Book review: Dig If U Will the Picture, Ben Greenman

Prince, left, performs in Florida in 2007. His genius is still impossible to explain.
BRIAN SNYDER

Prince, left, performs in Florida in 2007. His genius is still impossible to explain.

DIG IF U WILL THE PICTURE: FUNK, SEX AND GOD IN THE MUSIC OF PRINCE
Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, $40
Reviewed by Philip Matthews

Like Bob Dylan before him, Prince knew that the best way to maintain a sense of mystery was to keep your trap shut. If you must speak, stay cryptic. Become a symbol, invent new personae, confuse your public. This means that a year after his sudden death – a drug overdose in an elevator in his home studio complex, Paisley Park – the mystery of who or what Prince was has stayed impenetrable. 

New Yorker writer Ben Greenman​ grasps that early on in his remarkably erudite and loving tribute, Dig If U Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince. He probably grasped it decades ago. Greenman writes that he first encountered the music of the "slam-bang funk bricoleur" in 1982 when the album 1999 appeared. He saw the contradictions: how did this multi-instrumental genius manage to write the filthiest songs about sex and the most devoted songs about God, often at the same time? 

The purple Yoda from Minnesota spilled over with songs. They were handed to the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan and Sinead O'Connor. He invented an alter ego named Camille​ to explore his feminine side, using pitch-shifted vocals to sound female. Some Camille songs turned up on Sign O' the Times, a double album that threatened to become a triple. 

When he thinks about this hermaphroditic Prince, Greenman consults William Blake and Michel Foucault. At other times, Jean-Paul Sartre offers a way in. There is no sense that Prince ever read any of this stuff yet Greeman's references never seem pretentious. Rather, a respectful fan is struggling to place an utterly unique phenomenon. At a time when race matters deeply, Prince somehow seems even post-racial.  

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