Welcome 2 America, an album Prince recorded in 2010 then mysteriously shelved, has just come out. The posthumous release – he died in April 2016, aged 57 – comes years into a labyrinthine legal battle over the musician’s estate.
Surely it’s just some squabbling over royalties?
Far from it. Prince’s fortune on his death was estimated at between $100m and $300m. It includes the 65,000 sq ft Paisley Park complex near his home town, Minneapolis, where Prince lived, rehearsed and recorded, as well as millions of dollars’ worth of other property: he owned including a sprawling Caribbean retreat with a driveway painted his trademark purple. He owned 1,200 pairs of shoes, custom-made to match his outfits, with Cuban heels to boost his 5ft 2in height. But what makes fans drool is the vault, temperature-controlled and protected by a thick metal door, that contains thousands of songs the famously prolific musician never released. It’s been shipped from Paisley Park to Los Angeles, where a team of full-time archivists are sifting through it. They’ve got their work cut out: rumour has it that if one unreleased album came out each year, the supply would last until the 22nd century.
That’s quite a legacy
Indeed, but Prince was never a run-of-the-mill rock star. Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, he wrote his first song on his jazz pianist father’s keyboard when he was seven. On his debut album, For You, released when he was 19, he played all 27 instruments. Over the course of his glittering career, he sold more than 100 million records and won seven Grammys, as well as an Oscar for the score of Purple Rain. He was known for his gender-bending and occasionally bum-baring outfits; for falsetto vocals and wailing guitar solos; and for eccentricities such as keeping dozens of white doves in his house. He also found time, in 1985, to thrash Eddie Murphy in a basketball game while wearing the blouse he had just gone clubbing in. He served his vanquished opponents blueberry pancakes.
Did he have his mind on the money as well as killer grooves?
A contract spat with Warner Bros, which refused to release his music at the relentless pace he recorded it, led him to change his name to the unpronounceable “Love Symbol” in 1993. (There’s still no emoji for it – coders, get your act together!) He became “the artist formerly known as Prince” and his record label had to mail out floppy disks (old-school USB sticks) containing the symbol to newspapers. He reverted to Prince in 2000, when his contract expired, and subsequently described record deals as “slavery”. “Own your masters or your masters own you,” he often opined. As the internet took off, he busied himself with threatening legal action against websites such as YouTube and eBay – and his own fans – for reproducing his work online.
How did he die?
By his fifties, the high-heeled jumps and acrobatics that were a trademark of his live shows had left him walking with a cane and self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs. In April 2016 he accidently overdosed on counterfeit Vicodin laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl, and was found dead in a lift at Paisley Park. Prince was an intensely private person, and had been a devout Jehovah’s Witness since 2001, so few knew the extent of his medical issues. His ashes were placed in a 3D-printed urn shaped like Paisley Park and put on display in the complex’s atrium.
Was it then that the race for the cash began?
Yes. Prince was romantically linked to many women over his life, including Madonna, but his only child, born to the first of his two wives, had a genetic disorder and died at six days old. After ransacking Paisley Park, lawyers couldn’t find a will anywhere. And so began a byzantine legal process: it took a year to work through the 45 chancers who claimed to be relatives or love children. In May 2017 his younger sister, Tyka Nelson, and five half-siblings were declared joint heirs of his $163.2m estate.
Did that clear things up?
Not quite. One half-brother originally bequeathed his slice to a Mr Raffles van Exel, a Dutch “entertainment consultant” with a habit of hanging around superstars such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (who he was with in her final weeks). But hours before his 2019 death after a heart attack, the brother signed away 90% of his cut to Primary Wave, a music rights company. Primary Wave then bought the entire share of two other siblings, taking its overall cut of the estate to just under half. The other three heirs have held out, with one insisting: “We know the prize.” And what a prize: Prince has made $78m since his death.
What’s Primary Wave’s game?
With a $1bn war chest, the New York firm has got stuck into the booming market in song rights. It has also spun out into rather macabre tours where dead artists on its roster, including Houston, perform via computer-generated holograms. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t befall Prince: in 1998 he described the “whole virtual reality thing” as “demonic. And I am not a demon.”
Amen to that – he was a funky purple angel
☔ 🎸 Watch Prince’s famous guitar solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, below. 👇