In this rather slim volume (150 pages, not including notes and index), journalist and cultural critic Touré attempts to sort out the reasons why Prince became more than a mere superstar. It must be said up front that this isn’t a biography nor is it a musical analysis. Touré has a fairly clear-cut agenda here and his goal is to accomplish it within three sections, each focused on a different angle of Prince’s iconic status.
While I admire the approach, I didn’t come away from I Would Die 4 U fully convinced that Touré adequately explained the reasons Prince continues to captivate. Unfortunately, his case grows weaker with each of what are essentially three essays. “Prince’s Rosebud” is the first, lengthiest, and most successful section. Here Touré lays out his basic thesis. Although Prince (born in 1958) is a baby boomer, Touré suggests that the artist’s background allowed him to relate more directly to Generation X. A latchkey kid, child of divorce, and (alleged) victim of abuse, Prince’s sensibilities were, according to Touré, more in line with those of Gen X. This allowed him, through his music, style, and persona, to connect with teens and very young adults of the ‘80s.
It’s a compelling argument. The section is laced with anecdotes detailing various aspects of Prince’s career, including keyboardist Matt Fink’s recollections of the ill-fated opening dates they played as an opening act for The Rolling Stones in 1981. Touré is one of the relatively few authors of Prince-related books who actually had access to the man himself (years ago, not specifically for this book). One of the best segments involves his interview with Prince and subsequent casual basketball game during a visit to Paisley Park.
The book switches gears for “The King of Porn Chic,” during which the sexual content of Prince’s music is discussed at length. Touré apparently tracked down a variety of Prince’s ex-girlfriends, interviewed them, and included a good deal of interesting material. Of course, these are unnamed sources and their tales of Prince’s boudoir behavior must be taken with a healthy grain of salt. I mean, can we really take everything (or anything) an anonymous woman claims about her escapades of 30 years ago at face value? But Touré does manage to get into some good discussion of Prince’s hornier material, including particularly detailed looks at songs such as “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the notorious “Sister.”
It’s the final section, “I’m Your Messiah,” that the focus goes off the rails a little. Here Touré examines the religious content of Prince’s music, certainly an important component of his oeuvre. The problem for me is the conclusion that Prince’s sexually charged songs and attitude were basically a front for his evangelical side. It’s argued that Prince was more or less pulling a fast one on everyone, grabbing attention by singing and dressing provocatively, then lowering the boom with his true objective. That objective would be spreading God’s word. While it’s true religion has played a part in Prince’s music since the beginning, maturation and personal growth is the simpler and likelier explanation for its emergence as a more central point. In bringing I Would Die 4 U to a close with this lengthy declaration of Prince as Gospel messenger, I feel like Touré misses the boat a bit on a closer look at Prince’s artistry. Ultimately, his musicianship and songwriting gifts are the reason for his enduring influence.
That said, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon is a worthwhile addition to the relatively small number of decent books about Prince. It’s certainly bound to be a conversation (or possibly debate) starter for serious Prince fans.