Lately I’ve been trying to fill the Prince-sized whole in my life. I’ve made various mixes, creating killer could-have-been albums. I’ve latched on to new artists hoping to catch a fire in some profound reconfiguration of noises I hadn’t heard before. I’ve tried listening to the worst of his bootlegs in an attempt to draw the chalk outline of humanity around the hole, proving him just a man. Talented, but still a man. None of that worked, and I knew that going into those exercises. They’re band-aids on bullet holes.
Most recently I attempted to fill the hole by choosing an artist of similar stature and import to throw the arms of my discipleship around. I love other artists besides Prince, and have loved a few of them almost as long. I have known Prince since I was seven, but have known Stevie longer than that. One of my earliest childhood memories is of me sitting in the family living room terrified at the Efram Wolff album art for Innervisions, yet unable to stop looking at it. That “Too High” and “Visions” kicked off that record only cemented the creepiness and, well, wonder for me, and Stevie has been kicking around in my soul ever since. He beat Prince into my life by a handful of years, but even as I considered all of the music Stevie had embedded in me, all the times I sang out loud and danced and played air synthesizer to his songs or thug squealed at hearing him sampled on a Public Enemy record in high school, he could not replace Prince.
I switched gears. I considered instead artists I had been smitten with who ruled my imagination as well as my ears. Top of the list: Sade. Period. No question. I’ve been rocking her since day one, which meant a few middle school girls got some confusing and perhaps impenetrable mixtapes from me. First, I’m hitting them with some transcendent Teena Marie slow jam like “Cassanova Brown” and then I’m following it up with a Parisian torch number about junkies and Bowery love because it has the slowest groove on an album that changed my life, but wasn’t the best soundtrack for a tryst on its own dime. I didn’t care: any woman who couldn’t stay in lover’s lane just because the moment got a little political wasn’t the woman for me, even at thirteen. Besides: Sade wasn’t make love music so much as break love music. She knew my heart, which remained perpetually broken through the first four albums of her six album career. My worship of her was accelerated once I realized, during the heat of a disagreement with a young lady I had hoped to woo but who didn’t like Sade, what it was that spoke most to me about her music: Helen Folasade Adu wasn’t a great singer. This was the point being made to me from the other side of the bedroom-shaped courtroom, but it was also my defense. Sade spoke for me, for people like me, who also could not sing very well, but needed to put tone to the void when heartache came calling. She was the patron saint of heartache, and her mid-note strains and almost-there peaks were what break-ups would sound like if they had vocal chords. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sing, I surmised. It was that she was so pained that it strangled the songs in her throat and they recorded it anyway, like Michael Jackson crying at the end of “She’s Out Of My Life.” That’s been her appeal to me just above the unmistakable groove of her records, and for a while, I considered her a possible replacement despite the fact that every time she comes into my life with an album it’s likely to be the last time. I wasn’t looking for another ending. I was looking for someone who could still produce. Ultimately, I could not carry her standard and seal. She moved me, but in light of the hole she would have to fill – the body of work, the talent like an oil well, the mountain of trivia – it just wasn’t worth the effort.
As I dug through my home-only vinyl crates and deep into the recesses of my digital collection, I realized the futility of my charge. I wasn’t going to find a replacement for Prince because there isn’t one. No matter how many records another artist produces, they probably don’t have ten unassailable records in their holster. They probably won’t have affected as many people over as many cross sections of humanity as Prince. They probably won’t have hundreds of songs they locked away that were as good as the music they released. The band-aids get larger and stick longer, but in the end you never mistake a band-aid for healing. And at some point you know three things about that band-aid: 1) it’s not real skin, 2) you’re going to have to rip it off at some point, and 3) the wound underneath will never heal if it doesn’t get air. So yesterday I decided to stop looking to fill the hole and, for a while longer, put on one of those killer playlists (tonight it will be my “Prince Comeback Album” mix, with a chaser of Sade’s Love Deluxe), and leave the wound to dry in the wind until it’s ready to fade.
Oh, and happy birthday, Prince. I think I was heading here all along this past couple of weeks.