In 1987, Prince was at his commercial and a critical high. Although he disbanded his much-loved band, The Revolution, he ended up releasing the expansive, double-album, Sign O’ the Times, which boasted a minimalistic sound. It was his peak to some; others didn’t like his overtures to pop music with songs like “U Got the Look” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” both of which were bigger hits on the US Hot 100 than the R&B charts. Little did anyone know that Prince was concurrently working on the tracks that would comprise his funkiest yet most conflicted album in his oeuvre.
Most of the Black Album was recorded from October 1986 to March 1987. Like Sign O’ the Times, Prince did most of the playing with help from longtime associates Sheila E., Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss. That said, the star of this album is Prince and the starker parts of his personality–and that’s what makes it so interesting and truthful.
“Le Grind” and “Cindy C.” (about the supermodel Cindy Crawford) are effortlessly freaky, great polyrhythmic exercises. Those tracks, like the oddly melodic “Superfunkycalifragisexy,” all sound a bit ahead of their time–and not in the least pop-ish as a lot of his work of the time was.
While it’s still difficult to see what Prince was truly spooked about with this effort, one song does bring that premise into focus. The eerie and hilarious “Bob George” might have proven problematic with its distorted groove, and Prince’s vocal is markedly slowed down to the point of being almost unrecognizable. Despite the great guitar work, “Rockhard In a Funky Place” is probably just for devotees only. “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton” is an instrumental jam with old-timey underpinnings and an unfortunate title.
For the man who brought the world the teeth-rotting cuteness of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” there certainly isn’t much romance on The Black Album. The only thing resembling it is the so-so “When 2 R In Love,” and it all but turns to goo in such hard-edged company.
In December 1987, The Black Album was released as a promo and was withdrawn a week later. Even at the outset, this didn’t seem to be a work Prince was proud of. The original album art was all black, the only identifying factor was the songlist and Prince’s publishing company, Controversy Music. By 1988, with the Black Album going by way of the Edsel, Prince had moved on to Lovesexy. In a still frame of the “Alphabet St.” video Prince gave his fans a message that stated, “Please don’t buy the Black Album, I’m sorry.” Fans weren’t sorry and they continued to buy the Black Album, which had already taken on legendary status as a bootleg all over the world.
In May 1988, Lovesexy was released and in a way it seemed the antithesis of The Black Album, for better or worse. “When 2 R In Love” also made an appearance on Lovesexy. When it came time for the Lovesexy Tour, Prince stopped shying away from the Black Album songs like they were contagion and actually put “Bob George” and “Superfunkycalifragisexy” in the setlist. Around the same time, however, Prince was still haunted by it and blamed it on one of his alter-egos, Spooky Electric. To many that was a bigger transgression than whatever was on the Black Album.
In the intervening years between releases, Prince worked on albums like Batman, Graffiti Bridge, The Love Symbol Album and Come with varied results. Songs like “Get Off” and “My Name is Prince” seemed to have the dark energy like the best of the Black Album.
By the early ’90s Prince seemed to be having problems with his label Warner Bros., generally acted a bit odd during this time and ended up releasing efforts just to satisfy his contract. The Black Album was again released in November 1994 (this time as The Legendary Black Album) and the world was shocked all over again. When Warner Bros. said it was a limited edition, they weren’t kidding–the album was off the shelves by January 1995. Despite its quick withdrawal and eventual brief re-release, The Black Album looms large in Prince’s catalogue. Although Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times are two of his most acclaimed efforts, The Black Album might be even more interesting.
Jason Elias is a music journalist and a pop culture historian.