Review Summary: Cause I'm stripped down, it's all fun and games 'til the very next day, 'til, damn, you don't remember my name.The Black Album
, sometimes referred to as The Funk Bible
, was intended to be Prince's sixteenth studio album, hot off the heels of the masterful Sign O' The Times
. It was set to release in December of 1987, the same year as Times
, but - strangely - Prince decided to pull back at the last moment days before release, and the Black Album
was shelved and canceled at Prince's request before eventually seeing a limited release in 1994. Lovesexy
would be released in The Black Album
's place a few months later in 1988, with Lovesexy's
pleasant, spiritual, poppy vibe kickstarting a crucial turning point in Prince's overall sound.
...See? You can make anything
sound simple if you trim the fat and leave out enough details. The fact of the matter is that The Black Album
has one of the strangest, most jarring and convoluted backstories associated with any one of Prince's 39 studio albums. The Black Album
wasn't just shelved because Prince wasn't pleased with the overall sound of the record - no, he once cryptically spoke of a "dark night of the soul" where everything came to a head, prompting his cancellation of the now-infamous record. He hated it so much that he put a subliminal message in his "Alphabet St." music video telling fans not to buy the damn thing. He viewed The Black Album
as evil, and - like all urban legends - the reasoning behind why depends on who you ask. Could have been his newfound, revitalized spirituality, could have been a nightmare, could have been a horrible ecstasy trip where he thought he was possessed by *Camille* of all things (one of his own alter egos), but whatever the case, The Black Album
was going nowhere fast, and its strange, spooky history and the constant flow of counterfeit pressings and circulated tapes have made it not only a vital cornerstone of Prince lore, but the stuff of pop and bootleg-music legend.
In spite of The Black Album
's infamy... if you ask me? There's very little of the "evil" that apparently shook Prince to his core present on this record. The only track on this eight-song setlist I'd say retains any strange or 'evil' qualities is "Bob George", largely because of its minimalist, dark beat, gritty instrumentation, and Prince's pitched-down vocals. That said, the unsettling nature of "Bob George" is pretty quickly undone by laughter when you actually listen to what's going on - there's a Slim Shady quality to the whole song with its "your little almond shaped head ass" lyric and a skit where the police chase down the titular character and blast at him with Fairlight gunshots. It's so ridiculous that it ceases to be unnerving and stark and loops back around to just being funny.
The point worth illustrating here is that The Black Album
is *much* more fun, lively, and silly than it is "evil", more of a funky acid trip than a swan-dive into the darkness of Prince's soul. Some of Prince's tightest and funkiest tracks are on here. "Le Grind" is a straight-up party anthem, with thick, bouncy basslines, bluesy keys, bright-faced horns, and boisterous backing vocals. The off-kilter, heavily-syncopated groove of the brisk "Cindy C" is given some deranged texture by robotic, muted synths and Latin-percussion fills, and "superfunkycalifragisexy" sounds like an unreleased cut off the Sonic CD
OST of all things, with its delirious synths, stripped-back guitar groove, and Prince's chaotic vocals dancing around a booming electric drum beat like a funky carousel. "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton" is a raw, explosive, seven-minute electro-funk jam with some crazy-good organ and bass soloing, and the pitch-altered closer "Rockhard In A Funky Place" is a swaggering, strutting blend between Parliament-Funkadelic's trippy P-funk and Frank Zappa's tongue-in-cheek, free-form rock that caps the record off on a vibrant note. Some of the sickest, stankiest grooves Prince ever made are present on this record, and it's a delight from start to finish.
The low points of The Black Album
are too minimal to really talk about ("When 2 R In Love" is a gorgeous, rain-soaked ballad, but it's stylistically out-of-place compared to the more rugged, braggadocious tracks on here), but it's worth noting that "Dead On It" was not a very good look for Prince. The whole song emanates diss-track energy, only it's a diss-track against rappers and hip-hop in general
, which was... pretty roundabout and hypocritical of Prince, given that he'd change his mind and start implementing hip-hop into his work only a couple years later, much to his detriment. Not to mention the fact that, in spite of Prince's sneering attitude towards hip-hop in this track, the beat and flow is suspiciously close to Slick Rick's legendary "La-Di-Da-Di" and Prince himself is kind of a sh*t rapper (something he'd never manage to get over).
"Too dark to sell" is a strange thing to label The Black Album
with. It could well be that the passage of time has made The Black Album
pretty tame by today's standards, and that the material on this album was downright freaky in the 80's. That had always been Prince's entire shtick, though - using controversy, sex appeal, and light shock value to market himself and his music as an edgier alternative to the overall fluff of the 80's. Regardless, something about the record shook Prince to his very core, and after The Black Album
, everything would change for him as an artist - this marked a crucial paradigm shift for Prince, and it would probably be the last time we ever heard his music get this low-down and dirty before he started losing his mind in the 90's with his well-documented, fascinating war against Warner Bros., before he started to slowly market himself as more socially acceptable and clean-cut than he was in the 80's, and before he started following musical trends instead of largely ignoring them. It's amazing how, intentionally or otherwise, the cancellation of The Black Album
acted as sort of a junction switch for Prince's career. Every single thing about the history surrounding this record is fascinating... and yet, at its core, it's nothing more than just a forty-five minute blast of fun, riotous funk with sounds and experiments that only sound strange if you don't know a thing about Prince and his works. Still, whatever the case? This was the end of Prince as we knew him, and the birth of a brand-new Prince, one that would struggle with corporate warfare, personal tragedy, and the fight to retain his musical identity and momentum for years to come.