Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988

Hahn and Tiebert are the first biographers to approach Prince’s history as journalists and historians rather than critics, and they have done much to winnow out the facts from decades’ worth of myth created, in no small part, by Prince himself.

A month ago today, I wrote about an upcoming biography co-written by Alex Hahn, the author of the excellent 2003 book Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince. Over the weekend, Alex was kind enough to send me a pre-release digital copy to review; so, having already plugged the book sight unseen, I wanted to share my thoughts after reading it (very quickly, in three sittings between Saturday night and this morning–apparently those four years of humanities graduate school were good for something after all). I should disclose up-front that I’m not necessarily an impartial source: I was a fan of Alex’s first book before I ever spoke to him, and I did a very modest amount of consulting early in his writing process for The Rise of Prince (I’m thanked for this in the acknowledgements). That being said, while I “Internet-know” Alex, I don’t know either him or co-writer Laura Tiebert personally, nor am I being compensated for this review in any way (even the free book–I already preordered my “real” copy!). I’m simply trying to help out another independently-released Prince project–one that, I am happy to say, is of high quality, and well worth the attention of anyone reading this.

As I wrote in my post last month, Possessed was my first Prince biography, and it was until recently my first choice for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” Dave Hill’s Prince: A Pop Life from 1989 was quite well-written, but lacked a strong perspective on the artist due to its early publication date; Per Nilsen’s Dance, Music, Sex, Romance remains near-definitive in its level of detail, particularly about recording processes and unreleased material, but is arguably too dry and “in the weeds” for more casual fans. Possessed, in my opinion, struck the perfect balance. It combined a gripping but unshowy writing style with Nilsen’s deep, journalistic research acumen, while also presenting a fascinating enough narrative arc for even non-obsessives to enjoy the glimpse at the man behind the music. It was juicy, but not tawdry; even the negative bits (which, it must be said, remain controversial in some segments of the Prince fan community) felt justified, not to mention backed up by multiple sources. If Possessed was still in print and The Rise of Prince didn’t exist, I’d still heartily recommend it.

But Possessed is no longer in print, and The Rise of Prince does exist; this alone would make it an easy recommendation, as the former book is fetching absurd used prices on Amazon and eBay, while the latter book can be had for as little as $8.99 on Kindle. More importantly, however, the new version is an improvement in almost every way. Though I recognized brief passages of Possessed in The Rise of Prince, the book as a whole has been thoroughly overhauled: this is not just a quick cash-in reissue. Of particular note are the early chapters on Prince’s family background and youth, which to my knowledge represent the first significant original research conducted in this area since the 1990s. If nothing else, these should be required reading for anyone with ambitions to write about Prince in the future: Hahn and Tiebert are perhaps the first biographers to approach Prince’s family history as journalists and historians rather than rock critics, and they have done much to winnow out the facts from decades’ worth of myth created, in no small part, by Prince himself. I know that I will be taking a look at a few of my own early posts to correct any factual inaccuracies I might have reproduced; I strongly recommend that any other aspiring Prince experts out there do the same.

The other, less tangible advantage for The Rise of Prince is, quite simply, perspective. I’ve seen much being made on social media about the book’s title, which excises the “…and Fall” half of Possessed’s subtitle in favor of a more optimistic tone. But I would caution fans from assuming this means the book is entirely positive–or, for that matter, that it should be. The Rise of Prince ends in late 1988: arguably an artistic high point for Prince, but inarguably a commercial and personal low point. It is, at first glance, an odd way to revise a biography that went on for some fifteen additional years in its original editon; and yet, it makes sense when read in tandem with the book’s lengthy prologue, to date the most definitive recounting of Prince’s final year. All of the things Prince was grappling with in late 1988–his conflicts between the spiritual and the carnal; his clashing, oft-frustrated desires for commercial success and artistic respect; and most importantly, his inability to connect intimately with others–would continue to define his life until his tragic death early last year: alone in Paisley Park, the vast recording facility and living space where his ashes are permanently enshrined, like a pharaoh in a pyramid of his own design. Reading these later chapters, knowing how the story ends, was a poignant and deeply moving experience. And while I would have gladly read another 300 pages covering 1989-2016, I can’t fault Hahn and Tiebert for ending the story where they did. For better or worse, Prince’s emotional arc was complete.

So, yes, The Rise of Prince is now my official recommendation for the “Prince book to read if you only read one Prince book.” It might not always be that way: the latter decades of Prince’s life are an important part of the story, and one yet to be fully captured in writing. But for now, less than a year after the artist’s untimely passing, it’s hard to imagine a much better book to explain who Prince was–the good and the bad–and why, for almost a decade, he mattered more than any other singer, songwriter, musician, or producer on the planet. Again, like I said last month: there will be a lot of books published about Prince in the weeks, months, and years to come. Let’s hope more are as carefully considered and lovingly crafted as The Rise of Prince than are not.

You can purchase The Rise of Prince on Amazon, as either a Kindle e-book or a physical paperback. If you like this blog and want to support it, please consider purchasing the book through my affiliate links, either in this paragraph or on the “Now Playing” part of the sidebar. I’ll be back with another post soon, hopefully before the end of the week. Thanks for reading!

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

6 replies on “Review: The Rise of Prince 1958-1988”

Thanks for this Zach. I just read it all in one sitting this morning – yeah, grad school does have its uses :). It’s really good to finally get clarity on exactly what happened to him in that house with Baker, and also, yes, I think you are right about the emotional arc being already complete at the time of the books conclusion. Man it still makes me so sad… it could have been otherwise, had he decided to eventually deal with it (seriously, sometimes when I’m watching/listening to the Montreux performance of Empty Room, and he gets to the bit where he asks ‘what’s the use in crying’ I fantasize about getting on the stage and somehow being able to slap him until he’d just let the fuck go)… just the resonance of his death being caused precisely by pain and the unyielding attempt to erase it…like one final lethal explosion of the return of the repressed come to shatter all the control and tireless put-togetherness. I think that’s why The Breakdown is so hard to cope with. He was almost there, and it was already too late, and from how it clearly moved him, maybe he knew it 🙁 Anyhooooo. Best best, Jane

Good to hear from you, Jane! Ugh, I know…thinking about his last couple of albums having read this book is heartbreaking. I honestly didn’t take “The Breakdown” seriously when I heard it back in 2014; it felt to me like he was doing a character, like “Another Lonely Christmas” or something. Since then the extent of his pain (physical and emotional) has of course become evident, and it feels so much more personal. I’m kind of relieved that, at the rate I’m currently going on this blog, I won’t have to grapple with this stuff in depth for a long time.

Thanks for this review Zach, I’m sure I’ll get this book soon and I’ll try to remember to use your affiliate link when I do 😉 I’m heartened to hear that it’s got lots of new details about Prince’s youth as I’ve always found that period really evocative when reading accounts of it.

I also have a query about the Per Nilsen book that you might be able to help with, I’ve managed to, ahem, find a PDF copy of a book by Per Nilsen called Prince: A Documentary and was wondering if that was the same book as DMSR just under a different title or whether it’s a completely different book altogether. The one I have seems to consist of a series of entries detailing Prince’s day to day activities, which I’m sure is super informative for those who want to know Prince’s actions on a daily basis, but I was rather more hoping for continuous prose. Thanks a lot.

Sounds like you obtained A Documentary from the same legitimate source as I obtained The Vault! I haven’t seen the particular book, but from what I can tell it is more like an early incarnation of The Vault (i.e., a reference book) than DMSR; DMSR comes from the same research, but is a more conventional biography.

Ah okay, cheers, I’ll have to look around and see if I can find a copy somewhere, totally legitimately of course :-p I’ve already got a The Vault pdf so guess A Documentary is pretty much redundant then, thanks for clearing that up.

Yeah, I was lucky enough to obtain my copies of Hahn, Hill, and Nilsen back when they were going for <$10 on Amazon and not in the hundreds. I'll let you know if I stumble across anything!

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