Cogent analysis of The Artist Currently Known as Prince.
Scottish arts journalist and broadcaster Morton (The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, 2006, etc.) traces the Purple One’s musical evolution over the course of a remarkable yet strangely unresonant career. Neither a standard linear biography nor show-biz tell-all, the book is steadfastly focused on the music and the psychological and sociological conditions that informed it. Morton proposes that Prince’s music is uniquely biracial, borrowing heavily from both black R&B and soul tropes and white rock and pop styles; two of his largest influences are identified here as Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. Convincingly, if at times a bit baroquely (his enthusiasm and verbal facility can lead him down some baffling rabbit holes), Morton develops the idea that this is one of a host of dichotomies that lie at the heart of Prince’s work and mystique. Others include the tension between sacred and profane themes in his lyrics, his aggressive androgyny and ambiguous ethnicity and the unusual racial dynamic of his hometown, Minneapolis, a city whose overwhelmingly white population has historically enjoyed relative social harmony with its tiny black community. Morton’s analysis of each album is impressively nuanced and erudite, scrupulously avoiding sycophantic apologies for weaker entries in the canon, and he makes a convincing case for his subject’s status as a profoundly significant musician. And yet, Prince’s infamous insularity (if not outright paranoia) also defines his work: For all his success and dazzling musical accomplishments, he’s a bit of a closed loop; unlike other artists of his stature, he strangely lacks imitators or disciples. The trails he blazed were personal, inward and, in the main, left fallow by succeeding generations of musicians. This self-contained, self-indulgent quality is simultaneously Prince’s most fascinating and frustrating characteristic—not to mention, another dichotomy.
It’s lonely out there for sui generis eccentric geniuses—luckily, gifted writers like Morton are able to bring them a little closer to us.