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Prince: Inside The Music and The Masks by Ronin Ro

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Synopsis:

In his three decades-long of recording, Prince has had nearly thirty albums hit the Billboard Top 100. He is the only artist since the Beatles to have a number one song, movie, and single at the same time. Prince’s trajectory―from a teenage unknown in Minneapolis to an idol and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer―has won him millions of adoring fans.

Prince is the first book to give full treatment to this 30-year career of epic proportions. Acclaimed music journalist Ronin Ro traces Prince’s rise from anonymity in the late 70s, to his catapult to stardom in the 80s, to his reemergence in the 21st century as both an artistic icon and a starmaker. Ro chronicles the music, showing how Prince and his albums helped define and inspire a generation. Along the way, Prince confronted labels, fostered other young talents, and took ownership of his music, making a profound mark on the entertainment industry and pop culture.

In this authoritative biography, Ro digs deep to reveal the man behind some of the most important music of our time

I love his music. Prince has been one of the constants in my musical appreciation since discovering him in the late eighties, early 90’s. I can wax lyrical about my favourite unreleased tracks (Shockadelica), the way that the songs with a slightly sped up vocal are often his best (Camille’s vocal on If I Was Your Girlfriend) and even which brand of guitar he uses, Telecaster, in particular the one with the leopard print plate beneath the pick up. I thought that the line up between The Revolution and Sign O’The Times was the best one.

Ro does a solid job of providing information but I can get that from anywhere, what rock biographies need to have is the dirt, the weirdness, the damage and the scars. When Prince got married and had a child, which was a strange and tragic situation, Ro does not give us context other than that he’s a private person, which if you’re anything close to a fan of Prince, you’re aware of.

What’s interesting is that Prince kind of calcified, when he isolated himself from collaborators who challenged him. His best work was with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who in a perfect world, could have kept with him and pushed him. His average work is superlative, but the stuff that screamed came from the period when he was working with these women and the ambient tensions within that.

Why isn’t he working with, rather than being admired by Questlove or Trent Reznor? His genius, and I would argue that it really is an expression of that, is as much a gift as a curse because it isolates him. Part of the misstep he made was when he started to chase trends rather than make them.

Those sorts of questions haunt this book, which is disciplined and put together really well, but it gets us no closer to the who of Prince. All these facts carry the same tone, and great biography gives us insight into the person behind the image. When you read The Dirt, and then go listen to Motley Crue, you feel the decadence and the earnest, playful vandalism of their lives. I listen to Prince and feel what I always have. Ro, if he had been able to write that book, might have given me something more to feel about him.

I don’t believe that Prince’s own autobiography will be any more open about why he does what he does. He really does need someone who can curate for him, introduce him to the world so that he can bring the music that is truly within him. Stephen King doesn’t publish his shopping lists so forgive me if I don’t look at everything Prince does with infantile awe because I know that not everything he does is genius, it’s always interesting but he’s produced stuff that felt like it took no more effort than it did to work out a cramp.A lot of his decisions get heralded as moves of inscrutable brilliance when really they’re affectations. Why can’t he have his work on YouTube, so that you can introduce someone to his work and then they’ll buy or download an album? Why doesn’t he have someone run his feed so that we can see him jamming with Third Eye Girl?

Frank Zappa said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and yet there are superlative books about music and musicians, that enhance the experience or cast in a new light, the artistic expressions of individuals and groups. This book is close, but it doesn’t finish the lift.

Maybe I’m just sad that I won’t ever play bass for him, I don’t know. I can totally do that two step thing where you dip the neck on the fourth beat. If you want to know Prince, listen from Dirty Mind through to Lovesexy with a candle burning. Ronin Ro works better with something that he has more access to, Have Gun Will Travel is a far better book and example of his talents than this.

My favourite Prince albums, in no particular order:

  • Parade
  • Sign O’The Times
  • Lovesexy
  • 1999

 

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