Over the course of more than 40 years, few artists covered as much ground with as much style and grace as Prince. The extent of his ingenuity and shape-shifting between 1980 and 1987 alone is such that most of the singers who flaunt Prince’s influence only reflect one aspect of his artistry – maybe you can approximate his ballads, his limb-wrenching funk, his squalling rock or his electronic compositions, but nobody can do it all. The list below serves as a partial map of Prince’s sway over the last three decades of pop, a chronological list of songs that show the depth and breadth of his reach.
Shalamar, “Dancing in the Sheets” (1984)
Shalamar moved fluidly with the sound of the times. The group emerged during the heyday of disco and enjoyed plenty of success, but by 1984, Prince’s synth-funk ruled the day and Shalamar shifted accordingly. “Dancing in the Sheets” pulls its main riff straight from “1999,” and the vocal during the verses follows the contours of Prince as well. Listeners didn’t mind the theft – “Dancing in the Sheets” was a Top 20 pop hit.
Phil Collins, “Sussudio” (1985)
“Sussudio” is another gem that revolves around the indelible synth line from Prince’s “1999.” Collins heaps other elements on top of this sturdy foundation: a pile-driving beat, buoyant brass, metallic scrubs of guitar and most effectively, the made-up word that lends the track its title.
Ready for the World, “Oh Sheila” (1985)
This popping 1985 single was neither by Prince nor about his frequent collaborator Sheila E., although it reportedly fooled at least one of those people: Legend had it that when “Oh Sheila,” which bears a strong resemblance to the 1999 track “Lady Cab Driver,” came on the radio, Sheila asked Prince when he wrote it. (“I didn’t,” he replied.) The song’s manic energy, feverish bass line and focus on a long-gone lover helped drive it to the top of the Hot 100, although its chart-topping status hasn’t prevented listeners from mistaking it for a Prince track to this day.
Zapp & Roger, “Itchin for Your Twitchin” (1985)
Though “Itchin for Your Twitchin” appeared post-Purple Rain, it celebrates Prince’s gleeful early Eighties period, the relentless pop-funk he concocted on Dirty Mind, Controversy and his albums with The Time. Zapp’s principal addition to Prince’s expertly tuned mix of spring-loaded bass, flickering guitars and driving rhythm is heft: The track opens with a crass, attention-grabbing barrage of drums.
Natural Selection, “Do Anything” (1991)
Minneapolis duo Natural Selection rode the buoyant beat and New Jack swagger of “Do Anything” almost all the way to the top of the pop charts. (It peaked at Number Two.) The combination of the track’s funky sass and singer Frederick Thomas’s uncanny vocal resemblance to Prince sparked a lot of “wait, who’s that?” moments among radio listeners, although once the needle dropped on the Purple One’s “Cream” – which was also receiving heavy airplay at the time – the confusion would clear right up. (Onetime Prince muse Ingrid Chavez laid down the rap on the original version of “Do Anything”; after the band inked a major-label deal, the Paisley Park signee had to be excised from the song.)
Beck, “Debra” (1999)
This soul-ballad pastiche from 1999’s Midnite Vultures begins with a JC Penney set piece and gets weirder from there, with Beck pulling out all the metaphorical stops as he tries to seduce a woman and her sister (the titular “Debra”). While Prince heads are convinced that the track, which kicked around Beck’s live set before being laid on tape, draws directly from ballads like “Adore,” Beck says that its vibe was drawn more generally from Nineties R&B: “There’s this combination of romance and unapologetic sexuality that doesn’t exist in rock music at all,” he told The Believer in a 2005 interview. “It’s a seduction, but it’s also very matter-of-fact.”
Maxwell, “Fortunate” (1999)
Neo-soul loved Prince ballads, that formidable line that stretches from “Do Me, Baby” through “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” to “Adore.” “Fortunate” shows its fealty to the latter, with a wordless falsetto run that arcs upward. The track was written and produced by R. Kelly, who generously handed the tune off to Maxwell. It subsequently became a Top Five hit.
Beyoncé, “1 + 1” (2001)
“1 + 1,” co-written by The-Dream, is one of several Prince-influenced tracks in Beyoncé’s catalog; basically her version of “Purple Rain.” In addition, Beyoncé interpolated Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” in her verse on Jay Z’s “’03 Bonnie And Clyde.”
Robyn, “Should Have Known” (2002)
“Should Have Known” channels Prince’s minimalist side: It’s basically just a drum machine and one plinking keyboard riff. Robyn lavishes attention on the vocals, multi-tracking them and slipping easily into steely melisma, conveying the feel of “Forever in My Life” from Sign O’ The Times.
Outkast, “Prototype” (2003)
When Outkast released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2003, Andre 3000 all but abandoned the rapping that made the group famous, focusing instead on a guitar-heavy style and a light croon. With funky bass, languid riffs and staggered chorus, “Prototype” honors Prince from start to finish.
Justin Timberlake, “Sexy Ladies” (2006)
Following Prince’s death, Justin Timberlake confessed that the late star was “somewhere within every song I’ve ever written,” and much of 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds plays like a direct homage to the Purple One. Among the album’s most clearly Prince-indebted tracks are the bass-popping “Sexy Ladies,” the weepy “(Another Song) All Over Again” and the drum-machine-heavy “Until the End of Time.”
The-Dream, “Yamaha” (2010)
The-Dream’s early solo catalog is one extended love affair with Prince. “Fast Car,” which appeared on his first album, borrows the distinct drum sound from Prince’s “Erotic City.” A similar whooshing percussion appears on “Yamaha” (from 2010’s Love King); the keyboard riff that buoys “F.I.L.A.” channels “The Beautiful Ones”; the lascivious internet loosie “Fuck My Brains Out” reaches towards “She’s Always in My Hair”; and The-Dream has two songs dedicated to “Nikki,” spelled the same way as the woman Prince once met in a hotel lobby.
The Weeknd, “Glass Table Girls” (2011)
Abel Tesfaye is frequently compared to Michael Jackson, but the combination of falsetto vocals and frigid, claustrophobic soundscapes that earned his early mixtapes attention is all Prince. A song like “Glass Table Girls,” basically just propulsive drum programming and a vocal, reaches back to tracks like “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” the brooding masterpiece from 1999.
Miguel, “Arch N Point” (2012)
Miguel’s first album was a slick collection of contemporary R&B, but he didn’t earn critical attention until he concocted a Prince-like combo of guitar distortion and sex drive on his next release, Kaleidoscope Dream. “Arch N Point” epitomized his new phase, all coarse riffs and libido.
Moodymann feat. Andres, “Lyk U Used 2” (2014)
Two seasoned purveyors of Detroit dance music concocted one of this decade’s most inspired Prince tributes, a track with a savvy mix of human and mechanical approaches. The vocals are a smear of lust and reproach, the kind of thing that drove many of Prince’s best tracks: “You don’t even call my name like you used to/You don’t even scream for more.”
Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk” (2014)
Ronson had to add the Gap Band as writers on “Uptown Funk” due to similarities between his Number One pop hit and the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head.” But the song is also filled with musical ingredients that Prince popularized in the mainstream: splintered guitars nudging around the same note with manic intensity, dive-bombing synths, an electronic handclap beat. Only the horns are off-brand – Prince preferred lighter, more sinuous brass sections. And, of course, Prince recorded his own ode to “Uptown” on 1980’s Dirty Mind.