll be identical – except mine will sound better,” he says. Yet despite such ongoing skirmishes, he insists he bears the recording industry no animosity. “I can’t be mad at them. But [the VH1 documentary] ’Behind the Music’ with TLC should be required viewing for musicians everywhere. Left Eye walks you through it – how you can make millions and go bankrupt.”

It’s unlikely that The Artist – or Prince, for that matter – will go bankrupt anytime soon. His new albums sell well and his back catalog still moves hugely and steadily. As the grand master of fin de siècle funk, he has been as influential as any musician in a post-Elvis, post-Beatles world can be. And like Icarus flying toward the sun, he’s perpetually trying to transcend himself.

It’s unlikely that The Artist – or Prince, for that matter – will go bankrupt anytime soon. His new albums sell well and his back catalog still moves hugely and steadily. As the grand master of fin de siècle funk, he has been as influential as any musician in a post-Elvis, post-Beatles world can be. And like Icarus flying toward the sun, he’s perpetually trying to transcend himself.

Asked his expectations for the new century, he flashes a smile both inscrutable and charming. “I expect to live forever,” he says smoothly. “Life is so much more sexy when there’s no ceiling on it.