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Prince: Chaos and Disorder

Buried in the lousy/loud graphic design he'd sadly champion for the next few years, we see a message from the man himself, presented in a splotchy typewriter font on crumpled white paper. Amid the surreal-yet-none-too-subtle images of a hypodermic needle bleeding money onto a recording console (!!!) and a heart being flushed down a toilet, it reads: "Originally intended for private use only, this compilation serves as the last original material recorded by (Prince) 4 Warner Brothers Records."

I like to imagine a more honest rewrite that goes a little something like this: "If U end up not liking Chaos and Disorder, keep in mind that it was never supposed 2 B heard outside of my very large and sparkly living room in the 1st place. But if U love it, that's because it's made out of super-secret UNDERGROUND jams I pulled from my highly sexy Vault. Just so we have that str8. Rave Un2 the Ecstatic Whatever. --P."

prince_chaos.jpgRegardless of label affiliation, Prince's share of the used CD section has always been . . . generous. And the platters are just that much cheaper when they're culled from what I'm calling Prince's "lost years." This would be between Lovesexy (his Blood on the Tracks, i.e., his last unconditionally great album) and the recent Super Bowl-nudged "comeback trilogy" of Musicology, 3121 and Planet Earth. I know there are supposed to be some good albums in there somewhere, notably the one with the symbol on the front and Kirstie Alley in the video. But this era is also responsible for such renowned duds as Graffiti Bridge, New Power Soul and the Batman soundtrack.

A couple years ago, inspired by residual teenage allegiance (along with those irresistible sticker prices), I decided to occasionally liberate one of these albums. Maybe I'd catch a glimmer of diamond in the sea of rough. In almost all cases, it was quite a slog. Far too many wailing backup vocals, layers of synthetic bass, all channeled into "funk" "workouts" that go on twice as long as necessary. To be sure, there are moments of disarming brilliance in just about every Prince release, including the lost ones. Even Batman has "Electric Chair." But of those that I sampled, only 1996's Chaos holds up from beginning to end.

Okay, I'm lying a little bit. "I Rock, Therefore I Am" is exactly the kind of warmed-over jam I was just bitching about, the kind of Prince song where a faceless rapper jumps in to rhyme "party" with "Bacardi." (So fresh!) It's certainly well-padded, but if the longest song on a Prince record is only 6:15, beating the next-longest by more than 60 seconds, you should consider yourself lucky.

Indeed, the economy of Chaos - just 11 songs in under 40 minutes - magnifies its charms by keeping them so close together. Straight out of the gate, the title track is a laundry list of grievances a la Sign 'o' the Times, only with heavy guitars and a breakdown-chorus that recalls Lovesexy's "Dance On." Then in adherence to Rob Gordon's rule of mix tapes, the second song "takes it up a notch." Not only does "I Like It There" sport some ace guitar squallin', it also captures some of the most convincingly agonized screams Prince has laid down since "Darling Nikki."

Song 3 cleans the palette with a slice of AM pop, the kind Our Man From Minneapolis perfected on Around the World in a Day and Parade. Released as a single in the U.K. only, "Dinner with Delores" is dead catchy, and would easily top any nerd's list of The Best Prince Songs You've Never Heard.

After that, the ride is fast and nasty - if not entirely bloat-free. Like on Emancipation, there's a pair of the vaguely spiritual "show-stoppers" that dominate the middle of the album ("The Same December," "Into the Light,") but here, their hooks are memorable and they never outstay their welcome. More interesting is "Right the Wrong's" discernible country flavor, or the spooky-funk of "Dig U Better Dead." Moving on, "Zanalee" sees Prince in Hendrix mode, adding the goofy voice of a Minnesota policeman calling headquarters about the scandalous show he's seeing through the title character's window ("Oh jeez, wouldya look at that," etc.). And just to show he's pulling from absolutely every corner of his career, there's a gooey, Diamonds and Pearls-style slow jam for y'all to grind to ("I Will").

But Prince saves the most startling bit for last. There's no doubt the man has loved 'em and left 'em, but it's creepy to hear such a spiritual dude sounding as cold-blooded as this: "Had U" is a bitter tone-poem that clocks in at under a minute-and-a-half. Over a lilting yet tense string arrangement, Prince metes out the simple story exactly two words at a time - from "called U" to "undressed U," from "hurt U" to that final, scathing "had U." His guitar noodles pensively over the fade-out, leaving us to wonder at the starkness of it all.

"Had U" couldn't have been placed anywhere but at the end of Chaos and Disorder, and its inclusion highlights what's so puzzling about the record as a whole. Namely, that it sounds way more deliberate than any "private use" blurb would lead one to believe. In terms of sequencing, pace and energy, this thing smokes most of the "lost period" stuff he'd put out later, when his work was supposedly unmolested by all those major label suits.

Sure, he was in deep hate with Warner Brothers when he delivered Chaos, but that can only make Prince just so careless. As illustrated by all the marketing schemes he's hatched since, the man is incapable of leaving strategy out of his game altogether, even when he's working on a contractual obligation. In other words, it's not that the major label system stifled Prince too much. In the case of this weird, engaging little album, I'd say it stifled him just enough, and in all the right ways.

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From Tommy Cash to Blue Oyster Cult, Bin Dive reveals rock's secret history through the bargain bins and your old stack of records. Comments - and submissions - welcome. You must include a real name to be considered for publication.



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Posted on October 5, 2007


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