Every few years or so an artist emerges in the tradition of musicians who have revolutionized the sound and style of the world. Each generation has laid claim to its own iconic artist, from Ray Charles and Dionne Warwick to James Brown and Diana Ross.
The 1980s and early 1990s provided us with five artists who reshaped the music world and introduced a level of superstardom that has yet to be matched.
Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Prince have been the very foundation of popular music for more than 30 years. Black music’s royalty has consistently swept award shows, landed the top slots on industry charts, and sold out arenas worldwide.
They redefined what superstardom was in the 1980s by offering their best vocal abilities, stage performances, lyrics and extraordinary musicianship. While all of them have carved out a legendary space in music history by specializing in certain disciplines, Prince is by far the most comprehensive artist of them all.
Prince has played many roles over his 32 years in the industry, including advocate, actor, activist, producer, talent scout and hype-man, but his absolute best role has been on display in these last few weeks.
His “Welcome 2 America Live” show has toured around the nation, stopping in Southern California for an intimate tribute to one of the greatest Black musical landscapes in the world.
Prince’s 21-night residency at the renowned Inglewood Forum has been the stuff of legends–literally.
He has been reveling in the songs that make him every musician’s idol. Each audience has seen a uniquely developed jam session, laced with tracks from recent albums as well as classic records.
Prince has yet to fail his audience, with a revolving set-list that spans “Little Red Corvette,” “Adore,” “Kiss,” “1999” and his legendary anthem “Purple Rain.” He gives us a taste of some his iconic sexually provocative songs by sprinkling in chords to “Cream,” “Get Off” and “Darling Nikki.”
The tribute songs to Rick James, Michael Jackson, Teena Marie and Sly & The Family Stone add an element of respect and humility, traits which Prince has mastered over the years. In fact, his humility and adoration for his fans was the driving force behind exaggeratedly lowered ticket prices for an artist of his caliber.
Prince very deliberately chose to hold his residency at the Forum, because it has been home to many of his musical idols, including James Brown and The Jackson 5. His immense respect for true musicians has been evident in the collaborations he’s made over the years with Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Quincy Jones and Beyonce.
His special guests at the Forum have given further insight into those whom he considers true artists. Chaka Khan, Sheila E, The Time, Alicia Keys, Ledisi, Esperanza Spalding, Gwen Stefani and a host of other musicians have graced the purple stage in recent weeks.
Most thrilling, however, was the moment that Prince reached out his hand and escorted Whitney Houston on stage. Houston, perhaps the greatest living vocalist of our time, elevated the stadium energy from frenzy to utter pandemonium with a funky collaboration on “Musicology.” Houston also performed “Tell Me Something Good” with Chaka Khan, receiving a standing ovation during the opening set.
Prince told last week’s audience, “I’ve learned so much about being an artist from Whitney Houston.”
Although witnessing the collaboration of three of the industry’s paramount artists was a singularly fascinating experience, the most important moment of the show was the guidance that Prince provided to the newest generation of musicians.
Prince challenged younger artists to root themselves in authentic musicianship before celebrity. “For all you musicians out there, don’t ever stop playing real music, ’cause there are still people who love real music,” he said to a stadium full of hypnotized fans.
As Prince, the artist, descended down into the bottom of the stage at the end of his final encore, it was revealed to me that a genuine soul-stirring legend isn’t born overnight with a few hit songs.
That legendary status as music royalty is the result of diligence, musicianship, humility, and the ability to play with the best, simply for the sake of good music.
James B. Golden is a Los Angeles-based music journalist. He has previously edited the Hip Hop Think Tank academic journal and Kapu-Sens Literary Magazine. He is the author of a Hip Hop poetry collection entitled “Sweet Potato Pie Underneath the Sun’s Broiler.”