I really like Prince, so I have enthusiastically gobbled up the archival material his estate has been putting out in the past few years. But I have a question in the back of my head and the New York Times podcast Popcast asked it out loud: “Would Prince Have Wanted His Rough Drafts Made Public?”
The general consensus among the Popcast panelists was that fans were already sharing bootleg versions of much this material, and the estate has generally done a good job of curating and releasing material in a way that remained respectful of Prince’s career. Even if that isn’t entirely in the spirit of Prince as a control freak.
I still can’t shake the feeling, though, that there is a need to generate revenue here too. Maybe I’m being harsh, but in the introduction to the book The Beautiful Ones, co-author Dan Piepenbring writes:
And one of [Bremer Trust’s] first priorities [to run Prince’s estate], given the sizable tax bill the estate was facing, was to monetize Prince’s assets however they could. As it happened, the book had been one of the last projects he’d finalized with a contract. With that in mind, representatives from Bremer got in touch with Random House: Was there any way the book was still possible?
Dan Piepenbring on page 43 of The Beautiful Ones
So maybe my concerns are legit.
Prince had just begun sketching out his ideas for The Beautiful Ones when he died in 2016. He wanted the book to be part autobiography, part biography by Piepenbring, part handbook on how to create and how to control what you create, and part treatise on race relations in the United States.
There was no way that book was going to live up to those expectations, but Part I of The Beautiful Ones is an aching glimpse into the possibilities. It is transcribed directly from Prince’s notepad, right down to his use of abbreviations: 2 for two, R for are, and a drawing of an eye for I. It’s a first draft, as indicated by the liner notes in the margins that describe ways to fill it out. But Prince’s sense of humor, his philosophical nature, and his contradictions are all on display. Regardless of what the end result would have been, it wouldn’t have been boring.
But that’s just 40 pages of a 279-page book. Piepenbring’s introduction makes up another 43 pages. At first this section grated on me, as he only seems to be confirming the popular image of Prince on display in his cameo on New Girl or in Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Story on Chappelle’s Show. But eventually I found his story to be kind of sweet in a melancholic way. He had this amazing opportunity to work with Prince, but fate conspired against him. It’s heartbreaking, but at least he can appreciate that he got to experience something most people never would.
The rest of the book is filled out with interesting items found in the vault: photos, storyboard drawings and sketches, drafts of lyrics, quotes from interviews, even an outline for the script to Purple Rain. There are extensive notes describing all of the material, and this is where The Beautiful Ones becomes a museum catalog more than a book.
So on the one hand, it’s nice to have these snapshots into Prince’s life. On the other hand, Prince never got the chance to write about his creative process, and that’s gutting to me. While there are other sources available to provide insight (see below), it sucks that we didn’t get a chance to hear from the man himself. And, fairly or unfairly, that makes The Beautiful Ones most disappointing to me.