Let me tell you why “Adore” is the central song in the Prince canon. Because in “Adore” you get the commingling of two keys to understanding the man and his music: his sexuality and his spirituality.
In the second verse he paints the picture: “When we be making love / I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels crying up above / Tears of joy pouring down on us / They know we need each other.” They’re having sex under a sprinkling of angel tears, which are flowing because of the angels’ admiration of their love.
This is the erotic intertwined with the divine. The Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other, but in Prince’s personal cosmology, they were one. Sex to him was part of a spiritual life. The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.
His former tour manager Alan Leeds told me: “For him the love of God and the sexual urges we feel are one and the same somehow. For him it all comes from the same root inside a human being. God planted these urges and it’s never wrong to feel that way. The urge itself is a holy urge.”
People may consider the work of Prince, who died Thursday, to be electrifyingly erotic, and it surely was, but people don’t realize how much time Prince spent all but evangelizing for his vision of Christianity.
Many of the songs that helped lift Prince’s career have deeply spiritual messages. The title track from his 1981 album “Controversy” includes the Lord’s Prayer. His song “1999” describes Judgment Day.
The beginning of his biggest album, “Purple Rain,” finds Prince in the pulpit, preaching the coolest sermon ever heard on Top 40 radio. It’s part of the song “Let’s Go Crazy,” which lays out some of his religious philosophy. He believed there was an afterworld, “a world of never ending happiness,” but that “in this life, you’re on your own.” The song has an ecstatic, Pentecostalist feel to it (officially, he was a Jehovah’s Witness), and it tells us plainly that Prince was looking forward to the afterlife. “We’re all excited / But we don’t know why / Maybe it’s ’cause / We’re all gonna die.” But while he was still on earth the commandment was to enjoy thyself. “Ya better live now / Before the Grim Reaper comes knocking on your door!”
“Purple Rain” includes a pair of songs that go further into Christian messaging by positing Prince himself as Jesus. In “I Would Die 4 U,” he pledges to do the seminal thing that Christ did for us, and he says, “I’m your messiah.”
The album’s eponymous track, “Purple Rain,” is a beautifully cryptic song: To me, Prince is talking about finding forgiveness as a relationship painfully ends. The rain is a symbol for cleansing, forgiving baptismal waters. The rain is purple because it comes from Prince. He is the one baptizing and absolving, which sure makes it sound as if he wants you to think of him as Jesus. (Indeed, several of his friends and co-workers have told me he had a sort of Jesus complex, and it filtered into those around him. Once, before a gig in Tokyo, it was raining horribly, and people were saying the show may not be able to go on. Then someone on the crew said, “Prince will stop the rain.” By the way, I’m told the rain did stop.)
Even in many of Prince’s raunchiest songs, religious messages creep in. At the end of “Darling Nikki,” the following is played in reverse: “Hello, how are you? I’m fine ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon.” His song “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” begins with a hot come-on — “Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours, to help me forget the girl that just walked out my door” — but it ends with heaven: “I’m in love with God, He’s the only way, cuz you and I know we gotta die some day.” It’s as if his focus on the faith is so tenacious that even when he’s writing about sex, he’s still thinking about the next life.
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. He put the thought of an inescapable Judgment Day and a vision of a glorious afterlife into the ears of millions of people. And Prince’s musical ministry was not about preaching to the choir like most gospel artists. He was outside the church, in the proverbial street, preaching to people who didn’t realize he was putting spiritual messages in their heads.
It’s as if Prince introduced himself to us by talking about his dirty mind and how he was all about controversy, and once we got intrigued by him, because he’d told us how much hot sex he was having, then he said, well, now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you about my lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
This wasn’t posing, or marketing. Prince knew early on that he had an extraordinary musical gift. Music flowed through him at all hours, in an outpouring he could barely control. He created constantly, completing a song a day at his peak. The way he explained his musical gifts to himself, friends say, is to believe that he himself was blessed. That contributed to his Jesus complex, but it also made him certain that his music must have a purpose. That purpose became spreading the word of God. Sure, he deviated from that path when he wanted to, but for him there was no need to separate the things we do on Saturday night from the things we do on Sunday morning.
Touré is the author of I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon and Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now.