As a fan of the music of Prince Rogers Nelson for 32 years (“I Wanna Be Your Lover” was my formal introduction), I’ve read a number of books that have covered his complex and unique world, but not in a way that covers all the bases. Author Jason Draper makes an attempt at just that, and succeeds beautifully in his new book, Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution.
The book goes very deep into creating a close-to-accurate picture of who Prince is as a man and musician, from reaching into some of the troubles he dealt with as a child to bringing in the influences of his hometown of Minneapolis. This breadth helps create a metropolitan, if not Neapolitan, outlook that helped him step out of his comfort zone (at least physically) and into the hands of an industry initially unsure of what to make of him. At the height of disco in the mid to late 1970s, the music and its creators were a well-oiled machine, everything incredibly organized from start to finish, so that it would come off as flawless. When you watched bands like Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, or Brass Construction, it felt like you were watching families from lands unknown, and you wanted to join that family (or in the case of Parliament/Funkadelic, a three ring circus). While the book does touch on the fact that Prince was in bands during high school, his craft was primarily based on the fact that he did everything himself, from the singing, songwriting, and musicianship to occasional album themes and framing of the music’s perception through the front cover artwork. There was a time when true solo albums, such as Paul McCartney’s 1970 debut McCartney, was the exception. Most albums where there was one musician were either intimate acoustic pieces or freakish electronic and stereophonic bongo adventures. Draper touches on the fact that Prince was definitely a risk for any label, but when Warner Bros. looked at him, heard his music and saw potential, they would sign him. That would mark the beginning of this “strange” relationship between Prince’s music and personas, the public, and an industry that would end up changing as much as Prince’s outfits.
Prince’s music can be divided up into a number of different eras, and Draper documents them very thoroughly. It’s great to read about some of the struggles he went through to make his first albums. Warner Bros. were still a bit iffy on whether or not their new artist could pull off making an album on his own, so his 1978 debut album (For You) was assigned an executive producer (a title which basically means “supervisor”). Warner Bros. did not have to worry, and while that album did not make an immediate impact, Draper states that those who listened were wondering how it was made and were convinced he had a lot of musicians in the studio with him. That would continue with his eponymous second album (1979), which was structured a bit better and would help get him higher on the charts with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,”, and “I Feel For You,” a song which was turned into a hit five years later by soul vocalist Chaka Khan. The questioning of Prince’s talents by the industry would eventually fall to the public, especially as they would begin to see him strutting on stage with nothing on but bikini briefs and a trench coat, singing in a sweet high falsetto. Had his career crashed, he might have been ranked as a freaky Village People reject, but there was a huge difference: as raw, sexual, and uncontrolled Prince might have seen by outsiders, he was someone who was not only talented but in complete control of what he wanted to do, almost to the point of obsession, as expressed by the many musicians and music associates who have worked with him over the years. It goes through his formation as an artist who never forgot his first audiences, but found a reason to explore as his fanbase grew wider (and whiter). Was he soul? Was he funk? Was he new wave? Is he “black punk”? No one new, and even though many have asked many questions about him, it only meant people were discussing him, which allowed him to cater to his muse.
Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution also explains the impact of a fledging cable network called MTV, and while history has documented Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as being the first video by a black artist to be on the network, it is Prince’s “1999” that beat him by a month (although deep trivia buffs will also cite Musical Youth’s “Pass The Dutchie” as a possible contender). If Prince’s following had only been limited to audiences in large cities, MTV made it possible to hear him everywhere from Midlothian, Virginia, to Waianae, Hawai’i. Two years later, Purple Rain came to be, and finally made him a worldwide rock star. For a lot of casual fans who were introduced to him and his music with the 1984 album and movie, he reached success while seeming to crumble. But such a conception misses out on 27 years of an incredible discography that has had a lot of ups and downs, some of which followed some of the personal, social, and spiritual battles the artist went through in that time.
What I’ve always wanted to know about was the period post-Purple Rain, when Prince recorded some of the best work in his career, including 1985’s Around the World in a Day, 1986’s Parade, 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, and 1988’s Lovesexy. When he received the attention of the media, he became everything from the new Jimi Hendrix (when in truth he owed more to Carlos Santana) to the new Beatles. And while he could’ve repeated his own guaranteed formulas for success, he simply wanted to innovate. Draper looks at how his popularity and struggles with the industry would also create tension within the musicians who helped him in the studio and on stage, and how chasing his musical muses also meant putting his emotions on a pedestal for explanation and scrutiny,
What is also of note in this book is how Draper describes the expectations Warner Bros. had of Prince, and how he eventually became fed up to the point where he simply ignored the demands and played for (and with) himself, for better or worse. This lead to him symbolically “killing himself,” changing his name to an emblem, marking his face with the word “Slave”, and showing the world how to fight for your right to be creative. At the same time, he was one of the first artists to initially embrace the Internet as a means of music distribution, finding ways to use it as a means of promotion and as a way to make money directly as opposed to working within an industry he felt was not working for him or anyone. It is during the discussion of his career in the late 1990s that the book starts to take a more critical approach, for it was a time when Prince fans were put to the test with a wide range of projects that some felt were incredible lows. It didn’t matter that a lot of times it was Prince creating music for Prince and Prince only, but Draper gets very harsh in his criticisms. However, he never moves away from trying to describe the intent in these projects. It’s a nice, quasi-objective approach, one that is critical of the bad while trying to to find a way to find the good in it.
Outside of the music, Draper’s biography touches on Prince’s spiritual path and how that has always played a major role in his music and life, even when it has been a bit of a struggle without him being direct about it. Then again, it was Prince who did sing the lyric “everybody’s looking for the ladder,” and his career has always been about him taking himself higher, or at least going anywhere but where he had been before. The music discussion here is equally balanced with his personal life but without it turning into a tabloid piece. What will also be of interest is the talk of Prince as a businessman, doing well in some aspects but at times showing that he needed a bit of business and financial guidance that could have put him out of the music industry for good. Prince has always been at his best when he’s self-contained, but the reason the public feels that is because he allowed the public to hear and see him, the essential interactivity of an artist. But he is also at his best with the right collaborators and associates, and he has worked with the best for over 30 years. He has always played with the sly and romantic with spirituality, and how you can be serious but still retain a sense of humor.
The one thing this book is not is exploitative. Draper researched the topic extremely well, taking in quotes from various interviews and sources and compiling it in a way that will make the book appealing to new fans who have been curious about Prince but uncertain on where or how to start. You can start with Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution and go from there. The title of the book describes his music and life perfectly: the internal and social mess his career would become, and yet the innovations in his music that continue to be measured and treasured. His name is Prince, and he remains funky, but this book will make new fans and old timers want to explore and (re)discover someone who is one of the most gifted singers, songwriters, and musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries, someone of whose caliber may never be experienced again.