Prince’s genius made him the most exciting and original artist of the eighties, but his mystique is what made him such a fascinating star. In his 2011 biography, Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, Ronin Ro struck the right balance by giving readers enough information to lead us through the timeline of Prince’s life without removing the mask completely. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by the author. Perhaps Ro simply couldn’t crack that deliberately veiled persona, leaving quite a bit of Prince’s behavior—particularly during his apparently one-sided war with Warner Brothers during his Love Symbol/Slave phase or when he skipped out on the U.S.A. for Africa recording session to go to a Mexican restaurant—seeming random and impulsive. The author sprints through the artist’s early life. By page eleven, Prince has already quit his first band and is prepping his solo career. That may be frustrating for some readers, but fans who understand what a private person Prince was will appreciate the distance.
Yet, Inside the Music and the Masks isn’t at all unsatisfying, offering the broad strokes of Prince’s career peppered with enough odd anecdotes to make the trip as fun as a ride on the back of that purple Prince cycle. We learn of his friendly rivalry with Michael Jackson that climaxed with the Purple One bonking the Prince of Pop in the nuts with a ping-pong ball. We learn of Prince’s calamitous impromptu appearance on stage with Jackson and James Brown and his hilarious mockery of Bruce Springsteen during a shared performance. Less humorously, we learn that Prince had suffered an overdose on drink and pills (aspirin,of all things) as long ago as 1996, though the author typically offers no real insight into what exactly went wrong. In the wake of Prince’s death, this will be something a lot of readers need.
The latest edition of Inside the Music and the Masks adds a new afterword to address the end of Prince’s career, but this new chapter is even more fast-paced than the rest of the book. Ro covers the last six years of Prince’s life in as many pages, focusing more on the negative media reaction to the artist’s death than on how or why it happened. This new chapter offers a bit of a skewed version of the aftermath of April’s tragic events. I read quite a bit about Prince’s death, and the majority of it was respectful and not overly speculative. I certainly hadn’t read any of the rumors that he had been dying of AIDS or that he’d been reduced to a “pauper” that Ro read. I’m sure such crackpot theories are out there, but by mainly focusing on the rumors, Ro gives the impression that such theories were in the majority. Consequently, the tone of his afterword is much more bitter than the evenhanded book he’d published five years ago, reserving sharp words for fans and journalists alike. A new introductory chapter is similarly off-putting as Ro chides those who criticized the first edition of his book, mocks Prince’s fashion sense, crows about how the fact that he isn’t a big Prince fan makes him a worthy biographer, and really tests his readers’ gag reflexes by signing off as “Hardcore King.” Readers who purchase the latest edition of Inside the Music and the Masks would do well to skip the arrogant and unnecessary introductory chapter and manage their expectations when reading the new final one. Otherwise, Ronin Ro’s book is still a very, very good Prince biography.