Prince photograph by Martin Schoeller
Jeff Jensen
January 20, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Prince made our 2004 Entertainers of the Year list

Want to know the secret to Prince’s return to pop-culture grace in 2004? Listen to him talk. Listen as he ruminates about his favorite moment in each of the concerts during his sold-out, only-the-hits tour: an intimate acoustic mini-set, featuring stripped-down versions of ”Little Red Corvette” and ”On the Couch,” the latter a bluesy ballad from his Grammy-nominated album Musicology. ”It’s the first time I’ve ever been alone on stage for that long,” says Prince. ”It was truly a challenge to keep the audience engaged with only a spotlight and a microphone.” He adds as an aside, ”You have to make sure that at all times, your mind doesn’t wander off into doing the grocery list for the next day.”

It’s charming to hear that a certifiable genius like Prince actually struggles, let alone shops for his own Windex (even if we’re not completely buying it). But there you have it: Everything that’s been missing from Prince during the long decade he spent off the relevancy radar, warring with his record label and releasing albums saddled with anger and self-indulgence: Humility. Humor. And, at last, joy.

With Musicology, a winning exultation filled with old-school soul and old-fashioned monogamy, the artist staked out a flattering new identity: the mature master. On tour, his opening salvo of Purple Rain-era hits — including ”Let’s Go Crazy,” ”When Doves Cry,” and ”I Would Die 4 U” — left crowds delirious. Yes, for some it was just a nostalgia rush. But that falsetto, that guitar, that jammin’ command of his well-drilled band — the 46-year-old sonic savant left no doubt that he’s still got chops.

For Prince, the best part of his ’04 triumph was that it was all about the music, not about marketing or his celebrity. ”It surpasses the Purple Rain tour. This was self-generated hype: no movie, no major radio airplay or support from the video channels. It was really a testament to live music,” he says. ”This is what we do for a living. Every night was a stone gas, baby!”

It was for us, too. Welcome back, Prince. Now please: Stay.

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