No other artist mixed religion and sex like Prince

First Published      Last Updated Apr 20 2017 11:49 am

When Prince died a year ago, he was called a game changer, an iconoclast, an innovator and a sex god by critics, fellow musicians, friends and fans.

But one word lost in the grief and shock was "Christian."

Prince Rogers Nelson, whose 40 albums and 100 singles sold more than 100 million records worldwide, was found dead from an overdose of painkillers in Paisley Park, his Minnesota mansion, on April 21, 2016. The 57-year-old singer, songwriter and musician created music that was as infused with his own deep faith as it was with sex.

"Every song was either a prayer or foreplay," said fashion critic Michaela Angela Davis. Either way, she added, his music made "you want to drop to your knees."

Touré, a Prince biographer, wrote, "You can remember Prince as one of the most sexual artists of all time, and you would be right, but he was also one of the most important religious artists of all time."

Now, amid the anniversary appreciations and concerts, Prince's faith is gaining recognition as a driving force behind his music. In January, Yale University held a three-day conference on the music of Prince and David Bowie — who also died in 2016 — that included a panel on religion and spirituality in their work.

A handful of scholars and critics are also producing books that, in part, explore the influence of faith on the music of Prince.

'Purple Rain'

One of those is Ben Greenman, whose "Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince" was released this month. He says that in a career that spanned almost four decades, Prince's music was always concerned with religion — but what kind of religion depends on where in his career the record needle touches down.

"Early on, he came on as an iconoclast, charging hard against conventional conceptions of morality, sexuality, and spirituality, though he always straightforwardly credited God in his liner notes," Greenman said in an email. "Between (the 1984 and 1985 albums) 'Purple Rain' and 'Around the World in a Day,' he seemed to grapple with his carnal urges and to appeal to God for self-control and a better understanding of love versus lust."

Prince's early music reflects his upbringing by devout Seventh-day Adventist parents in Minneapolis. His father — also a musician — was strict. "He was so hard on me," Prince told Tavis Smiley in 2009. "I was never good enough." His parents divorced, and as a teenager Prince went to live with a neighbor.

Seventh-day Adventists are millennialists — believers in an imminent end times — and multiple Prince songs, including the hit "1999," include doomsday scenarios:

I was dreamin' when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray

But when I woke up this mornin', could've sworn it was Judgment Day

The sky was all purple, there were people runnin' everywhere

Tryin' to run from the destruction, you know I didn't even care

At the end, Prince sings, "Can't run from revelation, no."

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