Will anyone ever crack the purple force field that surrounds Prince?
This new biography of pop music’s most brilliant mysterioso doesn’t even try. The author is Ronin Ro, a music journalist who made his name in 1999 with “Have Gun Will Travel,” a book that dove into the nitty-grit of ’90s gangsta rap culture. “Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks,” on the other hand, seems to have been written in the peaceful solitude of the public library. Instead of the penetrating reportage his subtitle promises, Ro offers a snoozy chronology of the guarded singer’s complicated career, culled largely from old newspaper and magazine reports, too many of them unattributed.
The story Ro tells begins on June 7, 1958, with the birth of Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis and quickly moves on to the details of his career without turning up new information on his life. As the prodigy blooms into a pop star, his albums move up and down the sales charts. The critics react. He squabbles with his label, Warner Bros. It’s all garnished with tiresome details from sources who live light-years outside Prince’s social orbit. If you’ve ever wondered what Tower Records Chairman Russ Solomon thought of Prince striking a deal with Best Buy to sell his 1998 album, “Crystal Ball,” as a four-disc set, rejoice.
At 356 pages, “Prince” reads like a metastasized Wikipedia entry, only without all the attribution. And once the book settles into its lifeless rhythm — which is to say, immediately — the idiosyncrasies really jump out. At one point, Ro reminds us that Stevie Wonder is blind, but later expects us to know that Prince’s jouncy tune “Cindy C.” is about supermodel Cindy Crawford without actually mentioning her by name.
Granted, Ro took on a daunting task: writing about one of pop culture’s most secretive superstars — who, needless to say, wasn’t interviewed for this book. And it’s amazing how few private details from Prince’s glory days are floating around in the spillage of the information age. But most of what’s out there can be found in two Prince bios to which Ro owes a huge debt: Per Nilson’s “Dance Music Sex Romance: Prince: The First Decade,” a charming mash-up of interviews, tour dates and geeky fan analysis; and Alex Hahn’s much splashier “Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince,” a more thoroughly reported effort that outlined Prince’s highly publicized commercial collapse in the ’90s. But within a year, Hahn’s thesis wilted as Prince began to rebuild his reputation in the media, in the studio and on the road.
And that’s where Ro’s book totally whiffs. Instead of a fascinating look at damage control, we find ourselves in a 40-page dash through the deaths of Prince’s parents, his divorce from his second wife, and a public-image overhaul that peaked during his triumphant Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007. The book ends abruptly in 2009 with Ro declaring that “Prince has finally found peace.”
How does he know? Ro seems far away from his subject and the people who surround him. The legendary bassist Larry Graham appears twice in the book’s waning pages, identified not as a founding member of Sly and the Family Stone, nor as the personal mentor who encouraged Prince to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but simply as “his band member.”
Equally irksome is Ro’s inability to explain how Prince’s visionary swirl of rock and funk helped dissolve genre barriers defined by race. The song “Uptown,” from the 1980 breakout album “Dirty Mind,” was one of Prince’s first political tunes, imagining a social utopia of sexual liberation and racial equality. Ro refers to it as a song about “orgies.”
In the end, however, you may find yourself less frustrated with Ro than with Prince himself. During his ascent, the singer’s inflated sense of privacy felt like a device used to create the kind of mystique that begets obsession and adulation. But that was more than 30 years ago. He’s since been deified as a god of American pop music. Isn’t it about time he opened up? Ro’s book proves that we don’t need another Prince biography. We need a Prince autobiography.
Richards is the pop music critic for The Washington Post.
Inside the Music and the Masks
By Ronin Ro
St. Martin’s. 370 pp. $26.99