Who Was Prince in Private?

In his fifty-seven years, Prince mastered the art of control—not merely the show of self-possession but the daily practice of it. The gravitational pull of racial, sexual, spiritual systems did not appear to act on him. In 1981, the questions he posed in “Controversy”—was he black or white, gay or straight, religious or godlike?—were answered in his right to ask them in the first place, his right to be everything. He was a producer, writer, vocalist, bassist, water drummer, cymbalist, hand-clapper, finger-snapper, rustler of wind chimes. It was by something like magic that he was able to stamp “Slave” on his cheek, to change his mononym to a then-unprintable glyph (both acts in protest of Warner Brothers’ legal exertions), and still to broadcast, for the ages, a spectacle of freedom. Not even the presence of his orthopedic cane, in his last two decades, could persuade us that the congenital heel-wearer, who, onstage, had divided his small body into splits with such animal grace, was aging painfully. We knew only what Prince wanted us to know. In the year and a half since he collapsed in an elevator at Paisley Park, his Minnesota compound, his well-guarded myth has become vulnerable to the influence of others. A will has yet to be recovered; Warner Brothers and other entities threaten to organize the contents of his vault into albums; his estate follows through with distribution deals that run counter to his artistic wishes; and his Minnesota refuge has been opened to the public, like some latter-day Graceland....more