Prince’s Most Inspirational Talent Was Mastering the Art of Surprise

A legend who redefined both risk and reward

What defines talent? Or lasting ideas? A legacy?

Prince knew.

From the beginning, he used surprise to his advantage.

He surprised the experts in the recording studios with stunning ability on almost every instrument at a very young age.

Tim Brunelle

He wrote harmonies and orchestrations that surprised our ears again and again. He wrote lyrics we didn't expect, but that we loved all the more for their candor and inventiveness.

"Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay?"

These were surprising ideas to hear coming out of the radio in 1981. I remember listening to a cassette of Controversy and being surprised to learn the guy who made it grew up just a few miles from my parents' house and sat next to my cousin in high school.

In 1984, I was surprised to look up from my position as a grocery store bagger at Lunds Uptown in Minneapolis to find I'd just bagged Prince's ice cream. Or, two decades later, to find myself singing his music with more than 30,000 others in Boston Garden—surprised so many random people knew all the lyrics to so many songs, the hits and the obscure b-sides, written by a guy from Minnesota.

Prince mirrored Miles Davis in a tenacious pursuit of his own musical vision, never resting in the safe harbor of previous success. He saw risk as inherently necessary. No doubt Prince surprised his record labels by seeking to release more music than they contractually expected. The movie Purple Rain is steeped in surprise.

Prince was an idea you never saw coming. Part of his appeal, I think, came from knowing you didn't know what's coming next.

His many stances on business, civic, political and religious issues are surprising not because an artist made them, but because this artist's non-musical points of view were so shrewd and well-considered. He supported Black Lives Matter not just with rhetoric, but with a focus on building sustaining businesses, encouraging activists to build economic solutions. As CNN's Van Jones recalled, Prince told him, "A black kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a thug; a white kid wearing a hoodie might be seen as a Silicon Valley genius. Let's teach the black kids how to be like Mark Zuckerberg." 

Are you surprised to know Prince embraced and supported coding?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that throughout his career, Prince remained anchored to a place. He was a Minnesotan.

"Back 2 Minneapolis, there U go / U can't find your house underneath the snow."

Where Madonna moved past Bay City, Michigan, and Michael Jackson left Gary, Indiana—Prince maintained his Minnesotaness.

He'd show up at Bunker's and jam, or browse vinyl at the Electric Fetus. He was of the people. While he embraced the world, Prince remained one of us—equal parts global ambassador and local citizen. He showed us true grit.

Prince took the big swings—regardless of outcome. Did he win every time? Of course not. But he showed all of us in the ideas business how persistence matters most. No doubt he surprised himself a few times. It's a rare ability, one Prince leveraged to the hilt.

We lost an advocate for surprise yesterday.

We lost a Minnesotan.

Rest in peace, Prince.

Tim Brunelle (@tbrunelle) is a vp and creative director at BBDO Minneapolis.