O(+> comes clean
He changed his name to a squiggle and added ’slave' to his make-up. But when it came to his music, the artist formerly known as hip, talented and sexy was accused of selling fans short. Now, as he makes a fresh start, the man  who was Prince bares all to Liz Jones.

Liz Jones 

​”​Oh no, you’re not allowed to do me,” the Artist Formerly Known as Prince smirks as he closes his office door inside Paisley Park. “Only my wife can do me, "

It is just like him to turn a harmless remark (the talk was of doing him in The Sunday Times Magazine for the very first time) into something worthy of a dirty mind. Perhaps the man who back in 1980 berated his shocked audience for not singing along to the lyrics of Head hadn​’​t changed so much after all. As a member of that triumvirate of 1980s superstars — along with Michael Jackson and Madonna — he was by far the most talented.  But the star who seemed destined to be creative for​ longest, whose first breakthrough hit, 1999, will see most of us into the next century, has followed a spectacular rise with an equally dramatic decline.

Over 20 years, his music has generated $300m, peaking with Purple Rain in 1984, which sold 15m copies. His Sign o the Times opus remains one of the greatest albums of all time. Yet here he is, approaching 40, with three years to go before the world s biggest party, and his last two releases have sold fewer than 100,000 copies each. He has become more famous for scrawling the word “slave” on his cheek and for changing his name to an unpronounceable squiggle than for his music. But he is about to get another chance. And it could be his last.

”I’m a free man, I'm a happy man and I'm a married man,” he says as he arranges a camel mohair coat over his purple silk outfit (Minneapolis is 5 below in November). “But I've got a record to sell”, He is, of course, wearing heels, which are, as always in the same fabric as his outfit. He can do anything in them: make love, take a bath (did you see his feet in the video: When Doves Cry?), leap backwards onto a grand piano. Here, close-up, is the famous smile, the famous eyelids that bat so languorously and such a great distance you expect a sound when the lashes finally meet. His hair hasn't had a kink in it for 20 years.

This summons to Paisley Park, his state-of-the-art recording studio complex 40 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, comes at the end of a very important year. On Valentine’s Day (we always knew he was a romantic) he married Mayte Garcia, the 23-year old dancer in his band. He divorced Warner, his record company of 19 years. And he became a father. It is poignant to discuss his new record deal, his new album and his new life while clearly visible through the window is the adventure playground he had built for his son so that he could watch him play while he worked at his desk. The couple's baby boy was born on October 16 with craniosynostosis, or “cloverleaf skull syndrome”. He died at less than two weeks old.

Yet here he is, giving an interview when he has always hated giving interview, conducting a tour of his ​studios, running a finger along the top of his purple piano (everywhere is spotless), past a cage containing two white doves. Only two days before, he had been a smiling and gracious host at a party to launch Emancipation, his new album - and his artistic freedom - at Paisley Park, with Mayte, serene as always, at his side. He had even performed Purple Rain, when he swore he would never play it again. Only day’s after he lost his child, he flew to Japan to promote the record. He directed the video for the first single, the Stylistics' Betcha by Gol​l​y​ ​Wow, and appeared on Oprah (she found out he has a 27in waist). He plans a two-year world tour, starring in March. “It's simple,” says Robert LaFranco of Forbes magazine, who compiles the annual top 40 earners in entertainment, another chart the former Prince has been absent from in recent years. "He needs the money.” But will his new-found freedom turn out to be the artistic equivalent of sharecropping, the fate of many slaves after the real emancipation?

Not quite. He backed out of a live interview with Radio 1’s Chris Evans — anyone who has met the softly spoken and shy singer knows it would have been a disaster — perhaps not realising the embarrassment the empty seat on the private jet would cause, the on-air
venom that would ensue, or the power Evans has over young record buyers in Britain. He also wouldn’t perform for Top of the Pops, which flew its producers over on Concorde and had rashly trailered a “live, exclusive, secret” transmission from the launch party at Paisley Park, By the time they came to film an unplugged performance of the new single, it was nearly 4am and it was Mayte's birthday. They came away with a copy of the video. Even superstars renowned for sleeping only three hours each morning have their limits. •

”Let s see: I’m broke and I'm crazy. I tell you, my skin has gotten so thick,” he says. He is reluctant to talk about his son, for whom he bought thousands of dollars' worth of medical equipment so that they could take him home. They weren't even able to do that. He will say that they want to have lots more children – at least 10. “Mayte is hoping for twins, get two over at once ”

His brown eyes are framed by heavily mascara’d lashes – even when he was spotted buying ice cream at 4am at the local Dairy Queen for his then pregnant wife, he was immaculate in full make-up and heels. I've never been this much in love before.” he says, and he should know – he has written almost a thousand songs on-the-subject. His paean to masturbation,  Darling Nikki, prompted Tipper Gore to campaign for parental warning stickers (she obviously hadn't been listening to the previous five albums). His stage gear
included stockings, Y-fronts and little else, and he wrote the chat-up line “Race cars burn rubber in my pants.” But where he once recorded the moans of Kim Basinger his new album contains a sample of his baby s heartbeat in the womb, because he now sees the world from the point of view of a dad.
“You know, Mayte always knew we were going to be together. I’ve known her since she was 16; she was like my kid sister.” She is Puerto Rican, but was brought up in Germany. He says that he spotted her outside a concert in Frankfurt and “I just knew she was my future wife. She cried when she saw the baby's crib in my house. I said, 'Why are you crying?' She said it was because she had never imagined my house with a crib in it before”

He feels misunderstood, seems desperate to dispel the consensus that he is crazy and irrelevant. Perhaps that’s why he has at last agreed to talk: making sense means more to him than just selling a record. “I get  more props for being crazy than I do for being normal. Do I seem crazy to you? I'm 100% normal. Look at me, there's no insanity whatsoever. Lots of times I'm told i'm too cosmic-headed, but it keeps me grounded to
have my head in the clouds. It helps me cope with what’s going on down here.

"Changing my name made perfect sense to me. I m not Nels son. Nelson, that’s a slave name. I was ridiculed for that, but they did the same to Muhammad Ali and Malcoln X. A lot of people call me sir now. They never did that before. What should you call me?
My wife just says, ’Hey.' If she said, 'Prince, get me a cup of tea' I'd probably drop the cup.

”I was ridiculed for writing ’slave' on my face, and I don't mean to take away from the suffering of slaves in the American south, but America is a slave to money. I don't own the masters to my records, and if you don't own your masters, your master owns you. I don't own Purple Rain. I know how play it,though.”

Isn’t it scary being without the protection of the vice-presidents  and marketing men and press officers and accountants and managers and lawyers who have surrounded you since, as a 19-year-old with an afro and an attitude, you got your first deal? “Do I look scared? I signed, I didn't have as choice. own your masters. There, it's a real simple statement, but nobody bothered to tell me that.  Your songs are your children. You seen all  them gold records downstairs? They mean nothing to me. They ain't why I make music every clay. I could care less how I'm doing on Billboard.”

John L. Nelson and his wife, Mattie, moved from Louisiana in the Deep South to Minneapolis in the late 1950s. Their son Prince Roger, was born in 1958. Although Prince portrayed his mother as white in the semi-autobiographical movie Purple Rain, both his parents are black. John Nelson was a respected jazz pianist, and Prince was playing piano at the age of five. Music became more and more of an escape, not just from family rows — his parents split up when he was seven — but from taunts at Minneapolis Central High. His lack of height never kept him off the basketball team or from getting dates, but he was teased relentlessly. “They would call me names - anything small”

When living with just his father and then with his mother and stepfather didn’t work out, his best friend s mother, Bernadette Anderson, took him in. “My stepdad took me to see James Brown when I was about 10,” he says. "The reason I liked James so much is that, on my way out, I saw the finest girls ” His mother, now Mattie Baker, still lives in the city, his dad lives in Princes old purple house down the road from Paisley Park, although Prince says that they are now estranged, telling Oprah, when asked if his father had physically abused him, that "he had his moments”.

He formed a band while still in school, and even when he was 16, in an interview for the high-school paper, he was already talking about controlling his career, about daily piano practice. He said he played guitar, bass, keyboards, drums (he gave up the sax in seventh grade). And he was already complaining about record companies: It s hard to make it, because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state “

The big labels soon found him, though, and he was signed to Warner in 1977. The deal was a first for a young black artist: he would deliver three albums for $ 1m; he would not only play all the instruments and sing all the parts, he would be allowed to produce as well. (Portentously, he used up the budget for all three on the first one. For You.)

Most black people migrating north, hoping to escape racism and find work, made it to Chicago rather than Minnesota – and there weren’t any black radio stations in the Twin Cites while Prince was growing up. His first hits, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Soft and Wet, Dirty Mind, weren't even played in his home town, and not because they were naughty. He was soon telling the teen magazines and music press that he was mixed-race, and the raincoat, fishnet stockings and Y-fronts came as a bit of a surprise to the largely black audiences on his first US tour. He often cites Carlos Santana as an influence, but he owes more to Sly Stone, whose band was multi-gender and multi-racial, and to Stevie Wonder, who seized on the invention of the synthesiser to dispense with the need for collaborators. But it wasn't until Prince's flirtation with rock in Purple Rain that the quirky, eccentric genius became a giant in the industry, with the clout to do exactly as he pleased.

”My advice to Prince would be, get out on the road. Do what you do best, because nobody live on stage even comes close,” says Alan Light, editor of Vibe magazine in New York.

Prince could well be planning to play stadiums for the next two years, but a successful tour needs to be on the back of a popular album. He hasn’t toured  America since 1993 (even the critically acclaimed Lovesexy tour of 1988 didn't go down well there), and although Europe has always received him warmly, that may no longer be the case.

For the first time, the tickets didn’t sell out for his last British tour, in 1995, nicknamed the “Give me your money” tour by fans. His famed after-show jams at small venues, which used to be impromptu parties for those in the know, had now become another excuse to make money. At Wembley Arena each evening fliers were passed along the seats giving the location of the after-show. Those who had already shelled out for an official ticket felt short-changed: was he cutting the show short to be fresh for later on? Those who did make it to the next venue found they had to pay about £20 on the door. Add to that the cancelled Blenheim Palace open-air concert in 1991, axed a week before it was due to take place (the fraud squad were called in when, months later, up to 75,000 fans were still waiting for $ 1m from the promoter), and there are a lot of people who will think hard about shelling out for his third album in a year. "Chaos and Disorder [his final album for Warner] was a spiteful, contract-breaking album,” says Charles Aaron, music critic of Spin magazine, of the record that came out in July this year and sank without trace. He did it to punish Warner, but the people who bought it thought him even more useless than they did before.”

Why insult your audience like that?” asks Alan Light. “If the new record is good, then that’s the great thing about pop music, he'll be back. But if it's not, he won t get another chance.” Fans were also tired of the whining from a pop star who had, with much
fanfare, signed a new multi-million-dollar deal with Warner as recently as August 1992. The contract funded sue albums at $10m apiece and provided $20m for his own label, Paisley Park, a swanky job title at Warner and a suite of offices in Century City, California. Many in the business called the deal, which could have earned him up to $ 100m, absurd. If he had got that amount, Warner wouldn’t have made a penny. The figure per album was the very highest he could receive at the very best levels of sales performance. At his royalty rate of 20%, he' would have to sell 5m units before Warner could recoup its
advance – and even his most Popular recent releases, Batman and Diamonds and Pearls, sold only 2m each. It is possible that the company stipulated that any unrecouped advance – record-speak for loan– would come out of his publishing income. Many believed he no longer had it in him to support a deal of that size. He also wanted to put out more music, but Warner wanted to spend up to two years to get the  most mileage out of each release. Compare Michael Jackson’s output: in the same 15-year period, the pale one has released five albums to Prince s one, two and now three a year.

So he decided he wasn’t going to play ball. In April 1993 he announced he would fulfil his Warner quota with songs already in his vaults. On June 7 that year, his 35th birthday, he announced he was changing his name to a symbol. He thought it might, like the scarf he put round his face, allow him to record and perform outside his Warner contract. It didn't. In February 1994, Warner announced it was terminating the Paisley Park label, which had failed to make money. The plush offices in Century City, which Prince had never set foot in, were closed and the 12 staff laid off.

”It’s corporate America up here in Rockefeller Plaza, says a Warner vice-president, referring to the company's Manhattan headquarters. “Nothing has been the same since Mo Ostin left. It's all about money now. Ostin, the legendary head of Warner Music who had nurtured Prince throughout his career, had left to set up teamworks SKG Music with Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Warner had tradiuonally seen as a caring, artist oriented label, unlike Sony, which George Michael accused of treating his art as mere software. Now it looked as if Warner was going the same way. And it was desperate for the artist who had been one of its biggest stars to shut up.

”It’s easy for him to act wounded,” says David Fricke of Rolling Stone. “Here's a guy who ha misspent his talent and possibly his fortune and he wants sympathy.”

Prince has not had the good sense to turn his business over to the right people since 1989, when he fired the managers, lawyers and accountants who had been with him since 1980,” says Jon Bream, music critic °f the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote the first biography of Prince in 1984. It was the management firm of Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli (known as Spaghetti Inc) that made the Oscar-winning Purple Rain. Compare that with 1990s Graffiti Bridge, which took six weeks to make and 36 to edit. “Prince was used to having his studio open, in case on a whim he wanted to record,” says another Warner executive. "He used to be able to spend $500,000 to make a video that no one was going to see. He can’t do that any more. He spent $2m filming with his protegee Carmen Electra in Egypt. Her record didn't sell. To be honest, we re glad of a break from him.” Prince s managers have recently included his former bodyguard, Gilbert Davison, whom he fired in 1994, and his own stepbrother, Duane Nelson, recently embroiled in an assault case; he left Prince s employ this year. In October 1995, the Glam Slam nightclub in inneapolis, owned by Davison but affiliated with the singer, closed down, as has the one in Miami. In April this year. Prince closed Paisley Park, the $ 10m complex he built in 1987, as a studio for hire (though there are plans to reopen it for hire now that the new album is finished). The New Power Generation shop selling merchandise in downtown Minneapolis closed, as did the branch in Camden, north London, an ill-conceived venture that lost him his original investment. Other Paisley Park staff let go this year include his longest term employees, his chief engineer and his personal assistant, who had both been with him for 12 years. He no longer has a manager; the closest to that capacity is L. Londell Macmillan, the dapper attorney who orchestrated  the deal to release his first post-Warner album. According to Forbes magazine, Warner has still to recoup the millions expected from the deal.

”Prince was fed up,” says Greg Tate, an author and musician. The son of a top Warner executive told  Prince he didn’t have it in him to have another hit record. The next day, Prince wrote The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” He financed it himself, to the tune of $2m, and released it Independently in 1994. It was his first number one. He had carried off that kind of trick before, of course. After the esoteric Around the World in a Day in 1985, widely considered to be his Sergeant Pepper but not a commercial success, he released Kiss, a huge hit. But can he do it again?

”It’s the best work I've ever done,” he says now, playing his favourite tracks from the new album (which is almost all of them). It contains his most beautiful compositions to date: Soul Sanctuary, which could replace his aching Adore as a ballad for a broken heart, and Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife, the song he composed for his wedding day. “No one told me what to put on it, or censored it.”

Reactions to Emancipation, a three-CD set with 36 tracks — the longest ever original pop release — have been predictable: it s overlong, too expensive. But he is having none of that. “They told me that putting out Sign o the Times as a double album was a mistake. These are the same people who would tell Mozart he writes too many notes or that Citizen Kane is a long movie. I was playing pool with Lenny Kravitz, and we said, we both play all our own instruments, we can make an album. I’ll sell 350,000, you sell 350,000. Who needs a record company? What they do isn’t brain surgery.”

Emancipation is released on his own NPG label; he will have picked up the tab for recording it and delivering it to EMI, with whom he has a one-album deal. EMI will probably take 25%. The Artist, as he is now known, will make $3 or $4 per album sold. He could make a great deal of money. But it s a huge gamble. “All the stakes are higher,” he says. He has long supported charities for disabled children, such as the Marva Collins schools for children in Chicago (he cast the redoubtable Ms Collins in his Most Beautiful Girl video). His benefit concerts for deaf children have interpreters signing every word, even the rude ones. And a proportion of the proceeds of Emancipation will go to charity. ”What would I do with the money? I live in Minneapolis for chrissakes!"

Emancipation went stright to No 11 on the Billboard pop album chart in the US and sold a million worldwide in its first week. But firmly as Nos 1 and 2 on the same chart were new releases from the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac. Prince once wrote a song with the line: “the only good rapper is one that’s dead. They're tone deaf. Pack the house, try to sing, won’t be no one left.” Does he blame the record companies for the success of gangsta rap, keen to sign and promote negative music simply because it sells? “Now you’re trying to get me in trouble with all the other labels,” he laughs.

But the control freak who on every album inscribes “produced, composed, arranged and performed by” has made a very recent discovery about himself. In therapy, he has found out that he has another person inside him, although "I haven’t figured out what sex it is.” I tell him that bel hooks, the militant African-American feminist and cultural critic, says that he is the only man she would ever go on a date with.

”I’m in touch with my feminine side, yeah."

Hooks even uses his lyrics in her poetry classes. She says that all her college undergraduates are puzzling over If I Was Your Girlfriend, trying to work out whether Prince is a man or a woman, what’s going on. (He wrote chat song for Susannah Melvoin, sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy. It s funny, clever, pleading. He does his best work when he’s in love.)

He bangs both hands on his chair and looks as if he is about to cry. “I can’t tell you what it means to me when you tell me something like that. No one tells me stuff like that. No one writes that. No one told me Purple Rain is Eric Clapton's favourite song, I only just found that out. I always felt I didn't get respect for being a good guitarist That's success to me, that college kids arc reading my lyrics like they're poems. Or when the Fugees perform The Cross, that means my music is reaching a whole new generation

But has he really got anything to say to young people, particularly young black people? At a time when black music is selling better than ever — in the week we meet, 43 of the Billboard top 100 pop singles are by artists like Maxwell and D’Angelo (both huge Prince fans) — here is a musician who crossed firmly into the white mainstream with Purple Rain. Is it too late to cross back? Why would kids listen to him, never lived in a ghetto, when they have Snoopy and Tupac? “I offer an alternative, a future. I never wanted race to be an issue, I wanted people to respect me for my music, not whether I was black or white.”

I tell him that Tricky says exactly that. He says he could be the British Prince. He wears dresses. He has girls on guitar. He says there’s no black or white to his music, and there's nothing like it. Yeah, I ve heard the name [eager, anxious]. What’s his music like?”

His new album is psychedelic, trip-hop, not really jungle but experimental, a bit too London, I say, doubtful that he would really be into it. Can you send it to me, is it out yet?” says the multi-Grammy winner who lives in Minneapolis, for chrissakes, with its Mail of America, the largest mail in the world but where you can’t buy the new Tricky album (I tried). If Minneapolis hadn’t been out in the middle of nowhere, it couldn’t have produced a one-off like Prince. There's nothing like him.

”Whats the album called?” he asks, opening the door, shaking hands.

”Pre-Millennium Tension “

”Ah,” he says. “But isn’t that just a longer way of saying 1999?"