Is there any other musical influence as pervasive, yet elusive as Prince? Practically everyone in the contemporary pop landscape is influenced by him on some level–from Bruno Mars to Beyoncé to Young Thug–yet hardly anyone is able to capture what really made him great. D’Angelo has some of his electrifying stage presence; Miguel channels a bit of his sex appeal (albeit in watered-down, heteronormative form); DāM-FunK evokes his studio wizardry and occasional cantankerousness; but none of these are adequate replacements–nor would any of them claim to be.
Especially inimitable, and especially missed, is Prince’s weirdness. While the aforementioned Bruno Mars can do a serviceable enough version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine him plumbing the psychosexual depths of a “Shockadelica,” let alone an “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It’s that ineffably eccentric quality that sets Prince apart from his imitators: most of whom, quite frankly, know better than to even try.
To be clear, I’m not trying to set up an argument for Inglewood-via-Bay Area artist Harriet Brown as the one true inheritor of “Prince weird”; that would be hyperbole in the extreme. But of the legion of contemporary artists whose music echoes the Purple One’s, Brown is the one who seems to get “it” most. Just listen to the digitally-manipulated voices he puts on in the intro of his recent album, Contact, shifting from “Bob George” low to “Camille” high; or the way his elastic falsetto bends almost comically on the line “sometimes I think I’m an alien on your planet” from “ESP.” Or hell, just look at the guy: that exaggerated bowl cut, like an Akira character come to life, with an inscrutable, gender-bending stage name that doesn’t seem to have any real-world frame of reference (unless he’s just a really big fan of the author of Brave Girl Eating). “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me,” Brown told the LA Weekly in a profile last month–an awfully Princely statement if ever there was one.
But I also don’t want to give the impression that Brown is just an imitator; his sound certainly channels Prince, but it doesn’t sound like an ’80s throwback. If anything, he sounds a bit like if Prince had evolved more gracefully into the ’90s and 2000s, subtly incorporating the influences of hip- and trip-hop into his sound rather than clumsily attempting to appropriate them. In other words, Contact is forward-looking, 21st-century music: music that builds on the past as a foundation, rather than trying to retreat into it. And that may be the best credit to Prince’s legacy of all.