Off the Books: “I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon” by Toure

Alex Dwyer reviews The Purple One as experienced by Toure, an apparent Old Testament stan
By    October 14, 2014

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All The Critics Love Dweez In Erotic City

 “The man thought early on that he was here to spread a message. Surely, that message couldnt have been have wilder sex. No, he seems to have used portraying pure sex as a lure, or maybe a sort of loss leader: Something meant to get you into the store, no matter the cost to the store, so they can sell you the things they really want to sell you. It was like hiding victims in chocolate cake.

  • Touré, I Would Die 4 U, page 149

 All three minutes and thirty-four seconds of “Raspberry Beret” taste to my ears like fruit-flavored cloth. The song, my father’s favorite, filled the cars, homes, and moments of my childhood like the raspberry bushes that grew outside our patio and the blankets I gnawed on in my spare time.

I was heavily fed rock as a kid. The James Taylor train was one I rode to school. The Meatloaf mess was one served for dinner. The Simon & Garfunkel store was visited often. Then for some reason, there was this song about a fruity hat, one I wore down the ski slopes. It was the only song I remember actually being pleasurable to listen to on my parent’s playlist. My father would wile out, every time.

I don’t know why my dad loves Prince so much. He’s not a Gen X’er as Touré’s book would have you assume. He’s a boomer but when I bought him tickets to see Prince play the Forum a few years ago, he had a certain gleaning belief in his eyes that I’m sure I never saw in church.

 

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What Works:

I Would Die 4 U is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It’s part Prince biography, part unintentional Touré memoir, part research paper and part hyperbolic argument. While I don’t agree that books need to be shorter in 2014 than they did in the past, even today 150 pages of anything is a breeze for anyone that reads. There is no real commitment required to hear what Touré has to say about Prince. It might as well be a Longreads article. There’s an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. No photos. It’s about as physically bare as books get.

As is the case with any book exclusively about a musician, big Prince fans are probably both the chief target and beneficiary of IWD4U but fringe and close admirers of Prince can enjoy pieces of this book. The inquiry into the song “Wally,” a deleted track that was the equivalent of what Jack Black eluded to in his Tenacious D track “Tribute (The Best Song In The World),” is a good example. This demon-stunning, guard-shedding composition would have illuminated Prince in an entirely different shade of purple than ever before. It’s fun to imagine.

When Touré leans into the ongoing Prince persona by playing a game of basketball with him, it’s a joy. Prince was in the midst of a name change and during the game Touré sends him a pass that he doesn’t see. With the ball whizzing his way, Touré is stuck not knowing how to address him in time. The self-deprecating squirm is refreshing for a voice like Touré’s. His courting of Prince here is the anti-thesis of the cool, collected CNN culture commentator as he vies for male bonding moments with the most androgynous artist of all time.

The middle, “King Of Porn Chic”, chapter delves into that sexuality. Somewhere in Touré’s laundry list of interviews an ex admits that the washing hair and bathing women promises found in “If I Was Your Girlfriend” are in fact preferential to sex for Prince. It’s the lighthearted, stranger-than-fiction fodder you’d expect to be packed into a mediation on him. These moments chisel a few more details into his statue in our collective minds. Whether or not this allows us to enjoy his music more or less or changes our individual listenings at all is subject to debate. It becomes a matter, probably, of how much weight you put into Touré’s surveyor’s kit.

 

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What Doesnt:

 IWDFU, unlike some more gray-area music books, has a thesis. It has an a-ha moment. It has eureka. It has an absolute, clear-cut point to prove.

In constructing that argument, Touré talks to a lot of folks — professors, bandmates, exes, old interviews — but mostly just Questlove. At one point he consults a 2008 UCLA dissertation. All this research makes the writing dicey. For every flowing paragraph of smooth sourcing, Touré dumps blocks of quoted text that are micro-mysteries for readers to pinpoint the relevance, should it exist. This kind of construction restricts the value of the research while preventing the book from taking shape as Touré’s version of A Fans Notes which probably would have been the much more interesting story.

“I’m Your Massiah,” the third chapter of supporting evidence in his argument, is where things start to go off the rails. Touré rounds up as many God, Jesus, and spirituality references as he can find. He pulls out prayers at the beginning of “Let’s Go Crazy” and labels it a gospel song. He lists the fire-and-brimstone screams on “1999,” “When Does Cry,” “International Lover,” and others. He documents the baptismal undertones of “Purple Rain” and he expects readers to marvel. Touré’s big metaphoric reveal is that Prince is Jesus-like.

I wanted to stab my eyes with the corners of my hard cover copy.

Religion is the most obvious way to look at anything. It requires no lens swapping, mirror cleaning, or narrative skewing to paint Prince in a religious light. Touré actually isolates the color purple and the number seven as some of the most clear-cut examples of Prince’s spiritual undertones, ignoring that this color and this number are two of the most ubiquitous favorites in the U.S.A. — because they are so God-like? It all becomes so circular. It’s as if Touré goes around a grocery store with a price scanner and expects readers to be surprised that every product beeps.

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But Should You Read It?

 It’s important to note that the subtitle of this book is “Why Prince Became An Icon” not “How Prince Became An Icon.” If Prince is what interests you about Prince, then I would steer clear of this book — there is not much of that there. If what we think about Prince and what we think his intentions with us are is more your steez, then go for it.

Let me just make it perfectly clear that you can read this whole book in one sentence on the second to last page, “It was like hiding vitamins in chocolate.” Rework that sentence to read, “It was like printing bible verses on condom wrappers,” and now you have it.

Touré tags Prince a Jesus freak that lured religious-averse fans in with sex.

The Gladwellian timing that made Generation X, with their anti-ness, and Prince, with his seeing himself — KanyeWestcoughcough — as a Jesus-like figure, perfect for each other. Touré’s being a member of this group and having a fit enough to write a whole book about it means it could have just as easily been called “Strange Relationship: Why I Would Die 4 Prince.” Maybe that book could have delved more into the devotee-grade obsession that this book hints at. Maybe then we could revel in that weirdness.

Instead we have this: Prince is Touré’s Jesus. Is that worth 150 pages of your time?

*Page numbers are taken from I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became An Icon, 2013 Atria. That was the edition reviewed.

 

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