It was 11 p.m. on the night before New Year's Eve, and I was doing something I hadn't expected would crown my 2008: sitting in Prince's limousine as the legend lounged beside me, playing unreleased tracks on the stereo. "This is my car for Minneapolis," he said before excusing himself to let me judge a few songs in private. "It's great for listening to music." He laughed. "I don't do drugs or I'd give you a joint. That's what this record is."
That morning I'd received an e-mail inviting me to preview new music at Prince's mansion in the celebrity-infested estate community of Beverly Park, where he's currently keeping his shoe rack. The summons wasn't entirely unexpected. Prince, who's less reclusive than his reputation would indicate, has spent a year and a half consulting with culture industry leaders and occasionally entertaining media types, with an eye toward taking complete control of his own musical output.
His new mantra is "The gatekeepers must change," and he's refashioned his career to become one of them.
Since beginning his gradual relocation from the Midwest to the Left Coast, Prince has headlined the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and 2007's Super Bowl halftime show. He sold out a 21-night run at London's O2 Arena and released an album, a high-end photo book and a perfume. Most recently, he's whetted fans' appetites with sneaks of songs from three upcoming releases, first on the popular "Jonesy's Jukebox" radio program on Indie 103 and then on two websites, the now-dark MPLSound.com and the still-evolving Lotusflow3r.com.
This flurry of activity has been characterized by what might be called methodical spontaneity. Everything happens quickly, whether it's a show that takes place only a few days after its announcement or an evening interview arranged that morning. But Prince's personality seems to be governed by two oppositional impulses: the hunger to create and an equally powerful craving for control. Intense productivity battles with meticulousness within his working process. Others might not anticipate his next move, but it is all part of the chess game for him.
That's why I was there, on the eve of a holiday eve, as the mainstream music industry was enjoying a break from its ongoing plunge toward insolvency. The turn of the year is a slow time for pop, not the moment blockbuster artists usually release material. But Prince has been hinting for a while that his upcoming recordings might not be tied to a conventional label. Abandoning that machine, including its publicity arm, requires other ways of getting the word out.
Prince began experimenting with new methods of distributing music more than a decade ago, and his early efforts with the now-defunct NPG Music Club paved the way for later bold moves by Radiohead and others. Most recently he's partnered with major labels to get copies into stores. Columbia handled the release of 2006's "Planet Earth," except in Britain, where copies were distributed free via a London newspaper, the Mail on Sunday.
Now Prince is about to unleash not one but three albums without major label affiliation, and talking to well-vetted writers is one part of the rollout. How well vetted? "You're blond," he said when we met. "I thought you were a redhead." (He'd done his research; I'd changed my hair color only the year before.)
When I entered the house, which has the vaguely European opulence of an upscale spa, I found Prince with designers Anthony Malzone and Scott Addison Clay, examining mock-ups for a "highly interactive" website. "It's a universe," said Malzone, showing how a mouse click could make the whole screen rotate. "There's a lyric in one of the new songs about an 'entirely new galaxy.' We took that cue, and from there on, we thought that everything would emanate from Prince."
The website, still under construction, revealed the recognizable logo of a major big-box retailer with whom Prince is finalizing negotiations to distribute the albums. The three will hit the Web and that retailer, the artist said, "as soon as the holidays are over."
I'd be hearing music from each of them.
"Let's go to my car," Prince said. "We'll listen to the first album there."
Entering his garage, he ushered me into a low-slung black sports car that he's apparently named after his late friend Miles Davis. I strapped on my seat belt, but we didn't venture outside. Instead, Prince turned serious as he brought up a recent New Yorker article that had spun beyond his famously controlling grip.
"I want to talk about that interview," he said, gazing seriously over the steering wheel before turning on the music. He'd felt the writer had taken certain remarks he'd made -- particularly one about gay marriage that implied he was against it -- out of context. (The New Yorker stands by the story.)
"They try to take my faith. . . ." he said, his voice trailing off. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness. I'm trying to learn the Bible. It's a history book, a science book, a guidebook. It's all the same."
Prince's understanding of religion requires him to avoid political stands, including those that concern morality. "I have friends that are gay, and we study the Bible together," he said. He did not vote for Proposition 8, the referendum to make gay marriage illegal. "I don't vote," he said. "I didn't vote for Barack [Obama], either; I've never voted. Jehovah's Witnesses haven't voted for their whole inception."
Prince, who became a Jehovah's Witness in 2001 under the guidance of veteran bassist and songwriter Larry Graham, views everything through the lens of his religion. No topic -- sexuality, civil rights, his disdain for corporate pop -- comes up in which it doesn't play a role. Recounting a recent meeting with Earth, Wind and Fire singer Philip Bailey, for example, he commented that that group's penchant for Afrocentric garb revealed a lost history similar to the one uncovered in the Jehovah's Witnesses' version of the Bible.
Prince's statements can sound extreme to a secular listener. Some have accused him of trying to conceal his views to avoid alienating nonbelieving (and, particularly, gay) fans. But his desire to be tolerant seems sincere. His favorite television show, for example, is "Real Time With Bill Maher." Asked if the comedian's confrontational atheism bothers him, he harrumphed. "That's cool," said Prince. "He can be what he wants. I like arguments. Somebody saying I'm a terrible guitar player feeds me."
Prince's faith fulfills a yearning that his songs expressed long before he became devout: a need for some kind of ruling theory to explain the sorrow and violence that intertwines with life's joy. Songs as early as 1981's "Controversy" focus on a quest for God, and his catalog overflows with complex number and color systems, prophetic statements and disquiet about the fallen state of humanity. In his religion, he's found a code as inexhaustible as the one he was previously generating himself.