The most revealing, certainly the best-written, section in the book is Piepenbring’s introduction. He details a similar, but even more elaborate vetting process to the one I underwent: submitting a personal statement about his relationship with Prince’s music before being put up in an unremarkable chain hotel in Chanhassen, Minnesota, until the time came to be delivered to Prince’s studio complex Paisley Park. Finally he was interviewed by Prince, who told him that funk is all about rules and that he didn’t like it when people described his music as magical. Piepenbring received familiar lectures on race, ownership and the horrors of modern pop; a letter discovered at Paisley Park has Prince railing at radio conglomerates “trying to ram Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran down our throats and we don’t like it no matter how many times they play it”. Then the young writer was sent back to the hotel and told to await further instruction.
Everything in here is young and fresh: before the paranoia, the failed marriages, the horrific loss of his son, religious obsession and the claws of a deep drug addiction arrived. What on earth happened in the gap? As the man himself said: ‘I am something you will never comprehend.’ But this book is a fun glance, a tiny bolt from what now feels like a very distant past, and will leave you feeling nothing but huge affection for little, brilliant Skipper.
The Beautiful Ones was intended to be a major book. An eloquent, lengthy introduction by Dan Piepenbring, the young writer hired to co-write it, tells the story of its genesis and the original project’s abrupt cancellation after Prince’s death. It was to be an analysis of “the dismal state” of the modern music industry (Prince complains that “they keep trying to ram Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran down our throats”); it would be an instruction manual for black artists on how to reclaim their agency; a celebration of the singer’s mother; a lyrical telling of his life story, leading all the way up to his superhumanly impressive performance at the Super Bowl in 2007.
There’s a clarity to these passages, annotated with Piepenbring’s notes from conversations with Prince, a record of moments that make blazing sense of the singer’s future self. He discusses the damaging effect of watching white superheroes as a black child, foreshadowing a desire for his flamboyant costumes and secret glyphs. Yet this material is painfully scant, a reminder of all that is missing. One thing is poignantly clear: towards the end of his life, he was in reflective mode, taking stock as he did with his final stripped-back Piano & A Microphone tour, cutting away the purple fog, finding what really mattered.