“I don’t wanna die / I’d rather dance my life away,” Prince sang on “1999,” a line that can’t help but be considered in light of the shocking news of his death at age 57. There were a few big themes in Prince’s songs, but his ongoing reckoning with mortality might explain everything else he did in his four-decade career. His work—his music, his visuals, his movies, his public comments, his business decisions—acknowledged the grimmest realities of existence and used them as inspiration for something joyful, transcendent, and weird. After reportedly struggling with epilepsy at a young age, he labored to build his own reality, one that disregarded most commonly recognized limits except for the most inescapable of them.
Which meant doing a lot of extraordinary things. It meant making his debut album, For You, at age 19. It meant wholly ignoring taboos about sexual expression in his slew of smashes through the ’80s. It meant liquidating any perceived boundaries between rock and R&B and funk and pop. It meant rebelling against the strictures of a record contract by rebelling against the strictures of a 26-letter alphabet, not to mention brand-management conventions, in renaming himself a symbol. It meant building Paisley Park, the compound in Minnesota where he lived, recorded, and now has died. It meant one of the least fashionable religious awakenings of all time. It meant continuing to buck conventional wisdom about how to distribute music in the Internet era. It meant protest songs and surprise concerts and mysterious tweets, right until the month when he died.