Body & Soul

The hit Musicology album and torrid live shows have made him a star again. Faith and marriage have made him happy. Yes, Prince has come back —to himself.

Alan Light

"Hop On!”

Prince slows down the green golf cart and offers me a lift to his dressing room in Nashville’s Gaylord Entertainment Center. Michelle Anthony, executive vice-president of Sony Music, scoots over in the backseat, and off we roll from the center of the arena, where Prince has just concluded a sound check. Heading into the concrete tunnel that leads backstage, he plays the accommodating tour guide—"And here, on your  left, is . . . nothing!”

"In the past, Prince would presumably have invited a journalist and a record -company executive onto a vehicle he was steering only for some kind of kamikaze mission. But a new day has dawned with the hit Musicology album, a smash tour and a healthy new relationship with the music business. Twenty years after Purple Rain established him as the pop genius of his generation, ten years after a battle with his record company threatened to derail his career for ever, suddenly everyone wants to hop onto Prince’s ride.

He’s dressed very Prince Casual this warm Tennessee afternoon: a red-on-black turtleneck, skintight black pants. He looks shockingly young for his 45 years, his face unlined beneath his upswept hair. But something beyond his appearance feels different: he’s looser, more at ease, as though he’s finally able to let his guard down just the tiniest bit. Though silence and inaccessibility defined him for so many years, these days he says that he doesn’t even mind doing interviews—and he’s given almost as many in the past few months as he had previously granted in his whole career. “If I don ’t do it,” he says, “the script gets rewritten with the same ol’ story out there—that there was some low point in my life that led me back to a major label.”

And why shouldn’t he be happy? The glowing reviews for
Musicology have recognized the album as exactly , that people have been waiting years for him to deliver: a fully realized collection of satisfyingly Prince-style songs. It’s precisely the sort of disc that could set up a powerhouse, sold-out six -month arena tour, an uncharacteristic series of high-profile television appearances (including opening the Grammy Awards and singing for Ellen DeGeneres) and the kind of innovative business model—with independent creative control “augmented” by the major-label heft of Sony’s Columbia Records—that he’s long been championing, and for which he’s long been mocked.

Musicology entered the charts in the top 5 arid sold almost 200,000 copies its first week—Prince’s best showing since the release of Diamonds and Pearls, in 1991. And, thanks to a shrewd, controversial approach to distribution, he’s guaranteed a place in the upper reaches of the charts for the entire summer.

Out of the spotlight, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson also seems to have found some peace. He married Manuela Testolini, an employee at his Paisley Park studio, in 200l (after the dissolution of his marriage to Mayte Garcia, a dancer) and then became a Jehovah’s Witness. His conversation is now laced with Biblical references and allusions. Spirituality, always an element of Prince’s songwriting, has moved front and center. “The study of scripture and trying to live that way is what keeps me out of trouble,” he says, adding that he’s striving for"what the Egyptians used to call maat—order, where everything works.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the way he stays in constant motion, juggling a million tasks in an ongoing challenge to that maat. He huddles briefly with his longtime business partner, L. Londell McMillan, and Sony’s Anthony, then jumps onto his computer to from fans on his NPG Music Club Web site. We’re just about to settle in to when there’s a knock on the door and three men from the Showtime network march in to make their pitch for a concert special. He jumps up and throws on a black vest (it often seems that Prince is in perpetual costume change) as they start their rap: the offer is to open up the Showtime signal to all cable subscribers an thereby multiply the potential viewership. Prince asks a few pointed business questions (will they commit to an advertising budget?) and tells them he’ll let them the the next day. When they depart, he tells me that HBO approached him, too, but demanded too much exclusivity.

Notice what’s going on here: major corporations are lining up for the chance to work with Prince, and they’re coming to the table aware that the way to get him to pay attention is to offer independence, innovation, accessibility. Keep in mind that just a few years ago Prince’s actions—changing his name to a glyph, publicly warring with Warner Bros. Records, releasing albums that were deliberately noncommercial, writing the word slave on his face—had turned off so much of his audience that Howard Stern referred to him, memorably, as the Artist People Formerly Cared About.

Later that night, much later, after a crackling arena show followed by a funky jam at a nearby club, Prince denies that the turn his career has taken has provided any sense of vindication. “To waste time with emotions like vindication or revenge would be silly,” he says. “This is so much bigger than all of us.”

Who else would have the audacity to storm through a relentless two-hour house party of a concert and then come back for an encore with three straight ballads? But who else has ballads that, far from calming an exhausted capacity crowd, only hype them up further? Not that these are just any three slow jams. A blistering “Beautiful Ones,” complete with throat-shredding climax, leads into “Nothing Compares 2 U” before a lengthy take on “Purple Rain” leaves the crowd wrung out and beaming.

The tour is being billed as a greatest-hits show, and on this night in Nashville, of the nearly 30 songs Prince performs in a nonstop barrage of funk, exactly two come from the new album; the remainder are well- loved, body-rockin’ sure shots. His religious awakening may have altered some of his choices (no “Erotic City") and some of his lyrics (in “Baby I’m a Star” the line “I’m your messiah” becomes “He’s your messiah"), but this
is a godly man who can still lead an arena crowd in a lusty chant of “Dance, music, sex, romance.”

Of course, at the heart of Prince’s greatest hits sits Purple Rain, the project that established him as a megastar. In Nashville, he performs seven of the album’s nine songs, skipping only “Computer Blue” and the too nasty “Darling Nikki” (which, notoriously, launched a Capitol Hill attack on explicit lyrics nearly two decades ago). Purple Rain is clearly still special to Prince, or at least to his commercial sensibility—it sold 15 million copies. But the fact that this month marks its 20th anniversary ( the album was released on July 18, 1984, and the movie came out nine days later; see “’Purple Reign,“ page 78) is, Prince maintains of little consequence to him.

"I was there,” he says. “I did it, it was my baby. I knew about it before it happened, I knew what it was going to be. Then it was just like labor, like giving birth—in ’84, it was so much work.” In fact, he says, just the other night in Atlanta the Time, who played his nemeses in the film, came out and performed during his show. “We never got a chance to do the real Purple Rain tour, because the Time broke up,” he says. “But then there they were onstage last week, and people started tripping, and I was watching my favorite band. So there’s no anniversary, no dates, we just have to have faith in Jehovah and lay back and ride it.”

Faith of a different sort led to the radical plan of providing a copy of Musicology to every ticket holder on this tour. “All hail Prince,” the industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz recently wrote, “for he’s shown what fools all record company employees are. He’s now shown it’s not about sales, but about spreading the word ... the revolution has begun!” What’s more, the sales-chart governing body SoundScan ruled that these copies all count toward its bestseller lists, meaning that Musicology will go gold and stay in the top 10 for the rest of the summer even if not one person buys a copy in a record store. Although Prince is paying Sony to distribute the album, he gets to keep a much higher than usual piece of the profits. And Sony, whose upfront costs are negligible, essentially makes money from the first copy sold.

Prince says that he’s not thinking about chart positions. “What would make you want to run and listen to something because it’s in the top 10 anyway?” he asks with disdain. “The top 10 are all brand-new artists,most of them don’t write their own songs—it’s not like we got Carly Simon and Jackson Browne here.”

By which he intends no insult to the music industry, he’s quick to add. Quite the opposite. “By no means does this demean them—it’s brilliant. William Hung? Brilliant! Y’all bought that?"So does Prince share the national obsession with American Idol? He says he’s never watched it but does understand its appeal. “It’s interactive—you can feel your vote being counted, feel that you’re participating. Whenever I include the audience, that’s when the show really takes off. I learned that from club dates.” Besides, he says, “Everybody wan to be famous—and now everybody can!”

The music has always been there, pouring out of him. Ten years ago, he pulled me aside during a sound check, a guitar solo still burning through bis fingers, and said,” you see how hard it is when you can play anything you can be ?” He was born into song, named after the Prince Rogers Trio, for which his father played piano in Minneapolis nightclub I What he has finally figured out, at least for now, is how to get at music out to people through multiple channels—concerts, stores, the Web—in a way that keeps pace with his astonishing productivity, that combines the order he craves and the freedom he needs.

"What we want,” he says, “is the easiest, most efficient way to get the business done, at can be as second-nature and organic as picking up the tar. In Silicon Valley, they were all coming in to work with their jeans on, all cool, it’s all beautiful, all life. That’s how its should be.

"The cool thing bout being independent is you ’re not handed a schedule and told, ’This is what you’re going to do.’ Your psyche works completely differently.You ’re not always reacting to things. You feel you’re in creative mode, and that’s what keeps you alive, keeps you young.”

Rocketown is an unassuming warehouse-size club just a few  blocks from-the arena in Nashville. Geared to Christian teenagers it adjacent to a skate park; there are pool tables upstairs and the marquee lists a bunch of bands you’ve never heard pf. Prince is doing a 90-minute set on Rocketown’s stage, after which he has a ten-day break in his touring schedule—"! gotta go home and water the plants,” he tells the crowd of 500 or so, with a laugh.

This after-show performance is another manifestation of a different Prince. Where these gigs used to be cathartic virtuoso displays, tonight he leads the band through a series of loose funk jams. He bops through the crowd to listen from the soundboard and roams the stage cueing the players though a medley of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” There’s no tension, all release.

After the show, something even more unlikely happens. At 2: 30 a. m., Prince can be found standing outside the stage door, hanging with his band members and talking to fans. The 30 or so clustered civilians are breathlessly excited but understanding when he tells them that he doesn’t believe in signing autographs. He is still shy and quiet, listening more than talking, but he seems to be enjoying this chance to mingle.

One young woman tells him that Purple Rain was the first album she bought when she was in the first grade but that her mother wouldn’t let her see the movie because it was too risque. “Just think about what ’too risque’ means today,” Prince responds. Another woman gushes on her cellphone to her friend Nicole until Prince signals for the phone and quietly says, “Go to sleep, Nicole.”

Earlier in the day, Prince’s conversation had repeatedly returned to themes of self-sufficiency and accountability. “Who scared us into not talking about things in songs?” he asked. “You have that responsibility to yourself, to your family, to your listeners.” He talked about truing to reconcile his beliefs with the realities of marketing. “For the ’Musicology’ video, we told everybody to come dressed up, and half the girls came half-naked. They thought that’s what would get them in the front.

We sent them home, got them into real dresses. We just made a video for ’Call My Name,’ and we were talking about how in this society a song about monogamy, about being really in love—that’s going to look so radical, so revolutionary.”

Now he ducks back into the club’s cruddy dressing room and talks excitedly. He wants to explore further this idea of community, of “how to come together and get things done.” He talks about the way Larry Graham, who played bass with Sly and the Family Stone and who is now holding court out on the Nashville sidewalk, mentored him. He talks about how he wants to help the younger musicians in his band. “When you’re a young man, you think you’re the center of the universe,” he says. “Later you see you’re just part of it. The world is only going to get harder. Me and my crew, we love having conversations about music, but when we get deep, we talk about the future, about what we’re leaving for the kids.

“Who said I was supposed to be a musician? I just watched my father, aria.I saw that when he played it pleased my mother.”

Prince strides back outside to the group of exhausted, exhilarated fans. It’s close to 3 : 00 a.m. when he finally announces, “We got to go to sleep, y’all” and gets into the waiting limousine. A minute or so passes, and then he comes back outside and distributes Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets. He dives back into the car, and it carries him off through the empty streets of Nashville—another city conquered, body and soul, by the Artist People Once Again Care About.