The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What would Prince want? Two years later, his estate is a mess and his legacy unclear.

Prince, shown here in December 1984 on his Purple Rain tour, left a vault of unreleased music and no will. His Paisley Park sanctuary is now open to the public for tours. (Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

CHANHASSEN, Minn. — Near Influence Hallway, past Paisley Park’s platinum album-lined entry, our tour group is led to Prince’s inner sanctum, a two-story atrium painted sky blue with clouds — his take on heaven. A trio of doves flutter in an ornate cage. They don’t cry. They coo.

The late artist’s residence and recording complex sprawls alongside a well-traveled highway, 20 miles from downtown Minneapolis, a sterile white edifice that resembles a suburban office park more than the personal Eden of a superfunkycalifragisexy genius.

Six months after the ardently private superstar died here in April 2016, his sanctuary opened to the public for tours. Paisley Park now features a gift shop, a restaurant (vegetarian, like the artist) and a vast party space, all operated by the overseers of Graceland.

The $100 VIP package offers visitors the opportunity to record their own 30-second vocals of a Prince song (“Raspberry Beret,” “You’ve Got the Look” or “Cream”), play ping-pong on his well-used table and pose for photos in front of his aubergine piano. (Though not with personal cellphones which, as in Prince’s time, are strictly prohibited.)

Our guide stops in the atrium. He lifts his gaze toward the balcony, where a Lucite box containing a miniature replica of Paisley Park is mounted.

Inside that tiny palace, he tells us, rest Prince’s cremains.

“We’ll take a minute of silence,” the guide says, “to understand the gravity of this moment.”

Pop icon Prince passed away on April 21 at the age of 57. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

“I don’t live in the past. . . I make a statement, then move on to the next.” — Prince, in Rolling Stone, 1985

Some of Prince's friends and family have taken the time and think they understand the gravity quite well.

“It’s just tacky,” says Charles “Chazz” Smith, a cousin and long-ago bandmate, about tourists traipsing through the home where he died. “Prince was class — at everything. . . . People have done the total opposite of what Prince would have wanted.”

Or have they? In at least one interview, Prince — who occasionally hosted large dance parties at the complex — spoke of one day opening Paisley Park as a museum.

Then again, he was also known to change his mind.

Interpreting Prince’s wishes could be an academic discipline. He was a propulsive, complicated artist; few performers have exacted more control over their art. Highly litigious and wary of the Internet, he waged a career-long crusade for sovereignty over his seismic body of work, which includes 39 studio albums, fighting with his record label, streaming services, YouTube, fans, and bootleggers.

And yet — surprisingly for an artist who craved absolute authority — Prince left no will. “I don’t think about ‘gone,’ ” he told Rolling Stone two years before his death. Instead, he left a mess.

His estate, estimated at between $100 million and $300 million before taxes, is being supervised by many individuals not of his choosing, though some former aides are involved. Several heirs — who include a sister and five half siblings, not all of them close, and one of whom hadn’t seen Prince in 15 years — are filing legal challenges while contemplating a possible wrongful death lawsuit.

With Prince, there are more vexing issues than money. After an artist’s death, the work and reputation are subject to the whims and fluctuations of taste and the market — and even more so without legal directives.

“What death does to a legacy is that it can increase the legal conflicts, the cultural conflicts, who owns the artist and who gets to define who he is,” says Arun Saldanha, a University of Minnesota professor and organizer of this week’s Prince From Minneapolis symposium.

The academic gathering is one of several events in his hometown of Minneapolis commemorating Saturday’s second anniversary of his death. Which would probably rankle Prince. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince, who would have turned 60 this year, did not believe in celebrating the milestones of anyone other than Jesus. (He once had notions of proposing the abolition of birthdays to President Barack Obama.)

And yet his estate has sanctioned the four-day Celebration 2018, which culminates Friday at the 19,356-seat Target Center with “Prince: Live on the Big Screen,” a concert performance by a constellation of former bandmates who will accompany “newly remastered and never-before-released audio and video of Prince.”

Prince said in a Guitar World interview that accompanying a deceased musician’s recording was “the most demonic thing imaginable.”

“Everything is as it is, and it should be,” he said. “If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age.”

He added: “That’ll never happen to me.”

Prince kept a vault of unreleased music and videos — literally, in a Paisley Park basement vault, where they remained until after his death, when the discovery of mold and water damage prompted a transfer to Los Angeles for preservation. (Two half sisters legally challenged the move, concerned about the risks posed by California wildfires.)

The sheer volume of audio and video material is staggering, according to former associates familiar with its contents.

“I have everything on tape, man, including all the informal jams,” Prince told Guitar World in 1998. Colleagues recall him writing a song a day, scribbling lyrics in the penmanship of a sixth-grade girl, his i’s crowned with hearts.

“I used to record something every day,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I always tease that I have to go to studio rehab.”

He alone determined what he shared and what he kept to himself. Now, those decisions lie with others. Estate representatives declined to discuss release plans for the vault’s contents. (Our tour guide professed to not know even where the vault is located.) But it has become standard practice for top artists to drop albums unexpectedly, the element of surprise as powerful a marketing tool as the content itself.

Still, the volume of material presents challenges. How frequently should albums be circulated, and how often? Is it possible to flood the market with too much Prince? Should an artist’s unreleased work be distributed at all?

“It’s a vault. There’s a door on it for a reason,” says Jacqui Thompson, a former Paisley Park manager and organizer of an alumni network of former Prince employees. Prince, after all, is the artist who halted the distribution of his 1987 “The Black Album” a week before its scheduled release, declaring the work “evil.”

“If he wanted it out there,” Thompson argues, referring to his unreleased work, “it would be out there.”

While many fans shuddered when Justin Timberlake performed “I Would Die 4 U” at the 2018 Super Bowl with a giant projection of a vintage Prince performance, the estate was quick to bless the tribute and confirm that the images had been appropriately licensed.

Timberlake earned less-than-Princely dispensations when he leased Paisley Park for a pre-Super Bowl party. Liquor — banned under Paisley Park’s standard rental agreement — was served thanks to a special waiver, and even cellphones were permitted, in defiance of Prince’s prohibition.

The estate has also struck a licensing deal with the Minnesota Twins for Prince-related merchandise available at the ballpark. The night after his June 7 birthday, the baseball team will host a second annual Prince Night (though Prince’s true sports passion was basketball).

And Paisley Park launched a traveling exhibit — “My Name Is Prince,” a collection of 300 artifacts currently on display in Amsterdam.

“We know not everyone is going to make it to Minnesota,” says Angie Marchese, chief collections manager at Paisley Park and Graceland. “Prince would still be touring. The traveling exhibition is in place of what he would have been doing.”

Marchese and her staff are cataloguing more than 11,000 entries, including five pianos and 121 guitars, many customized to complement his flamboyant attire, which itself was insistently matchy-matchy, and tailored to his 24-inch waist. Prince claimed to be 5-foot-3, but every stage outfit included three-inch boots that suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile, there is an effort to enshrine Prince’s legacy across his hometown. Historian Kristen Zschomler is researching Prince’s peripatetic childhood in north Minneapolis, where many former homes have been misidentified.

Much of the confusion, she says, was engineered by Prince himself — a master of myth whose vigorous quest for privacy began amid the tumult of his parents’ divorce. “He was always obfuscating. He would frequently change his story,” says Zschomler, driving around the neighborhood that Prince first called home.

She points out the yellow Eighth Avenue house where Prince learned to play the piano and guitar, and the white Newton Avenue house where he lived briefly around the age of 14. “Paisley Park is what Prince made,” says Zschomler. “These are the places that made Prince.”

No historic plaques have been erected yet, but Zschomler believes four properties are worthy of designation. “He has left some mysteries for us,” she says, “which is definitely appropriate.”

Two years feel like a matter of weeks to some of Prince's friends and bandmates. "He just died. Other humans, mere mortals, we're not handling this well," says Robert "Bobby Z" Rivkin, the Revolution's original drummer, who compares Prince to Mozart in his work and influence. The band that accompanied him on his rise to fame in the 1980s still stays in close touch, he says: "We're all children of him in a way, his creations."

He’s confident the estate will be settled in a manner that satisfies all parties. “The family’s new at this. It’s a big legacy,” says Rivkin, who is participating in the Celebration events. “Would he approve of the decisions or not? He didn’t approve of many ideas. He had sole control. You could not second-guess him. He wanted that final say about what you do with his music.”

Other friends remain uneasy about the prospect of turning Paisley Park into Minnesota’s Graceland or releasing material from its vault. “I have never seen a musical celebrity so exploited by people who couldn’t make that money off him when he was alive,” says Steve McClellan, the local music impresario who in 1981 first booked Prince at Minneapolis’s legendary First Avenue nightclub. “There were no plans for him to die. Now you can play ping-pong at Paisley Park. How hideous that people are exploiting his death.”

This month, the six heirs filed a heavily redacted motion challenging a potential “entertainment transaction” they claim would be “an embarrassment to Prince’s legacy.” And three half siblings have filed a petition questioning the estate administrator’s high legal fees, noting concern that “at the end . . . there will be little, if anything left to pass on to the Heirs.” Draining the estate is also a fear for former colleagues who yearn to see Prince’s quiet dedication to philanthropy continued.

The music industry has changed dramatically since Prince’s 1990s battle with Warner Bros., when he compared recording contracts to slavery and protested by adopting an unpronounceable symbol in place of his name. Song catalogues and troves of unreleased material left behind by Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson helped turn their estates into juggernauts, but in the era of downloading and streaming, music sales are no longer such a consistent revenue generator.

Touring is where the stars now make their money — especially an astonishing live performer like Prince, who sold out 21 concerts at London’s 02 Arena in 2007. And Prince won’t be touring anymore.

He distrusted streaming services, resentful of how little revenue made it into artists’ pockets. Now, though, his estate has released his music on multiple platforms. His songs and videos suddenly flood the Internet. Which Prince might have loathed.

Or, then again, not. His music is out there for new generations to embrace and share. The abundance and availability of his work insures that Prince is not, as he put it, gone. Which, in a way, was his plan.