Premature death is always stunning and hurtful, but never more so than when vital people are struck down in the prime of life. That was the case with both the vocalist Aaliyah and bandleader/songwriter/instrumentalist/vocalist Prince. Two new books offer candid and comprehensive views of their lives and accomplishments, as well as a thorough assessment of their style and skills.
While both authors greatly admire their subjects, neither is afraid to criticize them, though the Toure volume isn’t a standard biography, but more of a collection of memories, reflections, analysis and insights collected over a 20-year period from the people who knew Prince best.
Sadly, Aaliyah barely made it past 20, dying in an August 25, 2001 plane crash. Kathy Iandoli has written extensively about women artists and notably women hip-hop performers, and she’s done an excellent job researching this story. She reveals details some surviving members of her family would rather not have revealed in this volume. Though no one should accuse her of doing a tabloid work, Iandoli’s book includes often troubling accounts of Aaliyah’s relationship with her uncle (and sometime manager) Barry Hankerson as well as the messy interaction with R. Kelly.
Iandoli explains she had preferred not to even delve into that, but subsequent events which include Kelly’s recent trial (the book was written prior to his conviction on multiple counts) made it necessary to include it, and the third chapter is titled “R. Kelly’s Lost Survivor.” She credits Kelly with production assistance in helping make her debut LP “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” a double platinum seller. But she also cites multiple instances of abuse, outlines the sordid history behind their eventual sham marriage, and makes it clear Aaliyah was victimized, though not to the same degree as the women he held prisoner and dominated their entire lives.
She fully covers Aaliiyah’s early years, with an appearance on “Star Search” at 10, and a Jive Records’ signing by Jive Records at 12. While her youth led to some early mistreatment, Aaliyah not only overcame that, but evolved into a smarter, more determined performer. As she aged, her music became stronger, more intense and memorable. She would eventually become a headliner, one of the signature acts in the new brand of R&B that retains the soulful edge while incorporating into its productions elements of pop and hip hop.
Aaliyah’s rise is documented through the later chapters. as she eventually earns the nicknames “The Princess of R&B” and the Queen of Urban Pop.” She makes inroads into other aspects of the entertainment business as a model and actress. Upon teaming with Timbaland and Missy Elliot for her second LP “One In A Million,” Aaliyah’s become a global personality and superstar. By 2000, she’s appearing in “Romeo Must Die,” and becoming the first artist in Billboard history to have a single “Try Again,” culled off the soundtrack, top the charts solely on airplay.
But sadly, just as she’s blossoming as both an actress (role in “Queen of the Damned”) and vocalist (a number one Billboard pop LP with “Aaliyah”) her decision to board a badly overweight aircraft results in a fatal crash in the Bahamas. Iandoli feels Aaliyah’s decision was heavily influenced by others, very similar to Otis Redding boarding a subpar plane and dying in a plane crash decades earlier. She also discusses the wrongful death suit against the aircraft’s operator that was eventually settled out of court.
In the years since her passing, Aaliyah has sold millions of albums, and was ranked by Billboard as the 10th most successful female R&B artist of the past 25 years. “Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah” goes beyond stats and sales to profile a gifted, beloved vocalist and actress who was destined for bigger things. and still has enormous influence and impact despite a brief career.
Toure has already done a Prince biography, and this time instead wanted to give readers an insider’s portrait of a compelling, incredibly admired, yet also extremely complex figure. So he’s divided the book into 16 chapters, with each section highlighted by those who knew him best during those years. The list of interviewees includes musicians, engineers, managers, photographers, bodyguards, family members, past girl friends/wives and the author himself.
As a musician, songwriter and bandleader, Prince is intense, driven, visionary and talented beyond belief. Musicians on every instrument rave about his abilities. while the various vocalists are in awe of his ability to control his range, delivery and volume. Technical people are bowled over by his knowledge of the studio and sonics, and managers speak about his dedication to audiences, devotion to perfecting the stage show and willingness to go from huge arenas to surprise shows in tiny clubs.
But things aren’t so rosy when the observations turn to the personal side. No one uses the term multiple personality disorder, but they speak about the different characters they see. Sometimes he’s sensitive, sometimes he’s demanding. He can be overly generous or remarkably petty and offensive in his language and treatment of others. His troubled childhood is frequently referenced, and his desire to create the family relationships he didn’t experience growing up are another recurring subject.
Because these are people who lived, loved, traveled with and knew Prince better than anyone, they aren’t afraid to cite or discuss his flaws. These include the inability or refusal to sleep, and the opiate and drug abuse that ultimately killed him. There’s no sense of judgment or any moralistic tone creeping in. The women whom he either married or had relationships with all have mainly favorable opinions of him, even as they were remembering incidents or situations where they were mistreated.
What you get from “Nothing Compares 2 U” are uncensored and candid views of a musical prodigy and contemporary giant. All the people quoted remain huge fans of Prince, even when less than enamored at his actions or behavior. This comes as close as one can get to finding out what Prince was really like, because these reflections and remembrances are from the people who knew him best.
Ron Wynn is currently the sports and entertainment editor for the Tennessee Tribune, a columnist for the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society and editor-in-chief for the online media company Everything Underground. He is co-host of the radio show “Freestyle” on WFSK-FM and has been nominated for contributions to Grammy-winning music.