While The Black Album was not officially released until 1994, and even then perhaps only so Prince could collect a million dollar check from Warner Bros., it was originally scheduled for December of 1987—just nine months after Sign O’ the Times.1 I feel like placing the record in order of its creation, not its release, will serve our Project best.
The album may be best known for its backstory. Prince insisted the “evil” album be pulled a week before its release, even apologizing for the album’s existence in his video for “Alphabet St.,” the first single off his next album.2 I got a cassette of it from a fellow Prince obsessive, but by then had already fallen in love with Lovesexy, and was disappointed at first.3 I grew more fond of The Black Album over time, but it has never been a regular in my Prince rotation. My first question, then, as I sat down to listen to it in sequence, was just how well it would hold up?
Pretty well, as it turns out. It’s a more minor work, after the sprawling brilliance of Sign, but I suspect that was by design. It’s a darker, more focused sound—there are only eight tracks, and each individual track feels more concentrated in a single flavor than most of the songs on Sign. What it most sounds like is a conscious effort to create something different, the same way Around the World in a Day sounds so deliberately different from Purple Rain. What it doesn’t sound is particularly evil—it’s too full of humor and knowing winks.
The album kicks off with a couple of straight funk numbers, each stretching out for more than six relentless minutes. They’re both strong, especially ”Le Grind,” whose horns and gang background vocals create the image of a raucous party band, with enough moving bits of melody to keep things interesting. These opening tracks feel like a throwback to the 1999 era vibe, but with a harder edge.4 The rest of the first side, though, feels under-baked. “Dead On It” has nice driving kick pattern, and a super funky rhythm guitar, but if Prince was attempting to defuse any criticism he got from the rap world by rapping better than them, it certainly didn’t work; in fact, it may be the worst song on any Prince album from the Eighties. And while the earnest “When 2 R In Love” will find a home on the next album, it sounds very out of place here.
Side Two, however, is a delight. “Bob George” should be Exhibit A if Prince is ever put on trial for not having a sense of humor, if nothing else for referring to himself as “That skinny motherfucker with the high voice.”5 Over a slow, menacing groove, an ultra-processed Prince assumes the role a jealous narrator, threatening his girlfriend and Bob George, some “rich motherfucker” he suspects her of seeing on the side. The whole thing is, as one review put it, “a mess,” but also “riotously entertaining.”6 Prince clearly saw that entertainment value, including the song in the setlist for the Lovesexy tour. Check out his outfit for the live performance in today’s video pick, with bonus points for his Elton John-ish glasses. After that we get two more long dance grooves. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is similar approach to “Le Grind” and “Cindy C.,” but even better, and “ 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” was recorded as a live jam, with some fab drums by Sheila E.7 There’s more humor in the chaotic intro (if nothing else, listen to Prince whine, “I want you to meet some friends of mine. No, no, you’ll like them—they’re musicians”), followed by a lively six minutes that is that rarest of creatures, a jam that is almost as much fun to listen to as it must have been to play. After those first three cuts “Rockhard in a Funky Place” could have felt like a bit of a letdown as a closer, but a playful Camille vocal, and a super cool horn arrangement, pushes it over the finish line for me.
And then it’s over. This may be the weakest record of that that Purple Golden Age, from 1982-1988, but it’s still a ride worth taking. It’s a shorter and simpler ride this time, but you still get some super solid grooves, lots of interesting melodies, a few good laughs, and, most importantly, a sense that he got something out of his system.
1 There are lots of articles about the fate of the album; for a decent overview see: https://albumism.com/features/prince-the-black-album-turns-25-anniversary-retrospective#:~:text=When%20all%20is%20said%20and,uneven%2C%20even%20a%20little%20unfocused
2 Nice screen shot here, if you don’t want to watch the entire video: https://vocal.media/beat/a-secret-message-in-prince-s-alphabet-street-video
3 Pretty sure it was Jim Small. Thanks, Jim!
4 Another 1999 similarity: almost all the songs begin with a drum pattern.
5 I’m also fond of this line: “B-O-B, spell the shit backwards, what’d it say/Same motherfuckin’ shit.”
7 Seems like she also came up with the title: https://www.princevault.com/index.php?title=2_Nigs_United_4_West_Compton