Retroactive Review: Chaos and Disorder (1996)

It’s steadily becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the entirety of the backstory behind these albums, as Prince’s frenetic recording process led to many cancelled albums from 1994-1997. Playtime by Versace was a completely unknown album that resurfaced in July 2017 from a RRAuction by Michael Van Huffel1, who was Prince’s art director during this time, and I mention all that to say that if he can cancel an album with a scheduled release date for the Spring of 1995 that nobody knew about, then it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out he also gave up on the idea for an acoustic-centered album titled Heart in 1994, two different live albums for 1995, a rumored early configuration of Emancipation titled New World for ’95, as well as vault-clearing collections that were also set for 1995, and finally, a multimedia project titled Happy Tears. Chaos and Disorder certainly was appropriately named, as the end of Prince’s time with Warner Bros. sounds more in-line with the implementation of a mobocracy rather than a working relationship.

When Prince ended 1995 with a one-off performance at the Paisley Park Studios soundstage on December 9th2, I’m unsure how many were expecting him to kick off 1996 with a seven-show, nearly two-week tour of Japan. I am aware that the tour was originally scheduled to begin near the end of June of ’95, but with his refusal to play any of his older hits that year, as well as the drama with the label that continued to escalate, it is surprising to discover he rescheduled, and even played some of older material during this brief tour. The first show began in Tokyo at the Nippon Budokan, almost exactly a month after his last live performance of 1995; January 8th, 1996.

The Japan ’96 tour wrapped with his performance at the Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan on January 20th, 1996, and unlike 1995, where he performed 63 times despite containing The Ultimate Live Experience tour to a single month, much like Japan ’96, he only performed sparingly throughout the remainder of this year; 25 times, and that’s including the seven-show Japan ’96 tour. Without including the Japan ’96 tour in this equation, we find that a third (six shows) of the one-offs this year were done following the Japan ’96 tour, but also before, or on the day of the release of this album, which is the case for his matinee performance for The Today Show, which aired live that day, July 9th, 1996. The performance was supposed to generate buzz for the upcoming album, as was the live performance on The Tonight Show just a week earlier, because he was never going to speak positively on the album, as even the liner notes state the material present was supposed to be for personal use only. Sonny T.’s final performance as a band member was during that performance for The Today Show, and it’s sad to know it came as a result of the changing environment Prince found himself in during this transitional period for the soon-to-be independent artist, so allow me to unpack a little information about this album and where Prince was heading after this.

I encourage readers to go back and re-read my Comereview, as the detailed recording dates for a majority of the tracks crafted during this time period are revealed and discussed in that review, but in order to live up to his contractual obligations, more recording work was needed in order to complete this album. The first six tracks of the album are all tracks that would’ve been featured on the never-realized The Dawn, excluding the lead single “Dinner with Dolores,” which was tracked the previous year for the aforementioned cancelled Playtime by Versace, but another round of one-offs would take place exclusively in Honolulu, Hawaii from February 16th until the 19th, at two different venues, the Eurasia Club and the Neal S. Blaisdell Center. This stretch of shows would puncture the recording sessions that were taking place throughout the month, and force Prince to extend the album’s recording sessions throughout March as well; ending in early April.

Rosie Gaines returned to assist with backup vocals for the remainder of the tracks that month as well, contributing to the title track, “I Rock, Therefore I Am,” “Into the Light,” “I Will,” and “Dig U Better Dead,” but she also added additional backup vocals to re-recordings of the title track, “Right the Wrong,” and “Dinner with Dolores,” which would’ve been the final recording work completed for the album. These re-recordings were ultimately not used, which almost makes the final session in April pointless, as band members Michael B. and Sonny T. were removed from the retainer by the end of the year, effectively ending this iteration of The New Power Generation. Perhaps Prince felt a new direction was needed, as he had inserted himself into more of the “band’s” day-to-day operations, going as far as making himself an unofficial member during their recording sessions at the end of ’94 for their second album, Exodus, which was available to only Europe, Australia, and Taiwan on March 27th, 1995, but it really makes one wonder when you consider the third and final New Power Generation album, Newpower Soul, was essentially a Prince solo album. To put it bluntly, Prince de-emphasized the band in order to prop up his declining popularity, and it’s exactly why the power trio of Michael B., Sonny T., and Prince make up eight of Chaos and Disorder’s 11 tracks, and it’s why a multitude of musicians, producers, and engineers were used to get this thing to the finish line.

That final recording session in April would’ve taken place in Miami, Florida at South Beach Studios, and it would’ve been where Prince completed the final mix and configuration of the album as well. Scrap D. and Steppa Ranks recorded their raps on “I Rock, Therefore I Am” at Paisley Park Studios in March, where all the tracks left to be added to the track list were recorded, once again, essentially making the final session at South Beach Studios pointless. The Hornheads also contribute to two tracks, “Right the Wrong” and “I Rock, Therefore I Am”, but unfortunately Barbarella also plays keyboards on six of these tracks, although he was assisted on keyboards by Morris Hayes this time around.

The album was ultimately mastered and turned into Warner Bros. alongside The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale, a glorified compilation of older tracks that were being handed over to the label as a metaphorical middle finger; meaning his contract then, as far as he was concerned, was up. His fifth and sixth albums of the contract were submitted simultaneously, he had secretly been recording new music the entire time that he was never going to hand over to Warner Bros., and he hadn’t made any appearances until July, which were the aforementioned performances for late-night television. Considering he would’ve been working on Emancipation well up until October 1996, and he only performed one more time until near the end of that same month, we can safely assume he was more concerned with putting the finishing touches on that album than he was with promoting something he viewed as a contractual obligation that he didn’t have to even pretend to give a shit about anymore.

What we’re left with then is a corporate mandate apathetically stitched together in order to defeat a deadline. There is effort and care put into these tracks, but it never adds up to anything greater. Chaos and Disorder is a more-than-appropriate title when you factor in the recording sessions and behind-the-scenes drama, and this time, not just with the label. A new millennium was approaching; Prince was forced to re-brand himself, but for now, he was going to make sure everyone felt his anger.

The lead single, “Dinner with Dolores,” was released to the US on June 12th, 1996, but in honor of Prince’s 38th birthday, Warner Bros. broke new ground by streaming the single online on a special website, http://www.wbr.com/chaosanddisorder, which was the first time a Prince track had ever been streamed or premiered online. The single failed to chart in the US, foreshadowing the difficulty Prince would have in topping the charts for this portion of his career, which also extends to the actual album this single was attached to as well. Chaos and Disorder was released on July 9th, 1996, debuting at its peak position on the chart at #26 on July 27th, 1996. It was off the charts by the week of August 17th, and it never even earned a gold certification. Does the album really deserve all the criticism it’s received in the years since its release though?

Yes, but only upon an immediate reaction. A more studious listen reveals an additional layer of zeal implemented into the craft, but only on the surface level. There is a heavier, rock-based sound to the album, but even though that sounds like something fans would want, there isn’t much to chew on. It’s rather straightforward in highlighting his frustrations and emotions during a difficult period in his life, and even when he isn’t phoning it in, it’s far from his most passionate work. Where The Gold Experience blended club-based hip hop and hard guitar riffs with a clean, commercially-friendly production approach, Chaos and Disorder consists of tracks that feel like leftovers from the sprawling Gold Experience, and as such, lacks the authenticity of the previous record.

For example, the opening track, the title track, was perfectly described in Rolling Stone4 as, “… wildly energetic — but also completely generic,” and I find it impossible to counter that point. It’s actually rather ironic that I find myself laughing in agreement with Prince on the chorus when he states, “I wish I had nothing to say,” because then we wouldn’t have gotten this song. It’s just so painfully uninteresting, as if he’s trying to recapture that waning grip he had on audiences even just three years prior. It’s no wonder this album didn’t even chart in the Billboard R&B charts when Prince’s devote core audience that had supported the last three albums didn’t bother to show up to stores and purchase this one.

Those same fans bought enough copies to place The Gold Experience at #2 on the R&B charts while that album peaked at #6 on the Top 200, and they were the same fans who had done the same with The Black Album and Come, placing them at #18 and #2 while those albums peaked at #47 and #15 on the Top 200 respectively. They were the main ones keeping him afloat on the charts; without them, what hope did he have commercially? It’s not like he tried to gain their support anyway, since he didn’t give a fuck about this album; I’m sure he was glad to see the fans who always supported him did their part in making sure this one flopped. Do you see why it’s so difficult to actually review this now? It’s incredibly challenging to even talk about the actual music, as it’s not something I hate enough to vehemently rant about, it’s just so bland and watered down that I feel a great indifference toward it. The title track has a case as the best song on the album, but there’s just not anything that stands out about it, and sadly enough, the lyrics sound like a man indignantly coming to terms with the fact he is letting time pass him by.

“I Like It There” begins with some amped guitar strutting that actually gives flavor to the track, especially when it’s coming immediately after the sound of a heart that stops beating in the final 11 seconds of the title track; a fitting metaphor if there ever was one. Unfortunately, the lyrics do not do the track justice, because even though the generic aggression of the instrumentation isn’t the worst composition in the world, it certainly doesn’t feel as powerful as it should due to the phoned-in vocal performance from The Purple One. There’s ironically no depth to him stating “Like an embryo baby/Don’t abort this dire need for you/All my emotional ejaculate on the floor,” and he knows it. At least on the title track Prince is yelling and screeching, it’s not until the final 25 seconds of “I Like It There” does he let loose and even then it feels like he only did to make up for the lack of energy the track carries. If there was more I could say about the track then I wouldn’t have led with the complaints I did, because there’s just nothing else to talk about beyond the fact that it’s over rather quickly.

“Dinner with Dolores” was the lead single nobody cared about, and it’s actually rather sad, as this is also a strong contender for best track on the album, as I personally enjoy it more than the title track, but it’s not something I’d place in a collection of the best Prince singles, let alone songs. It has a soulful composition, with the bass keeping a solid rhythm in between the stuttering drum fills that give the track an ebb-and-flow feel. The chorus is nonexistent, as the verses flow into each other, which along with the purposeful construction of the composition around the rhythm, gives the track an old-school soulful pop sheen that I’m certain he was aiming for. He hits the mark with the composition, and the lyrics actually make me laugh in a good way, as Prince essentially ridicules Delores5 for her slutty behavior throughout, as well as her “dancing like a white girl,” which I believe everyone recognizes as inherently goofy. We finally have an enjoyable track though, as even the brief guitar solo at the end of the track was bright and fuzzy, complimenting the tone of the instrumental incredibly well, while expertly contrasting the cynical and judgmental lyrics.

It’s a shame that more tracks on this album don’t possess the same harmonious balance between instrumentation and lyrics, as most tend to favor one side or the other, but rarely ever both. It’s what used to make Prince interesting and engaging, and so far, we just haven’t received that same level of craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from him. “The Same December” is also another strong track that has both good instrumentation and great lyrics, but the album does once again revert to insipid tracks after this one. For the moment however, sit back and enjoy the most meaningful lyrics on the album, as Prince tackles the topics of racism and division with an inspired vocal performance; almost like care and effort was put into this track!

The instrumentation is really just more of the same, as Sonny T. and Michael B. give a solid foundation for Prince’s guitar to howl across the cramped stereo space, but things get really interesting a little before the two-and-a-half minute mark, when the song appears as if it will hit its crescendo, only to slow the BPM down. The composition borders on a heavier, alternative country sound before quickly snapping back into its normal BPM, where it does then speeds up and then finally give us a resolution. It’s the best song on the album, and although it is followed by a song similar in sound and subject matter in “Right the Wrong,” it’s clear this one doesn’t possess anywhere near the same grace “The Same December” has.

Once was this ball with a line straight down the middle
One side was black and the other one white
And they both understood so little
That they spent their whole lives tryin’ to tell each other what time it was
And all along it did not matter what either said
Because, because


You only know what you know
You only see what your heart will show
You only love when your soul remembers
We all come from the same December
And in the end that’s where we’ll go
So let’s go

Those are strong, poetic lyrics that quickly describe the turmoil within all humans, and it’s refreshing to hear amongst all the uninspired trite thus far. “Dinner with Dolores” doesn’t completely elicit negativity, but when comparing that track’s lyrics to this, it’s obvious the lead single was not supposed to carry the same gravitas “The Same December” does. “Right the Wrong” attempts to continue carrying that solemnity, but is just unable to do so. Even the synthesizer work from Barbarella and Harris are severely lacking from the two previous tracks they contributed on, “Chaos and Disorder,” and “The Same December,” and those tracks don’t exactly have the most interesting synth contributions either.

The verses on “Right the Wrong” attempt to provide social commentary, and even if they are successful in painting a picture on the unfair circumstances experienced by people of Native American and African American descent, it’s still a wince-worthy delivery devoid of wit. The vocals on this track have distortion on them, but the actual audio quality of the vocals weren’t recorded cleanly, so the end result is that Prince’s vocals are too spacious with the reverb is applied, but also too grainy to enjoy. The instrumentation on the chorus is strong however, with the Hornheads popping in to fill the stereo space and strengthen the empowering arrangement. It’s just a shame that ironically, Prince himself is the issue with this track. This thread6 from long-time fan site prince.org discusses some fans thoughts on the song, and some seem to be under the impression it was one of Prince’s jokes songs he likes to record, and while this album certainly would appear to be a prime candidate for a few joke songs, I don’t actually believe that is the case this time around.

Racism is something Prince had often admonished in other songs, so on an album that’s been fairly straightforward in its approach and themes, while mixing and performing genres that Prince hadn’t typically given an album’s worth of material of, why would he then suddenly turn a song about hate crimes and people all over coming together to correct these societal issues into a joke? It just seems a little too serious to be a tongue-in-cheek type of song, and maybe that’s why the self-serious tone of the songwriting reeks of amateurish social commentary. The intent is laudable, sections of the instrumentation are engaging, such as the jazzy breakdown from 2:43 to 3:03 of the track, giving the final minute of the track another speech while the instrumentation and title is repeated throughout, and the final 30 seconds consisting of a collage of synths, horns, repeated chantings, a muffled speech, and the rhythm playing out until the final ten seconds, when all the noise around the speech and the single distorted guitar line is cut, reminding us once more to right the wrong. It does lead directly into “Zannalee,” the ensuing track, but there is great irony in one of the most guitar-heavy tracks of this guitar-led album being one of the worst on the album; all while already following up one of the weaker tracks in “Right the Wrong.”

The greater irony of all this is the fact that fans didn’t know they didn’t want a guitar-heavy Prince album until that’s exactly what we were given. Ever since “Bambi” was released in 1979, fans have been asking for a full album of Prince shredding, and until this, Purple Rain and The Gold Experience were the closest we got to that. It’s a shame he wasted his powerful guitar-playing on this album, because even though it does energize some of the more basic rhythms on the album, the riffs still somehow feel meager when reflecting briefly upon his past material. The synths from previous albums used to be tastefully textured, and yet on this album they just feel sprinkled in on the sides, as that’s been the case for “Chaos and Disorder,” “The Same December,” “Right the Wrong,” and now “Zannalee,” which doesn’t help the track sound any less like a generic blue-collar hard rock song from the late-80’s. Ironically, the guitar is too overpowered for the track, giving the bluesy, country-like arrangement a tough feel that the polish of the master neutralizes in a hilarious fashion.

I don’t know if Prince realized the overall sound of the album was going to be a major letdown, since it was unlikely to succeed regardless, but in an attempt to switch the monotony of the sound up while keeping the moniker of “rocking out,” Prince follows a heavy guitar-led track up with something that could’ve came from Come or The Love Symbol Album, “I Rock, Therefore I Am”; starring an electronic drum kit and bass, as well as mediocre synth work by Prince. If there was any other way to properly describe the lacking of “rocking,” then I would proceed to do so, but I think describing it the way i have in the previous sentence perfectly sums it up. It’s a long-drawn out track that I hesitate to call a club song since I don’t know where this would be playing that would hype people up, but that’s what it’s arrangement would suggest it be classified as. Despite Steppa Ranks’ unwelcome detour into dancehall as the track momentarily switches up to a scratching breakdown, twice, it’s the presence of the guests on here that make the track more than just forgetable background noise.

Scrap D. spits a decent 45 second verse that reeks of a stereotypical mid-90’s rapping style, which leads us into the final minute-and-some-change of the track consisting of Rosie Gaines’ wonderful gospel vocals proclaiming she rocks, therefore she is, and her vocals certainly do, as her presence is incredibly welcome on the track. I have to give Prince credit for essentially throwing this together and committing to the arrangement, even if the remaining 40 seconds is just Prince’s vocals stating “rock” panned to the background of the composition that results in the final 15 seconds being the gleaming, light synth-work fading away. It’s cheesy at times, but unmistakably Prince. It isn’t until the next track, when we return to live instrumentation, that things begin to drag.

I’m beginning to wonder if irony is one of the underlying themes of this album. It’s almost as if everything us fans thought we wanted ended up turning out to be much more difficult for Prince to capture than once believed. It’s just a thought of mine, but one worthy of stopping to consider, if only for a brief moment. It’s certainly something he could’ve spitefully slipped in though, seeing as how in my Come review I mentioned three of the tracks present here were originally tracked in 1993, with those being “Chaos and Disorder,” “Right the Wrong,” which were both tracked in late-October, near the same time as “Gold,” “319,” and “Billy Jack Bitch,” as well as “Zannalee,” which was tracked in May of 1993, around the same time “Space,” “Race,” and “Solo” were tracked. This is why I consistently stress to readers to go back and read my previous album dissertations, as they oftentimes can shed light on Prince’s motives for releasing albums the way he did.

“I Like It There” and “The Same December” were both recorded in late ’94, with “I Like It There” being a track designated to the aborted Playtime By Versace album that “Dinner with Delores” also survived the wreckage of, but seeing as how “The Same December” follows up the themes of “The Same December,” while “I Like It There” is similar in sound to the rest of this album, it’s no wonder why they were both moved to this project. “Dinner with Delores” is the odd one out in this scenario, but seeing as how Prince still needed a marketable first single, it makes perfect sense as to why it made its way to this album. Suddenly, the bigger picture is fully realized as the final puzzle pieces are put together, and you realize just how much of a corporate mandate this album is.

The final five tracks on this album are from the last recording sessions of the album; that February-April timespan touched upon in the paragraphs above. “Into the Light” follows up “I Rock, Therefore I Am” in a very discombobulated fashion; sounding like a second-rate retread of The Gold Experience‘s rocking ballads. Its paced rather quickly, almost as if he realized he needed some fluff to pad the runtime, but that only makes it all the more disappointing. It’s been rumored that “Into the Light” and “I Will,” the succeeding track, were tracked in one continuous fashion, and it does certainly sound as if that’s the case. Both songs have the same key, and largely the same instrumentation; in fact, the arrangement is largely the same between the two tracks, and it forces me to think of the two as one entity that was later separated into two different tracks, since “Into the Light” seems to represent the build-up of emotions, while “I Will” explores those feelings.

The build-up I’m referring to is the elongated intro of Prince in a flat but empty stereo space, accompanied only by piano keys as he belts freely about philosophical concepts of death, rebirth, life, and love. He was deeply inspired by Betty Eadie’s 1992 book, Embraced by the Light, in which she recounted her near-death experience. Since the song was tracked in February of ’96, it was likely that Prince met with her that month, as her recounting7 of meeting Prince at Paisley Park Studios would perfectly align with his recording sessions. Regardless, nearly a full minute passes in this sub-three minute track before the full arrangement kicks into gear, as Michael B.’s drums invigorate the composition. The synths on this track attempt to blend with the horn section, and I would’ve honestly preferred just the Hornheads instead, as the synth work adds nothing to the track.

From out of the darkness, before there was time/
There came a sound that enters the mind/
Through a door that’s deep in your soul/
Through every pore of your body it goes/
And in a light too bright to behold/
Is a truth more shiny than gold/
And as sure as this candle burns/
Every soul must return

Prince’s lyrics for both verses are inspired, and even if the track itself, much like the chorus, really amounts to nothing special, it’s over quickly enough that most people won’t question why it ends at what appears to be the beginning of the bridge. This is when “I Will” begins, and with the shift in lyrics from the metaphysical to grounded pledges of devotion, I suppose it only makes sense to break this up into two different songs, despite the obvious similarities. Perhaps pacing was an issue Prince was keeping an eye out for, but it hardly makes sense when only four other tracks on here are longer than the three minute and 37 second runtime of “I Will.” Considering “I Rock, Therefore I Am” is the longest track on here at 6:15, I can see why Prince didn’t want to follow it up with another six minute track, but when “I Will” consists of one verse that repeats the theme of dedication to a lover, I don’t see why he couldn’t just keep “I Will” as the extended instrumental portion of “Into the Light,” since I can only assume that’s what the original intent was behind the sparse, breezy, synth-laden, horn-tinged almost-instrumental was.

“Dig U Better Dead,” the penultimate track on this album, is just more phoned-in hip hop-based club music. The bass hit is what centers the arrangement, and even though I do enjoy the vocal stacking and performance on this track, it’s an incredibly lackluster instrumentation. I get the feeling this track was quickly thrown together, as the synth on this is just two notes that lazily bleep; panned behind the center of the mix where the vocals and bass are. The electronic drum kit keeps the mid-tempo track from feeling sluggish, but it’s the interesting lyrics that prevent this track from being completely skippable. The chorus seems to imply he’s taking aim at disingenuous people, and when you apply a little thought and realize this was released during the same time as his battle with the label and the media, then it becomes pretty apparent who this song is taking shots at.

In life there’s always peaks and valleys/
And if you’re lost, they won’t show you the way/
That same somebody said I’d dig you better dead/
But I’d much rather see if your God is what you say, say, say

That’s when the fade-out from “Dig U Better Dead” brings us to the final track, “Had U.” It’s interesting to point out the first track on Prince’s debut album was titled “For You,” and here we are 18 years later with him ending the last album he had any actual involvement in for WB, at least for another 18 years, with a parallel title. The instrumentation is somber, as his subdued guitar riffs set the mood, only for The Purple One to continue the mournful mood with declarations of what used to be. It’s the most obvious shot at the label, but to say he’s acting retaliatory would be unfair, as it the plain composition does come off as a dirge more than anything else. It’s over in a minute-and-a-half, paralleling the short length of “For You”; ending this high-octane, rocking album on a stretch of songs that break away from the tone set in the first half of the album and culminates with a requiem.

What we have then is an incredibly mediocre album that appears far worse than it is due to the apathetic feelings of the artist who created it had for it. Simply put, everything here is overproduced while simultaneously being conceptually undercooked. The songs don’t have the compositional care or creativity they once did; bottled up in the center of the track while (then) modern mixing processes compressed everything to professional quality. What you’re left with then are ideas that could’ve been great if they were allowed to fully develop, but executions of those ideas that render the final product rather banal; something you wouldn’t typically describe a Prince album as. Is Chaos and Disorder the worst album Prince released? Up until this point, yes, but with an uncertain future ahead of himself, he certainly had the opportunities to do much worse.

It’s difficult to call this an ending point of sorts, as Prince continued releasing music for decades after this, but in the eyes of many, he was never able to recapture the magic that had enamored us for years prior to Chaos and Disorder. Others were hopeful, waiting to see what he would release without a major label overseeing his every move, and there certainly were fans who never wavered on their fandom, even as he made the difficult decisions to become independent and attempt to go digital. It’s here then where we split up; fitting for an album titled Chaos and Disorder.

Editor’s Notes

  1. RRAuction – Past Auction Summary – Playtime by Versace
  2. Havarti – 1/18/2019 – Retroactive Review: The Gold Experience (1995)
  3. Havarti – 10/19/2018 – Retroactive Review: Come (1994)
  4. Rolling Stone – 8/22/1996 – Chaos And Disorder
  5. Rumored to be about Madonna, as the two did have a brief relationship back in 1985, and a lunch date in 1994, but some also believe it’s a subtle jab at Warner Bros., which explains why Delores’ “bell’s just-a broken since 1984”
  6. Prince.org – 5/20/2011 – right the wrong
  7. The Iconic Prince – 5/28/2017 – Prince & Embraced By The Light
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.