Prince’s ‘Tangerine’ Is Great Because of What Isn’t There: 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Rhonda Smith learned from Prince but, as "Tangerine" so aptly illustrated, he also learned from her.
The bassist, a member of the five-piece late-'90s edition of the New Power Generation, was fond of quoting a favorite axiom of Prince's: "There are six members in the band, and the sixth member is silence." You certainly hear that on this quietly involving track from 1999's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
She also led Prince away from an over-reliance on synthesized bass gimmicks. As he plays fingerstyle acoustic over a delicate acoustic bass groove from Rhonda Smith – the only other person who appears on "Tangerine" – you hear that, too.
The result is one of the most measured, sweetly charming moments on an album crammed with guest stars and instrumental pyrotechnics. ("There's guitar madness all over this," Prince admitted to Guitar Player in 2000.) With "Tangerine," they brought a needed balance to the often amped-up Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
A celebrated instrumentalist, Prince was quite proficient on the bass, and Smith entered into his orbit ready to soak in everything she could from his typically idiosyncratic style. "When I first heard his bass tone, it had more midrange than I was used to," Smith told Bass Player in 2016. "Of course, it was appealing, and I was in awe."
She started by learning to mimic his unique approach. "To play with him, you gotta be able to emulate his style," Smith added. Then, she began to build off of that. "When I first met him, I didn’t know his style that well," she told Bass Player. "Luckily, he had enough faith to know that whatever he could show me, I could learn. He was a great teacher."
He listened, too. Prince had taken to using electronics by then, using samples of fretless bass. Smith is credited with his eventual switch back to the real thing. "Yes, I think I did," Smith told No Tremble, laughing. "I don't think he ever used it again, and I was very happy for him."
All of it led to delicate moments like "Tangerine." "Part of Prince's style," Smith told Bass Player, "is the magic of what's not there, of not filling up every possible space with a bass line, pulse note, pluck, or whatever."