Cover Story

''Comeback? I Never Went Anywhere!''

The weird, wonderful return of Prince - The music legend on his wild and wicked past, holding hands with Stevie Wonder, and why the music biz deserves William Hung

They've been rocked. They've been funked. They've been wooed. Now it's time to show him the love. It's a manic Monday night in late March, and 19,000 men, women, and even children -- the largest crowd ever to see a concert at Los Angeles' Staples Center -- are giving it up for Prince. He has plied them with hits -- from ''Let's Go Crazy'' to ''Kiss'' to ''U Got the Look'' -- but one song in particular has brought them thunderously to their feet: an unplugged, stripped-down rendition of ''Little Red Corvette.'' It is the centerpiece of a solo acoustic set by turns warm, funny, and riveting, and it earns him a standing ovation that goes on and on and on...

Prince beams. He covers his me-so-pretty face with his hands, and the applause only gets louder. It's a big, messy wet kiss, and it clearly means a whole lot to him. More than his fans might have considered possible. More, perhaps, than he's willing to admit.

The last time we paid attention to Prince, it was as much for his increasingly bizarre behavior as for the brilliant rock/funk/R&B fusion that made him one of the greatest artists of modern pop. Changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Scrawling the word slave on his cheek. Releasing half-assed albums like Come to burn off his contract with Warner Bros. His mostnotable cultural contribution of the past decade? Carmen Electra. Thanks, Prince. Thanks a lot.

Yet through it all, there still existed the hope that a talent called ''genius'' time and again could return to form. That moment finally seems to have arrived. In February, his electrifying Grammy duet with Beyonce opened the show, and stole it. That was followed by Prince's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; his guitar heroics were the highlight of the ceremony. His current tour -- on which he's allegedly playing his hits for the last time -- is selling out across the country. Critics are calling his new CD, Musicology (in stores April 20), his best in years. It's the kind of thing we media types like to call a comeback, though according to Prince, we media types, as usual, are mistaken.

Two nights after the L.A. concert, Prince is backstage before a sound check at the Glendale Arena outside Phoenix, a city named, appropriately enough, after the fiery, feathered avatar of resurrection. Clad in a black sleeveless tunic and cranberry pants, Prince takes a plate from his bodyguard and loads it up with fruit, pasta slathered in cream sauce, and salad. Yes, Prince eats. He also goes to the multiplex. Last night, after his show in Bakersfield, Calif., he and his band unwound by checking out Kevin Smith's latest flick, Jersey Girl, a so-so departure from his usual lewd-and-crude comedies. Prince was unimpressed. Not that the 45-year-old, happily married, devout Jehovah's Witness can't appreciate a cleaner act; he himself has scrubbed from his set list staples like ''Head'' and ''Jack U Off.'' It's just that according to Prince, Smith didn't replace it with anything interesting. ''We walked out after an hour,'' he sniffs. ''Guess that's what happens when the potty mouth don't work for you anymore.''

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