Career and spirit reborn, Prince rules

He took the reins so he could resume his reign.

Edna Gundersen

Prince has come a long way since he scrawled “slave” on his cheek and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol.

He blithely dismisses his battles with Warner Bros. as “water under the bridge.” Prince is too busy counting his blessings to rehash his grudges.

Enjoying an artistic and spiritual rebirth, he also finds himself at the center of a popularity boom. The opening sales for his “Musicology” CD racked up his biggest week since 1991.

For the past 10 years, he’s held the keys to his kingdom by funding his own projects, delivering music directly to fans and avoiding industry machinery and middlemen.

Dubbing the conventional system “prehistoric and antiquated,” Prince says, “All I ever said was, “Let me drive.’ Contracts have their purpose. Some artists need producers and songwriters and the direction record companies give. Other artists are more independent and self-contained. I press my own CDs. I employ people who handle what I can’t do myself.”

Prince, 46, seceded from the music industry in the mid-’90s. He remained busy, releasing rivers of music for his NPG label and music club (, but, aside from teaming with Arista for 1999’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic,” he seemed to drift off the pop-culture radar.

But 2004, Prince’s banner year, got rolling with a show-stopping performance at the Grammy Awards. His subsequent “Musicology” album and retrospective tour yielded critical acclaim and hefty profits. He will be in Philadelphia today through Tuesday.

“Prince took himself out of the game when he was high on the mountain,” says business partner L. Londell McMillan, a founder of the Artist Empowerment Coalition. “He even removed his ’name’ from circulation. He was perceived as overly mercurial and bizarre, but by removing himself while staying true to his creative spirit, he was able to watch and listen and re-enter on his own terms.”

“Over the past seven to 10 years, he’s made more money than he did during the same period in his heyday with ’Purple Rain’ under Warner,” McMillan says. “He’s a free agent in the marketplace, and we’ve created a multi-delivery model that works best for him, as tailor-made as the suits he wears.”

Notoriously prolific, Prince occasionally seeks label partners for albums that suit mainstream tastes (he has a few-strings deal with Columbia) while funneling eclectic or experimental music to his NPG Music Club or packaging songs and collections for Internet-only release.

The hundreds of thousands of club members who pay a one-time $25 fee and standard download charges take the sting out of Internet thievery.

“I don’t really take a stance on piracy,” Prince says. “If I was only getting a few pennies off every album, I’d be worried. But I get $7 a pop for every album that sells for $10. That’s enough.”

Prince’s royalty crusade is behind him. He expresses respect for current partners Sony and Clear Channel, but he’d rather talk about the healing properties of sound and the genius of Miles Davis. He works up a sweat on the dying craft of live musicianship.

“You can’t bring a prerecorded event to the stage,” he says. “You have to be able to vibe off the audience and let a song marinate. Keep it alive! Where can you see a real band anymore? You can’t get a machine to play like my drummer.”

He won’t discuss Manuela Testolini, his wife since 2001, or his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, though he touches on biblical topics and doesn’t hide his zeal.

“There is a God, and he cares about us,” he says. “Satan wants us to think life is a burden and that you have to be a slave. We’re rolling on ’fast forward’ right now. Let’s hit ’pause’ and find out what our lives would be like if we aligned ourselves with God’s will. Am I the genius here? No. I’m following God’s will.”

Consequently, he’s ditched such crude staples as “Gett Off.” “I have an older, more sophisticated audience now,” he says.

“I want to be my own special effect,” he says. “Music is a beautiful language we call the truth. There’s a right way to play a song and a bunch of wrong ways.”