BY DAVID E. THIGPEN
In the 1980s Prince -- yes, he now goes by an incomprehensible glyph, but we're old-fashioned -- became a huge star by ingeniously weaving together two powerful strands of pop music: the guitar-based rock of Jimi Hendrix and the rhythm-heavy funk of George Clinton. With a great gift for melody and a protean instrumental talent, Prince released such commercial and artistic triumphs as Purple Rain and Sign o' the Times. In his persona, meanwhile, he presented himself as a sort of pansexual sprite. Tiny, mascara wearing, lubricious, he gave erotically charged performances and bestowed on his records titles like Lovesexy.
It comes as a great surprise, then, to finally hear the mysterious Black Album. In 1987 Prince ordered all the copies of the record destroyed just before they were to be shipped. It has now been released, and listening to it one learns that it was Prince -- of all people -- who anticipated the decidedly unlovesexy anger and violence in the gangster rap of the 1990s.
Extremely prolific, Prince would like to make three or four records each year, but his label, Warner Records, wants only one a year from him. Out of pique, he has decided to fulfill his contract by dipping into his backlog of 500 songs. Black Album is the first of these releases, and it covers the same ground that multiplatinum rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre explored years after it was recorded. Densely rhythmic and riddled with violent imagery, obscenities and the sound of gunshots, the Black Album is a bleak tour through an American ghetto of fractured homes and misogynistic, rootless young men -- a Clockwork Orange-style landscape ruled by drug dealers and petty hoods. Two of its songs, Le Grind and Dead on It, are explicit, sometimes monotonous odes not to sexual pleasure but to sexual conquest. On Bob George, a well-armed drug dealer kills his girlfriend after learning she's cheating on him ("I'm the one who pays the bills," he says), then holes up in his apartment and shoots it out with the police. The album is not relentlessly dark, however. When 2 Are In Love ranks among the most gorgeous love songs Prince has ever written.
Rumors spread in 1987 that the Black Album was kept from release because it was too raunchy and violent for radio (true) and the distributor was squeamish about its content (probably also true). But the real reason for holding the record back, Prince later told some of his friends, was that after finishing it he had a dream in which he experienced a religious vision. "It was like a born-again thing," recalls a close associate. "He felt this music was way too dark and said if he died, he didn't want this being the last thing representing him." So instead, Prince released Lovesexy, a sin-and-redemption song cycle in which he placed God and sex on equal footing.
Since then Prince's career has faltered, and the '90s have been unkind to him. His risque sexuality no longer shocks pop sensibilities. His last album was a flop, and his decision to change his name has been greeted with snickers. The Black Album is far too stark and angry to restore him to his previous place on the charts -- no one buys a Prince record for scenes of social decay -- and it is not of the same quality as his best work. Nevertheless, it is a rich and complex record by one of pop's most talented, multifarious performers. And the CD may sell better now than it would have in 1987. In those days listeners probably wouldn't have known what to make of its bitter outlook; today it is almost conventional. Seven years is a couple of generations in pop music, and at his best, Prince has always been that far ahead of his time.
FADE TO 'BLACK'
Review by David Browne
The tapes started circulating almost immediately. It was the end of 1987, and Prince, then at the peak of his powers, had recorded an album supposedly so dark, lurid, and expletive-drenched that it would be sold with an all-black cover. But it never appeared. Two rumors surfaced: Either his label, Warner Bros., got nervous and shelved it (which Warner denies), or Prince had a dream in which God told him it was too offbeat to unleash on the public and Prince complied. A few months later, a rock-critic friend gave me a copy, which turned out to be a fuzzy, muffled dub of a dub of a dub. Of course, that only added to the mystique. What could be heard through the audio murk were layers of back-alley funk sleaze, the occasional line like "I just hate to see an erection go to waste," and a riveting song called "Bob George," in which Prince distorted his voice and seemed to be verbally abusing a woman (a prostitute?) over a Eurotrash beat.
Now, seven years later, The Black Album (Warner Bros.), one of pop's legendary unheard (and much bootlegged) albums, is finally being released. (For the moment, anyway, is disassociating himself from it and is only making it available for two months.) Releasing such a bound-to-be-discussed item certainly can't hurt, since Prince's latest album, Come, has become one of the biggest duds of his career. But now we face the tough questions: Does the album live up to its legend, and exactly how risque is it in 1994?
Hearing a clean, first-generation copy, it first becomes obvious that The Black Album isn't that dark. For all its mysterioso qualities, it's essentially party music. Sure, there are some expletives and references to a "bitch" and "ho." But the songs are mostly jumping-bean jams for Prince and his band, which at the time included percussionist Sheila E. The joint themes of spirituality and the flesh would be explored in a more complex way on his next album, Lovesexy. For Prince, The Black Album was merely a funky little strut, as when he salivates over a well-known fashion model in "Cindy C." ("Where'd you get that beauty mark?/You and I should be undressing") or leads the band through the cracking-whip rhythms of "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton." The one exception is the cushiony ballad "When 2 R in Love," the only song here that was eventually released (on Lovesexy).
But playtime is really all the songs are about; in fact, most of them aren't really songs, just jigsaw-puzzle jams. There's nothing wrong with funking out with your band, but in retrospect, this tendency to leave tight songwriting in the dust was the blueprint for most of Prince's lackluster music to follow. In that sense, The Black Album may well have been the beginning of the end. The sexual side of his music is here, too, but it's mostly goofy and one-dimensional, without the religious conflicts that gave his earlier come-ons their depth and shadings.
In the pre-gangsta days of 1987, The Black Album was jarring, but now that our ears have become jaded -- at times liberated -- it sounds downright average. (And how ironic is it that Prince mocks rap in the sarcastic "Dead On It" yet later used the genre to bolster his own music?) At least time hasn't diminished "Bob George," an experiment that's spooky, scary, and funny, sometimes all at once. The beat is stark, chilling; Prince, playing someone who sounds like a crackhead coming down from a high, barks out complaints and accuses his girlfriend of sleeping with Prince's manager ("Prince? That skinny motherf---er with the high voice? Please!"). Guns go off, the police arrive, and he shoots at them too. "Bob George" unmasks the black-humored side of Prince we rarely see, while the rest of the album shows what he would become-a fast-talking jive machine content to ride a groove. Hearing the now-modest Black Album all these years later, part of me wished it had remained a salacious mystery. B
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
Tuesday, November 22, 1994
BLAST FROM THE PAST
By Jim Walsh, Pop Music Critic
Recorded in 1987, "The Black Album" was never released because Prince felt its tone was too dark. He pulled it from distribution at the last minute, but not before Warner Bros. had manufactured copies. Since its cancellation, the 10-song work has become one of the most widely bootlegged albums ever, rivaled only by another boot-turned-official release, Bob Dylan and the Band's 1975 "The Basement Tapes."
According to Musician magazine, more than 250,000 copies of "The Black Album" have been sold in CD and vinyl form, which doesn't include cassette duplications that have moved through the underground bootleg pipeline. Some copies have fetched as much as $1,000. The official version of the disc will be available today - Jan. 28 only and will feature all 10 original tracks and the original artwork.
But the timing of the release is curious, since Warners and Prince currently are arguing over the release of his new album, "The Gold Experience," which has been debut - ready for several months.
So what's going on?
"We are accommodating the artist's wishes," says Warners publicist Bob Merlis.
And why release it now?
Merlis says, "He signed an agreement to let us do it. We've wanted to put it out for years. We pressed the album in 1987 and destroyed vast quantities of it. If we didn't want to put it out, why did we make so many? The artist decided he would rather not have it on the market at that time."
That's still the case, according to Karen Lee, Prince's spokeswoman.
"He's thoroughly p----- off about it," Lee says. "He had to sign an agreement - I can't go into why - but contractually, he didn't have a choice.
"He feels like he wrote that album when he was a different person. He was angry, and it wasn't music he ever wanted to get out. How can you tell him, as an artist, what to do with his music? He's like, 'I'm in a whole different space now, the world is in a different space; the contribution I want to make doesn't sound like that.' And here we are back in the record-company politics again, and he doesn't have a choice."
The odd thing is, relatively dark though the tone of "The Black Album" may be, Prince was a happy camper when he recorded it in the fall of 1987.
"Paisley Park was freshly open, and much of the bulk of 'The Black Album' was among his first work done there," says Alan Leeds, the former Paisley Park vice president who was Prince's tour manager at the time.
"Actually, 'The Black Album' began with some tracks that he cut specifically as party music for a birthday party that he was throwing for Sheila E. Some of that album was designed as party music, which may or may not mean that he had ideas of ever releasing it. So there was nothing really dark going on in his life; the album started out as very innocuous dance music for a girlfriend, and his dream building, his facility and his company, was growing by leaps and bounds."
Leeds says that part of the impetus of the album was in reaction to hip-hop and to criticism that Prince had sold out the black elements of his music. After pulling "The Black Album," Prince opted to record "Lovesexy," a much more sanguine pop record.
"It was inspired directly by this epiphany that he went through that dictated to him to cancel 'Black Album' and do something that he felt was more uplifting and responsible," says Leeds. "He had some kind of a spiritual awakening that dictated it. Some voice told him, 'Don't release that record.' The only thing he ever said to me was that if something happened to him, that would be the last statement he made to the public, and he didn't want that to be how he was remembered.
"So, to everybody's chagrin who worked at Warner Bros. and had the thing on the loading dock, it was stopped. Now the true story is that he did make the decision; Warners had nothing to do with stopping the record. It was his sole decision to stop it, and copies were literally on the loading dock, pulled back and destroyed."
From what Lee says, that's exactly what Prince would like to see done this time around. In fact, he may have foreseen this day coming, for various liner notes and tour programs since 1987 have contained the message: "Don't buy the black album." Told that Prince is upset about the release of the record, Merlis said, "All I can tell you is that Oct. 25, he signed an agreement letting us put it out."
Some Prince watchers have speculated that the release of "The Black Album" will go toward fulfilling his Warner Bros. contract, which he has been trying to get out of; neither Lee, Merlis, nor Leeds could confirm that. Prince declined to be interviewed.
"Before they agreed to release 'The Black Album,' he owed four albums, and he still owes four albums," says Lee.
Politics aside, "The Black Album" is a worthwhile musical artifact for any Prince fan: "Le Grind" and "Cindy C." (a paean to then-fledgling model Cindy Crawford) are bubbly dance workouts; "When 2 R in Love" is a romantic ballad that finally surfaced on "Lovesexy"; and "Old Friends for Sale" is a brooding ballad that explores the ramifications of the glamorous life. Today, the harder bits of "The Black Album" may sound dated, but the disc as a whole is nonetheless illuminating; a frozen moment that bridges the gap between the fading new-wave pop of the day and the burgeoning gangsta rap of the future.
"It will be really interesting to see if the climate is receptive to it," Leeds says. "I've got a feeling that they're three years late on this.
"So I don't know what they're gonna accomplish, other than everybody'll make a little cash. Not that that's bad. It's good music, and it deserves to be out there. I was very disappointed, actually, when it was canceled, because I thought it was a fun album. I don't think it's as profound as legend has it. In the long run, I don't think when somebody judges his career 20 years from now, they're going to say that that was an absolute high point. But it's a cool record. Legend made it more important than it is."
Correction: Friday, November 25, 1994
A story in Tuesday Showtime included incorrect information about Prince's "The Black Album." The song "Old Friends For Sale" was featured as an addition to some bootleg versions of "The Black Album," but is not on the official version released this week by Warner Bros.
DETROIT FREE PRESS
Sunday, November 20, 1994
LEGENDARY 'BLACK ALBUM' IS JUST A LITTLE TIMEWORN
GARY GRAFF Free Press Music Writer
Back when Prince was big, "The Black Album" was the stuff of legend -- as much a mystery as the talented but enigmatic musician who created it.
The album was set for release in December 1987. Early word trumpeted its explicit sexual content, said to be beyond even Prince's blatant standards. It was going to be one of the first albums to carry the new Parental Advisory stickers.
With Prince still a hot commodity -- "The Black Album's" predecessor, "Sign O' the Times," was a critical and commercial smash -- the buzz was immense.
Then Prince pulled the album, which will finally see limited release on Tuesday. Saying he regretted placing sex above love and spirituality, Prince consigned "The Black Album" (Warner Bros.) to oblivion. It was the most famous unreleased album since the Beach Boys' "Smile." Because some copies sneaked out, particularly in Europe, it became a heavily bootlegged and collectible piece; original copies fetched up to $11,000, while countless bootleg editions surfaced in short order.
Only one "Black Album" song, "When 2 R in Love," has been on another Prince album, 1988's "Lovesexy."
Of course, Prince's fortunes have dwindled significantly since then. His record sales have decreased with each subsequent release, and his latest, "Come," was an artistically uninspired work.
His decision to drop his name in favor of a symbol that mixes the icons for male and female has rendered Prince something of a joke, and he's feuding with his label, Warner Bros., over the release of his next album, "The Gold Experience."
So finally putting out "The Black Album" could be an effort to rekindle Prince's career and put a little sizzle into what's become a yawn. He's only getting minimal mileage out of it, though. As per Prince's wishes, the album will be available only until Jan. 27.
Its graphics are nondescript, a Spinal Tap black cover with no liner notes -- not even Prince's name or an album title on the spine of the cassette or CD box. Only a sticker on the front will identify it.
More damning is just how dated "The Black Album" sounds. With its spare arrangements and medium-fi technology, it has the ambience of an unfinished demo recording, with none of the snap and polish of Prince's usual work. The assortment of 13- letter words and sexual colloquialisms might have caused a stir in 1987, but nowadays -- in the wake of grunge, gangsta rap and death metal -- the lyrics here seem decidedly PG-13.
And a track like "Dead on It," a snooty dismissal of rap music ("See, the rappers' problems usually stem from being tone deaf") now seems particularly unenlightened.
Which is not to say "The Black Album" lacks compelling material. "Cindy C" is a bawdy come-on to model and MTV hostess Cindy Crawford. "Le Grind," "Superfunkycalifragisexy" and "Rockhard in a Funky Place" have merit on the dance floor, while the instrumental "2 Nigs United for West Compton" is a jam that shows off Prince's estimable musical skills.
Then there's "Bob George," a tongue-in-cheek gangster fantasy that's profane, misogynist and violent, just barely saved by its self-effacing humor; at one juncture, Prince asks a cheating girlfriend "What's he do for a living?/Manage rock stars?/ Who?/Prince?!/Ain't that a (ahem)!"
At this late date, however, "The Black Album" is little more than an interesting period piece that makes all of the excitement of 1987 seem curious. It's nice to have the album to complete collections, but its time has clearly passed.
This is complicated. Attempting to follow Sign O' The Times, Prince recorded two LPs, one by his angelic side-Camille-the other by his diabolic alter-ego, Spooky Electric. The former produced Lovesexy, the latter Black Album; then he dropped the darker record. Its appearance now, seven years later, is, presumably, part of Prince attempt to work his ticket off WEA. It's a marvelous Prince album, alarmingly ahead of its time. Here is the basis of much of the recent Prince & the New Power Generation oeuvre; Rockhard In A Funky Place and Supercalifragicsexy are basic pneumatic funk workouts, while Le Grind and Nigs United 4 West Compton are sweary/grunty sheet-wetters. But the standout track -- until now, the great missing Prince song -- is the claustrophobic, sadistic, bleakly humorous Bob George. Of all the things he's done, Prince has rarely scared; Bob George changes that. For anyone who's ever had any interest in the strange little fellow, Black Album is a near essential requisite.
PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
Friday, November 25, 1994
'BLACK' IS GOLDEN FOR PURPLE ONE
by Jonathan Takiff, Daily News Staff Writer
Just before its scheduled debut in December 1987, Prince suddenly decided to cancel his new album release. It was a time of heavy censorship agitation against pop music, and evidently Prince (or his advisers) didn't want to supply more fuel for the fire with this patently sexy set, which was never officially titled but known by its monochrome, type-free cover as "The Black Album."
Prince paid off Warner Brothers to have all 400,000 copies of the initial pressing destroyed. Yet a few copies escaped and fell into the wrong (or right) hands. Almost overnight, "The Black Album" became, according to Prince's label, the most bootlegged album in history.
As well it should have. The set is one of the hardest, funkiest works Prince has ever cranked out. Its eight solid jams hark stylistically to the scorched scorings of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, tip a hat to the hip-hop community and allude to the progressive jazz-rock horn charts of Frank Zappa. And like Zappa, Prince boldly mixed the musically sacred with the lyrically profane.
The electro-percolating "Le Grind" is a definition of dirty dancing that leaves nothing to the imagination. "Up and down, up and down like a pony would," pants our boy.
Elsewhere, Prince espouses the aphrodisiac powers of squirrel meat (who knew?) in "Superfunkacalafrajasexy" and encourages guys to excite the sisters by licking on their knees (who knew that was a hot spot?) in the rapping, rapturous "On It."
The bold one begs a beauty mark-festooned model named "Cindy C." to let him "see you in your birthday suit tonight." Look out, Richard Gere!
The set also is home to the Prince concert favorite "When 2 R N Love," a pretty ballad that encourages romantics "nothing's forbidden and nothing's taboo."
Designed to spark even more controversy was a hard-bitten gangsta rap called "Bob," in which Prince processes his voice to sound like Barry White, and plays the ugly part of a gun-wielding, chauvinist pig.
I could do without the last track. But the rest are a kick and a half. And the double good news, as you may have guessed already, is that you finally can hear this music officially. Prince and Warners have struck a unique deal to issue "The Black Album" for a limited, two-month span, commencing this week and ending Jan. 27. So if you want it, come and get it fast.
Amusingly, Warner Bros. is offering "amnesty" to buyers of the bootleg. The first 1,000 felons who turn in their "naughty, counterfeit" copies will receive a new official CD or cassette copy. To participate, send your contraband album to Amnesty Offer, Warner Bros. Records, Box 6868, Burbank, Calif. 91505.