The death of Prince has sent shock waves around the world, as yet another global icon passes in a year that has already said goodbye to David Bowie, Alan Rickman and a host of others. The singer will rightly be mourned for his contribution to music, and probably most clearly remembered for his innovative and often raunchy songs. But there's another theme running through Prince's lyrics which is worth pointing out; his fascination with faith and spirituality.
It's too simplistic to simply say that Prince was a Christian, but he certainly believed in and became increasingly devoted to Jesus. He was born and raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family, and in the early 2000s became a Jehovah's Witness.
More than anything of course, Prince is known for his sexualised and sometimes explicit lyrics. Yet according to one of his many biographers, this isn't actually as incongruous with his religious beliefs as we might think. In his 2013 book I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, writer Touré explained: "Prince intended sexuality to be linked to the worship of God, and he filled his music with classic Christian messages, meaning Prince was sexual but, ultimately, very conservative." And in an interview with V Magazine, Prince himself said "We are sensual beings, the way God created us."
As 2016 marks the passing of yet another genuine genius, it seems a fine moment to reflect on some of the spiritual and Jesus-centred ideas which he shared.
"Don't cry for he is coming, don't die without knowing the cross" from 'The Cross'
The lyrics which U2 frontman Bono posted on Instagram in the wake of Prince's death, this extraordinarily Christ-centred song from seminal album Sign o' the Times is practically evangelistic. In it he urges listeners to place their hope in the Cross, and even encourages them to know Jesus before they die.
"U - I would die 4 U, darling if U want me 2" from 'I Would Die 4 U'
We might have always imagined this to be an outworking of Prince's Messiah complex; in fact a straight reading simply sees Prince giving a theologically-correct depiction of Jesus' message to the world. Lyrics like "if you're evil I'll forgive you", "all I really need to know is that U believe" and even "I'm your messiah and you're the reason why" fit with an orthodox understanding of Christ's redemption of mankind.
"Annie Christian, Annie Christ, until you're crucified I'll live my life in taxicabs" from 'Annie Christian'
One of Prince's earlier and more lyrically-complex songs, 'Annie Christian' (a play on anti-christ) was written in the wake of the death of John Lennon, who was shot getting out of a taxi in 1980. Rather than being about a single individual, the song makes reference to various people who have committed atrocities at least partly in the name of religion. Arguably, it's even a wider dig at fundamentalist America: "she couldn't stand the glory, she would be 2nd to none, the way Annie tells the story she's his only son."
"The only gold that's so worth stashing: compassion" from 'Compassion'
Prince was often political, and increasingly in his prolific later years, his songs contained a thread of activism. This track, from his 20Ten album is a call to reject greed and adopt friendship and love towards one another. It tackles racial division, environmental disaster and even the emptiness of other song lyrics; and all of it is underpinned by Prince's belief that by putting one another first (Mark 9:35), "everyone can win."
"But I'm here to tell you, there's something else: the after world" from 'Let's Go Crazy'
The extraordinary and famous intro to Let's go Crazy, in which Prince assumes the role of a church organ-backed preacher, is one of the clearest examples of Prince's long-held fascination with spirituality, and his gospel-style focus on the next life making up for the wrongs in this one. He even addresses his fans as a kind of church, with his opening words: "dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life..."
"You're the only thing that I'll ever need" from 'My Love is Forever'
A love song, rather than a worship song, but a great early example from Prince's debut album of his transcendent view of love. The role of the 'girl' in the song could easily be replaced by a more spiritual figure; Prince saw love as eternal and all-encompassing. In fact, I'd argue that he wrote some of the most deeply spiritual songs in modern music – such as Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U' – which, while they don't directly reference Christian spirituality, are deeply influenced by its perspective on love.
"There will be a new city with streets of gold; the young so educated they never grow old" from '7'
One of those songs which continues to have fans arguing over meaning 20 years on from its release, '7' is a Revelation-style spiritual vision of the future which refers directly to chapter 21 of that book, and contains a host of other biblical (and semi-biblical) references. Just as in his famous party anthem '1999' Prince was often preoccupied by the idea of Judgment Day, although as we find here, he was also a firm believer in biblical redemption.
No-one is suggesting that Prince was an orthodox believer, or questioning why his songs don't appear on church playlists. But he was a man who believed deeply in God, and whose faith informed so much of what he wrote. A rare and true genius, he'll be hugely missed by fans like myself all over the world. Thank goodness for the hope that "there's something else: the after world..."