Prince Rogers Nelson needs to introduction.
His commanding mononym is recognised worldwide, invoking visions of electrified performances, excessive grandeur and legendary talent. The prolific artist impacted popular culture in a way few have - he championed authentic sexual expression and androgyny, released an acclaimed catalogue of 39 studio albums and unwittingly invented the template for the modern pop hit. Though a peerless artist in his own right, Prince supported a swathe of likeminded creatives, inviting them to his nigh-mythical Paisley Park complex and collaborating with them no matter their influence or importance.
Whilst affiliates such as Morris Day and Apollonia have become pop culture references in their own right, Prince continued collaborating with upcoming talents until his sudden death in April 2016. As a result, his last batch of proteges are still up-and-coming artists in their own right, mobilising Prince's excellence in their own cosigned careers. This is the Class of 1999: four young artists who moved in Prince's orbit, touching base with one of the most visionary creators of our time.
An accomplished singer-songwriter with two acclaimed albums to her name, Janelle Monaé is a talent on the rise. Monaé debuted with 2003's The Audition, an unofficial studio album independently released through her own label, Wondaland Arts Society.
It wasn't until 2007 that Monaé entered the spotlight, however, following the release of her critically acclaimed concept EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Executive produced by Atlanta legend Big Boi, the five-track release tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android fleeing from disassembly after inadvertently falling in love with a human. Critically well-received but commercially underwhelming, the EP earned Monaé a record deal with Sean Combs' Bad Boy Records. They re-released the EP in August 2008, adding two tracks and deeming it a 'Special Edition.' Metropolis track "Many Moons" was nominated for a Grammy.
Her official debut LP, The ArchAndroid, was released in May 2010. That record finds her doubling down on sci-fi aesthetics, complementing her Fritz Lang-inspired dystopia with influences from The Matrix. The album received unanimous critical acclaim, casting Monáe as one of the most important pop stars of her time. Writing for The Atlantic, Bretin Mock compared the album to Janet Jackson's pivotal Rhythm Nation 1814, whilst Pitchfork's Matthew Perpetau called it an album reminiscent of "Prince in [his] prime." Soon after, she appeared on fun.'s hit single "We Are Young," further increasing her profile. It was around this time that she came into Prince's orbit.
"He's been so excited about my career, and I don't take that for granted. He's a mentor to me -- he does take the time to mentor other artists, not just myself. So he took me on tour with him. It was very organic for us to work together, but I know he does not collaborate with everybody that he performs with, and I don't take that for granted. And I got the opportunity to produce him, so to present the ideas and see it through, I was just honored that he trusted me."
The Electric Lady - which also featured appearances from Miguel, Erykah Badu and Solange - was met with familiar acclaim. Pitchfork christened it 'Best New Music,' whilst The Guardian called it an "audacious, intrepid and brilliantly executed" record.
Prince's sudden death came as a shock to everyone, including Monáe.
Monáe's Dirty Computer single, "Make Me Feel," prompted immediate comparisons to Prince's distinctive sound. It was soon confirmed that Prince had worked on the song and, according to Monáe, much of her third album. Talking to Annie Mac at BBC1, Monáe said that “Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds. I really miss him, it’s hard for me to talk about him.” Even beyond the enduring impact of his tutelage, it seems Prince's artistry lives on well into 2018. It's no surprise: the reclusive artist kept a mythical vault with, as of 2016, "enough unreleased music to release a new album every year for the next century." Despite this, the existence of more Prince/Monáe collaborations is especially exciting for fans of the creatively aligned musos.
Eryn Allen Kane
Detroit-born singer-songwriter Eryn Allen Kane first encountered Prince when she was 23. She'd just released her debut single, "Hollow," when modest buzz suddenly turned to frenzied attention:
“Prince tweeted about the song, and my phone just blew up with all these messages, like, ‘The Purple One sent me here... I was like, You’re not talking about Prince, there is no way.”
Her initial reaction on social media, as you'd expect, was far less polished:
"OMG!!! One of my IDOLS, PRINCE, just tweeted my first ever song/music video, "Hollow." I am in shock!!!!!"
As she recalls in her 2016 profile with FADER, Prince's people were quick to reach out to her about visiting Paisley Park. It would be two years before she made good on that offer, however, as familial responsibilities trumped The Purple One's unanticipated invitation. By then she's started recording her first EP, Aviary: Act I - in fact, Prince's renewed interest was spurred by his love of her promotional single, "Have Mercy."
She'd also aligned herself with then-upcoming artist Chance The Rapper, who became so enamoured with her talents that he called her "the first lady of the Social Experiment." She appeared on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment's 2015 debut, Surf. As Chance notes, she's the first voice you hear on that record.
Kane and Prince formed a fast friendship: she recalls them speaking on the phone every day, sharing music they enjoyed. He flew her to Baltimore to perform at his Rally 4 Peace show, which he hosted less than a month after Freddie Grey's death in police custody. Though the city had plunged into demonstrations and riots, Prince appeared unperturbed.
He debuted a new song, "Baltimore," featuring lyrics taken from the invigorated civil rights movement - he would collaborate with Kane on a studio version two months later. "Baltimore" eventually appeared as the opening track on Prince's Hit n Run Phase Two. It would be the last album he released before his death in April 2016.
Kane eulogised Prince with a brief Instagram video of the two sharing the stage, eventually writing a more substantial reflection in Rolling Stone's memorial edition.
She released her second EP, Aviary: Act II, in early 2016. She elaborated on the imagery of the aviary in her FADER profile:
“There’s these huge aviaries that have nets around them, where the birds are made to feel like they’re free — but we all know that they’re not, and they know they’re not... we’re all bound by certain things, but music was the thing that completely freed me.”
Later that same year, she appeared on Chance the Rapper's hit mixtape Coloring Book, contributing to standout track "Finish Line / Drown." As Kane's unique sound continues to blossom into a rewarding career, it's hard not to think of Prince's sage advice:
"He wants to see real musicians get shine. He tells me to stay true to myself even though my music isn’t the type of music that’s being played on the radio all the time it’s important for people to hear it. He’s like, it’s up to you to be authentic and stay true to who you are at all costs because that is going to give you a long career."
Melbourne-based neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote is another testament to Prince's omnipotent eye for talent. Whilst they never met before Prince's death, his admiration for the group was expressed - as it often was - in glowing tweets and an invitation to Paisley Park.
The group also received similarly glowing praise from Questlove, drummer for legendary hip hop group The Roots. Whilst he's best known for his bandleader role on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots have a permanent residency, he's been called one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Haitus Kaiyote came together in 2011, the brain child of singer-songwriter Nai Palm and bassist Paul Bender. They burst onto the scene with their acclaimed 2013 debut, Tawk Tomahawk, which featured "Nakamarra," their collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest alumni and hip hop legend Q-Tip. The track was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.
Their sophomore effort, Choose Your Weapon, was released two years later to similar critical acclaim. Lead single "Breathing Underwater" brought the group their second Grammy nomination, though they lost out to The Weeknd's Fifty Shades contribution, "Earned It."
Whilst the group had to pass on Prince's Paisley Park invitation due to their hectic tour schedule, there's reason to believe it was only a matter of time before The Purple One reached out again. Whilst Eryn Allen Kane was given a second chance at that life-changing experience, Hiatus Kaiyote were robbed of their chance by his premature death in April 2016. Though they never met, the band recalled Prince appearing at their Minneapolis show, watching the entire show from side stage.
Lianne La Havas
British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is one of the few people who can claim to have seen a Prince gig performed in her living room. According to Newsweek, even a small-scale Prince show involves much ceremony: Prince reportedly "installed his own stage, lighting and smoke machine in the singer’s living room and used [La Havas'] bedroom as his personal dressing room."
They first met whilst La Havas was touring to support her debut album, the Mercury-nominated Is Your Love Big Enough?, Prince reached out to the then up-and-coming singer-songwriter, who visited Paisley Park and struck up a friendship with the prolific artist. He'd visited her share house just once before he decided to play an short, intimate gig to announce a long-awaited UK tour.
Not only did Prince give "incredible advice," but he invited La Havas to collaborate. She featured heavily on Prince's 2014 record, ART OFFICIAL AGE, contributing vocals to "CLOUDS" and narration to "affirmation I & II" and "affirmation III." She reappeared on his 2015 effort, HITnRUN Phase One, featuring on "Mr. Nelson," a track named for one of her lines on "affirmation III."
La Havas appeared alongside Prince at the 2014 Essence Festival, joining him on stage for a rendition of "Sometimes It Snows In April," a hit from 1986's Parade. She called the experience "one of [her] fondest memories," and would go on to perform the track at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival just one week after his death. She later recalled the sage advice and friendly manner so commonly attributed to the late artist:
“He treated everyone like it was their birthday, you’d always feel really special around him... there was an older brother / mentor role that he assumed. I was happy to hear what he had to say and the suggestions that he had to make.”
Whilst it seems unlikely, Prince and actor/singer Zooey Deschanel had a brief friendship. It all started when Prince appeared on New Girl.
A longtime fan of the show, he specifically asked that his role in the episode be to bring the two main characters together. Whilst on set, he suggested script changes in a typically mysterious manner, elevating his role from simple cameo to informal writer. In that episode, he premiered a new track, "FALLINLOVE2NITE," featuring Deschanel on the hook. Though she's primarily known for her roles in New Girl and 500 Days of Summer, Deschanel has long been a part of indie pop band She and Him alongside M. Ward.
Ultimately, Prince's cameo is just another bizarre moment in his already-bizarre career. Though the man changed his name to a symbol and once decried one of his own albums as the work of the devil, his fleeting appearance on a network TV comedy still stands as one of his more eccentric moments.
What made Prince's death such a singular event in pop culture?
It was the potential that vanished with him: up until the day he died, Prince never stopped creating. He persevered in the face of diminishing commercial performances, a fact he'd have no doubt found immaterial to his craft. It seems crazy that the man with 39 studio albums to his name could have more to give, but Prince's work ethic was such that quitting never seemed an option. Even in death, Prince remains productive: his legendary vault is said to contain full-length film projects, documentaries, soundtracks and albums that number into the hundreds.
Prince's unique drive to create never distracted him from his love of music. He was always willing to promote and collaborate with artists irrespective of their standing: whilst Janelle Monáe had an acclaimed album to her name, Eryn Allen Kane had little more than a debut single. These latter-day collaborators are merely a handful of Prince's proteges, joined by the legions of session musicians and stars that worked with the hallowed musician throughout his amazing career. A genuine love of music underpinned everything he set out to do. Prince Rogers Nelson was truly immersed in his art, determined to create, inspire, distill and facilitate greatness in all its forms.
His legacy carries on in those he inspired.