Prince's The Beautiful Ones is a breathtaking, occasionally frustrating look at the icon
Though it features personal details and rare artifacts Prince fans have been pining for, the long-awaited memoir doesn't quite live up to its lofty ambitions.
Among contemporary music icons, Prince was the least likely to write an unsparing, tell-all memoir about his life and career. Notoriously protective over his personal history, the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson often dealt in ambiguities and obfuscation. In the rare case he would participate in interviews, reporters were prohibited from recording the conversation or taking notes. Meanwhile, the quotes Prince gave were mostly elliptical — intriguing, insightful, but typically devoid of anything truly intimate.
So when he announced, in March of 2016, that he would be releasing his first autobiography (“The good people of Random House have made me an offer that I can’t refuse,” he told a crowd of fans and friends at a small gathering in New York City. “You all still read books, right?”) it was hard not to think of it as a practical joke. Or, if Prince was telling the truth — which, it turned out, he was — to wonder why he had decided to pursue such a potentially invasive project in the first place.
The finished product, this month’s The Beautiful Ones, holds some of the answers. As Dan Piepenbring — then an editor at venerated literary magazine The Paris Review and Prince’s partner on the book — notes in its emotional introduction, Prince became “conscious of his own mortality” toward the end of his life after numerous people in his orbit had fallen ill or passed away. “More than ever,” writes Piepenbring, “he saw that value in telling his own story.”
He would never get the chance to do so in full. One month following the memoir announcement, Prince was found dead at his Paisley Park compound in Minnesota. The cause of death was an accidental overdose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. That left his autobiography in a state of flux. Prince had written a few dozen pages before he died but it wasn’t enough to finish the project. To do so, Piepenbring went on a quest through Paisley to search for lost writings, photos, and artifacts that could help round things out and give readers something close to what the artist first envisioned.
Prince’s initial ambitions for the project were grand. He spoke of a memoir that could potentially end racism and later, a book that would be “a handbook for the brilliant community: wrapped in autobiography, wrapped in biography.” The final version isn’t any of those things, really. While the pages Prince originally wrote do have the makings of a memoir — complete with his trademark eye emojis, 2s, Us, and Rs — when paired with Piepenbring’s lengthy prologue, never-before-seen-photos, and an original 11-page treatment of the film Purple Rain, The Beautiful Ones is ultimately rendered more as a scrapbook than a searing personal tale.
But then, it is one hell of a scrapbook. The book kicks off with Piepenbring’s engrossing tale behind the memoir (it dates back to late 2014), how he first became involved, and the surreal but brief friendship he shared with Prince. (It’s an odd and entertaining sensation reading about someone as mystical as Prince operating a car, as he did one snowy night in Minnesota when he volunteered to drive Piepenbring back to his hotel.)
That soon gives way to the pages the artist wrote before his passing. They represent Prince at his most forthright. The first line, “My mother’s eyes. That’s the 1st thing [eye] can remember,” is an impressively personal and public admission for an artist who hated giving them. But, remarkably, he continues to share, going on to recount his relationship with his parents, his early beginnings as a musician, his experience with racism, and his first kiss with a white girl named Laura: “All lives mattered back then because race didn’t,” he writes. “At least not in r fantasy world. Laura kissed me three times that day. Each time was my 1st. The obligatory husband on the way 2 work kiss, one when u returned, & one b4 u went 2 sleep that night.” These recollections are tender and heartfelt but it’s frustrating when they finally stop short, knowing there are still so many Prince stories left untold. Not having more of his prose here lessens the book’s overall impact.
Yet the back-half of The Beautiful Ones is still a rare treasure trove for Prince fanatics. Included here are a POV photo diary documenting his trip to Los Angeles to sign his first record deal, photo outtakes from the Dirty Mind cover shoot, and early handwritten drafts of “Kiss,” “Do Me Baby,” “Soft and Wet.” With these items, fans get a glimpse at the wonderment and playful imagination of Prince during the early stages of his career.
It all makes The Beautiful Ones a worthy document, even if it fails to live up to the emotional highs of its beginning. But then, what remains is more than enough. We already knew that Prince was a once-in-a-generation songwriter, a brilliant and deft guitar player, singer, and performer who took a vigorous hours- (and sometimes days) -on-end approach to writing and recording music; someone who released almost 40 albums between 1978 – 2015. Getting a very brief glimpse of the things he had been hiding for years on top of all that just feels like a bonus. B+