It’s been two years since Prince passed away. As I’ve been listening to his music all over again over the last two years, one song emerged as one of my new favorites. It’s from his last studio album “Hit n Run Phase Two” released in 2015, and is titled “Baltimore.” He played it at his last show, “The Piano & a Microphone” at Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA, only seven weeks before his death.
Generally speaking, “Hit n Run Phase Two” was a “back-to-basics” rock’n roll album, and “Baltimore” opened it by condensing people’s power in a beautifully simple format. Although Prince was capable of experimenting any musical enterprises if he wanted, both his last album and his last show – “The Piano & a Microphone” – were simple and straightforward as if he literally went back to his fundamentals by eliminating any excess frills to reach the deep core of his musical spell. He did not rely on complex chord progressions or multi-layered arrangements realized by various state-of-the-art instruments to produce “Hit n Run Phase Two.” He did not employ flashy visual presentations, dancers, or talented fellow musicians to appear in front of the 20,000 fanatical fans at “The Piano & a Microphone” show. What the audience witnessed was “naked” (not physically but musically) Prince, all by himself, facing his own massive creative power. It was so intense. It is just stunning how his final stretch of the musical endeavors took such an aggressive form of subtraction. It almost seems like he tried to give up everything that was not his own creative energy.
Prince came up with the idea to perform solo only with a piano because “he was tired of rarely getting bad reviews and wanted to challenge himself further.” In hindsight, it sound astounding because after all sorts of artistic endeavors, he must have felt that only thing left for him was to challenge his own creative limits. And for a musical genius and a perfectionist like Prince, it must have been as if setting fire on his own creative soul in order to make it purer, hotter, higher, faster and more intense. And on April 21, 2016, his body finally decided it could no longer catch up with the intensity of his creative power.
It almost seems that Prince was in a profound “creative “solitude” in his last days, during which no one could really help him because he could no longer tolerate even tiny discrepancies between what his creative spirit told him and what he actually produced. It must have been painful and self-consuming. And through such an intense and a lonely internal battle, he produced “Baltimore” – a straightforward, bright, open and uplifting piece of music – as a protest song in reaction to the tragedy surrounding Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, which fueled the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Why did he make a protest song as a piece full of positive energy and happy sound?
“Baltimore” is musically simple. Besides the chorus work highlighted by the vigorous voice of Eryn Allen Kane (Prince always used very complex voicing for chorus), everything is simple. The chord progression is simple, the melody is simple, and the simple chant: “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace,” is repeated throughout the song. Not only that, there is a very small number of instruments played at a time. At a number of occasions, you will only hear sparsely played drums, base and acoustic guitar. Altogether, the song feels rather empty, spacious and airy.
But this emptiness is touchingly abundant and profound.
Musical simplicity effectively highlights the vigor and energy of people’s singing voices. Eryn Allen Kane’s voice and the chorus, the almost only “thick” piece in this song, are lively and powerful. Their strength is in contrast with the voice of Prince himself, which sounds unusually soft and soothing. Then the voices are combined with the lyrics that bitterly denounce the injustice that plague our society. But then, something extraordinary happens: when they sing a sad, direct verse such as “Are we gonna see another bloody day?” the soothingly powerful voices end up embracing the anger, sorrow or despair that must have been felt by people. In this piece of art, heavy, intense emotions are elevated to artistic crystallization and transformed to bright and positive energy.
But of course, the problem raised in the song is enormously serious. The anger and sorrow won’t, and shouldn’t, go away because of one song. As uplifting and positive, the sparseness and spaciousness of “Baltimore” suggests that nothing in our world is perfect, and we can be vulnerable as we face something that is far larger and forceful. It is a mixture of the blunt reality and the resilience of people who had been enduring and overcoming the sad, heartbreaking history.
The most interesting part of the song comes after the second verse:
We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’
Let’s take all the guns away
Absence of war, you and me
Maybe we can finally say enough is enough
It’s time for love
It’s time to hear
It’s time to hear……
After those intense words, you become anxious to find out what Prince had to tell you to hear. Maybe his version of rallying cry? Some poignant declarations? No. He simply says, “it’s time to hear the guitar play.”
And here comes Prince’s sexy, electrifying signature guitar solo…you would almost assume. But again, Prince delivers something that would be the opposite of what you would’ve guessed: the solo played here was a surprisingly simple, explosive riff-free, low-key one.
This is striking. After all those lyrics that describe peoples’ ordeals, deeply rooted social inequality and injustice, Prince says “it’s time to hear my guitar.” And he plays a super elemental, anti-climax guitar solo. Whey did he do that?
I believed that he had to say “hear my guitar” because music is what makes him, and what he is all about. And by playing it right after he sang about the sad reality that our world is an unfair place and it is extremely difficult to change it, he sends a strong message: “No matter how difficult your life is, you always have your strength inside you. And that is what makes you beautiful and precious.” He reminded us that we all had something similar to what music meant for Prince, even if ours were not be anything extraordinary. But it does not matter. As long as we love what we have inside us, it is precious. Prince showed it by not dressing his solo with mesmerizing technique or intoxicating sound effects. He simply disclosed his raw, fundamental artistic strength. It is so powerful and relevant.
And what you have inside us is much, much more powerful than the guns. Guns may make you feel stronger, but your strongest, most resilient part should always be inside you, not external to you. It is extremely sad if our internal strength and beauty have to be destroyed because of the external violence. It should not work that way. Prince’s guitar says so.
When I realized that, the phrase “peace is more than the absence of war” started sounding stronger. We don’t just try to “remove” violence in order to achieve peace. We have to fill the voids with our strength, resilience, beauty and love. If we fail to fill it, evilness or violence will easily take over.
There are two types in absence – one is literally empty and filled only with ignorance, indifference and complacency. Some people may call such type of absence “weak.” But there is another kind of absence, which is full of potential, strength and beauty. It is the absence collectively and spontaneously created by people who are willing to contribute to keep it flexible and accessible, so that many people can share it. This absence is resilient. The sparseness and spaciousness of “Baltimore” quietly tells which way we should be heading.