Prince In A Gilded Cage

James Marcus reviews Prince's album "Chaos and Disorder".

Published July 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (hereafter to be referred to as Prince) has had a rough couple of years. After signing a contract worth $100 million in 1992, he soon accused Warner Bros. executives of "enslaving" his music and launched a small-scale guerilla war against his own label. With the word "slave" scrawled on his cheek in marking pen, he retreated to his Paisley Park complex in Minneapolis. There he proceeded to
blow millions of dollars on videos, stage sets and nine different versions of his single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." He also changed his name to a cryptic symbol, apparently hoping this would dissolve any contractual obligations. It didn't.

But to judge from "Chaos and Disorder" (the first of the three releases Prince owes the label before he can jump ship), enslavement hasn't done him a great deal of harm. In fact, the disk represents a return to form, with some of Prince's catchiest pop melodies and an abundance of the guitar pyrotechnics he's soft-pedaled since the late 1980s. (There's a distinct possibility that some of these tracks have been languishing that long in the Paisley Park vaults.)

Which isn't to say that the disk is free of rancor. In "Dig U Better
Dead," a hip-hop outing anchored by a fat synthesized bass, Prince seems to be berating his patrons: "One minute you're hot/Tell the truth and you're not/That's the noose that they hang on a goose/Like you." In the end, though, his protests sound pretty mild, because they're overshadowed by those oddball bits of arrangement that have always stamped Prince's music. Here the treat is the chorus, which sags by a microtone at the end of each line.

In a sense, "Dig U Better Dead" and "I Rock, Therefore I Am" indicate that Prince has finally made his peace with rap. This, of course, was the very music that made him sound frilly and old-fashioned during the early 1990s, and on disks like "Diamonds and Pearls" he seemed determined to accommodate himself to it. Now he's content to swallow it whole, even as he peevishly declares his
independence from any kind of fashion ("I don't need you to tell me/What clothes to wear/I don't need suggestions/About my hair"). The proof of the pudding is that when Steppa Ranks and Scrap D. step in to flank his performance, they sound like no more (and no less) than Prince's minions.

I don't mean to suggest that "Chaos and Disorder" is a rap album. In the finest Prince tradition, it's a stylistic hodgepodge, with a gospel-like number ("Right the Wrong"), a couple of lovely ballads ("I Will" and "Dinner With Delores"), and plenty of snarling guitar solos. Prince appears to have remembered his mastery of the instrument, mixing two parts Hendrix with one part Steve Cropper. His stop-time fills on "Right the Wrong" are a perfect example, elegant and irresistible. Elsewhere he bounces the fuzzy texture of his guitar
off sleek keyboards or muted horns, or uses it to kick a rocking number like the title cut into high gear.

In the latter case, his crunching chords make it difficult, but not
impossible, to hear the nostalgic lines, "Intercourse/Used to mean fun...." Wait, can this be Prince talking? I mean, I know he got married a few months ago, and supposedly his wife is expecting a baby in November. But if Prince -- who has spent most of his career as a kind of trench-coated Priapus -- is giving up on sex, that doesn't bode well for the rest of us.

Never fear. "I Like It There" demonstrates that Prince's interest in physical intimacy hasn't tapered off entirely, and "Zannalee" is as lubricious as anything he's ever done. After all, the guy may have had a cage of white doves released into the air as he and his bride left the church. But when it was time to write a piece of music for the ceremony, he came up with something called "Kamasutra."

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

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