Prince is notoriously tight with press access, disallowing interviewers from recording or even taking notes. Full-scale biographies of him have typically relied on the same bunch of stories and quotes found in a couple of places—usually, Per Nilsen’s definitive ’80s sessionography, Dance, Music, Sex, Romance, for which Nilsen spoke with a large number of old bandmates and associates. Ronin Ro’s Prince: Inside The Music And The Masks features a handful of new quotes from some of the same folks (Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin, former tour manager Alan Leeds), but is otherwise little different from any number of other books, though this one might need the most editing.
Variations on “In spite of his complaints about Warner, the label released…” are thrown about mercilessly; Dr. Dre (about whom Ro has written extensively) is the go-to comparison point for any music Prince makes that’s flavored with hip-hop. The Around The World In A Day song “Condition Of The Heart” is mentioned five times, three of them featuring the bare description “haunting.” (Ro has little of note to say about any of Prince’s music.) Characters in the story enter and exit at random, barely IDed or given any sense of weight: Sonny Thompson, Prince’s bassist for much of the ’90s, is jarringly tagged as an “old mentor” nearly three-quarters of the way into the book, without any mention of what kind of mentor he might have been, or when.
Ro seems most comfortable when he’s talking money. He catalogs Prince’s extravagant spending, as on the 1988 tour behind Lovesexy, an in-the-round visual extravaganza so vast that saxophonist Eric Leeds recalls taking a month to even register that there was a brass bed onstage with him. The book’s blow-by-blow account of Prince’s mid-’90s feud with Warner Bros.—the period when he changed his name to a combined man-woman symbol in an attempt to get out of a headline-making 1992 contract renewal—is the one time the book’s pacing is effective. Even before he began writing “slave” on his cheek, he’d become such a pain in Warner’s neck that when the company assembled the 1993 box set The Hits/The B-Sides, “the label actually paid Prince to stay uninvolved.”
Ro points more to Prince’s conflicted relationship with hip-hop than previous biographers, as when Sheila E, filming a live-performance scene in 1985’s Krush Groove at the Bronx hip-hop club Disco Fever, is given a hard time by the crowd, forcing director Michael Schultz to tell them, “Look, this is a movie, and you have to clap for Sheila E. We’re not sitting here critiquing her.” But even there, the book feels like it’s treading the surface.