Prince fans have been lamenting the lack of a legitimate literary opus about the pop icon for decades. While legendary artists like The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye have had endless books written about their legacy and cultural impact, the bookshelves have remained relatively bare when it comes to the Purple One.
Touré, the pop culture pundit and co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, seeks to rectify this oversight with his new book I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, and as an unabashed, hardcore Prince fan I can assure you — it more than fills the void.
Early on in this incredibly brisk but thorough read (it clocks in at just 150 pages and this Prince fanatic finished it in one sitting) Touré name-checks Malcolm Gladwell, and while the parallel may be unintentional, his approach to the appeal and significance of the “Purple Rain” performer is not unlike the distinct social-scientist style of the Blink author.
This is not an all-encompassing, warts-and-all biography like Paul Trynka’s excellent David Bowie: Starman, nor is it a song-by-song analysis of Prince’s musical oeuvre like Joseph Vogel’s Michael Jackson book Man in the Music.
Instead, Touré presents an illuminating and profound portrait of Prince in his prime (roughly 1982 to 1992) and puts this enigmatic figure in his proper cultural place — as the perfect mouthpiece for Generation X’s anxieties and infatuations.
While Prince himself is a baby boomer, the author contends that he functioned like a cool older brother to his generation, born in the 1970s and early 80s, and raised in a pessimistic period haunted by divorce, drugs and AIDs. Prince served as both an antidote to the traumas of the times and as a superstar who spoke to the needs of an audience hungry for a fresh take on society.
He set himself apart with his barrier-breaking sound, style, and of course, sex appeal, but Touré believes his lascivious reputation often overshadows the “When Doves Cry” singer’s real depth.
“People sometimes think he’s just about sex but he’s not, his catalog has much more to say about religion,” Touré told theGrio via email.
Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of I Would Die 4 U is its emphasis on both the hidden and overt religious messages inherent in Prince’s entire musical output. In fact even the title of the book, borrowed from a classic Purple Rain track, is a reference to the savior persona which has played a major role in Prince’s indelible career.
“I think a big reason why Prince became an icon is the way he fashions himself into a Jesus figure. The title references that. That’s a big part of why we love Jesus: because He loves us that much. Prince suggests he has that same level of devotion to us,” said Touré.
Although Prince made a widely-publicized conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2001, he was raised a Seventh-day Adventist and that faith’s preoccupation with the rapture pops up in surprisingly blunt ways in songs like “7” and “1999.”
Still, after over 30 years in music Prince remains a figure of mystery for even his most dedicated followers. And while I Would Die 4 U does shed some light on how the artist’s troubled youth may have informed his music and infamously secretive nature, the author is not here to psychoanalyze, instead putting the focus arguably where it should be; on the content.
That said, the book also offers some intriguing anecdotes from former lovers, collaborators and even the author himself, who had one unforgettable interaction with Prince back in the late 90s which somewhat unexpectedly resulted in them playing a game up of pick-up basketball. Needless to say, the classic Chappelle’s Show sketch is apparently on point — according to Touré, Prince really can ball.
While there is considerable use of Prince quotes from previous interviews, he is not an active participant in this book. But because he has rarely been forthcoming with the media, this is in no way diminishes the work.
Michael Jackson once said, “In many ways, an artist is his work.” This dynamite book certainly supports this thesis when it comes to Prince.
For too long the mainstream press, and even Prince himself, have been content to classify him as unknowable, but in I Would Die 4 U, Touré makes a persuasive case that nearly all you need to know about this legend is spelled out in his lyrics, if only you’d let him take you with him.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard