Back in 1987, after being stunned by the ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ video on Top Of The Pops, I started my passion for all things Prince. The stark message and images of the track, coupled with this very stripped back sound had me captivated. Sure, I’d heard ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Kiss’ etc. but mostly as passing pop moments as is usual of a 13-14 year old whose listen of choice at that time was mostly ‘Mod’- 60’s classics by Small faces, The Kinks, The Who, various 60’s compilations and later new wave ‘Mod’ stuff- The Jam and Purple Hearts being my two faves.
‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ being a double album, was too expensive for me at the time, so my first album was a budget cassette of ‘Dirty Mind’ on one side and ‘Controversy’ on the other. Both of these albums certainly had their ‘controversial’ elements- particularly in ‘Head’ and ‘Sister’, nothing like sex and swearing in songs to titillate a 15 year old boy! (especially then- remember Cameo’s Red Jockstrap caused a fuss and straight talkin-this-is-how-it-is-on-the-streets was still VERY underground, apart from Beastie Boys, whom I’d lapped up the previous year)
‘The Black Album’ was due to be released in December 87, but was withdrawn a week before, the details at the time largely passed me by, I wasn’t completely obsessed yet. A new album was to be released the following Spring- just in time for my birthday- I could wait.
What did happen though, was some copies did remain ‘out there’, and these would be copied and passed on as bootlegs- this was a new concept for me, so quite exciting. Indeed, my mate Ade did manage to get a cassette bootleg of the album, so I borrowed it and copied it for myself on the best tape I could afford (TDK SA90, I think, I’ll update if I can find it!). The album also only had a track listing and catalogue number, the withdrawn uk catalogue number was WX147- so I gave it the catalogue number WX147C (for cassette).
A very different Prince was found on this album. Reports, initially, that it wasn’t a commercial ounding album, I can understand- it isn’t. The title ‘Black Album’ not only refers to the (proposed) Plain black sleeve, but also it’s content has a much ‘blacker’ sound- doing quite well out of the MTV generation by crossing over from his black roots playing largely ‘white’ rock fusing the two into THAT Minneapolis sound, Prince had been criticised for leaving his roots behind.
We start with ‘Le Grind’ a dirty sounding party funk workout- we are also informed that what we are listening to is ‘The Funk Bible’, which was a name also used to describe the album before its release. Generally being encouraged to dance, clap and grind, the track sets the feel for the whole album. In ‘Cindy C’ (referencing model and girlfriend Cindy Crawford) is a plea for our protagonist to meet and spend the night with Cindy (he’ll even pay), one of those songs that you could only imagine Prince making (the guy smashes all rules so often- genius and unique) it finishes with the rap from Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s ‘Music Is The Key’- fantastic.
Ironically, the next track is all about ‘dissing’ Rappers and MC’s being tone deaf “pack the house, then try to sing, there wont be no one left”, the track also has a very ‘dead’ beat, essentially it’s prince rapping, and not really saying anything either, so his comment that “ the only good rapper is one that is dead on it” I think is referring to rappers who actually SAY something Chuck D, for example and against that don’t- Vanilla Ice etc.
“When 2 R In Love” is the only slow track on the album, also the only one to talk about love as opposed to lust and sex. It was the only track to be formally released on another album the follow up, ‘Lovesexy’.
The albums two (in my opinion) stand out tracks are what follows. In ‘Bob George’ we get a psycho who confronts his girlfriend(?) about seeing another man- a guy, Bob, who manages rock stars, Prince- “that skinny motherfucker with the high voice” (Bob George is thought to be a combination of former manager Bob Cavallo and writer Nelson George, who would criticise Prince.) He pulls a gun on her, and gets her to put on a wig for him, the Police turn up and he tries to contact Bob by telephone. Prince’s vocals are slowed down to be almost unrecognisable- a stark contrast to his Camille sped up vocals- more of which in a bit. All in all an excellent if very odd track. It was also performed on the Lovesexy Tour- it was quite a moment when I saw him play it live- knowing that it wasn’t a widely available track, and only known by the hardcore fans, one felt part of an exclusive club- indeed my mate with whom I went, could hardly clap in time with excitement!
The fantastically titled ‘Superfunkycalifragisexy’ was also performed on the tour. This track is a real gem- and seems to be about taking an aphrodisiac of squirrelled meat (whatever that is!) getting all horny, tieing folk up, scaring them, then turning them on and then not knowing what the hell is going on the next day. Brilliantly weird stuff all set to a pace that just drags you along with it, great vocal delivery too.
The program for the tour featured the story of how Camille succeeds in a battle with Spooky Electric- what we can gather here is that Camille is ‘good/light/love’ whereas Spooky Electric is ‘evil/dark/hate’, and given the feel of both ‘The Black Album’ and ‘Lovesexy’- it is pretty obvious that this story is the official Prince version of why ‘The Black Album’ was withdrawn.
It’s this stuff that makes Prince what he is-‘outside’ of the music machine, he does his own thing- he is pretty Punk in his approach, I think, he doesn’t mind trying new ideas, he likes to do stuff ‘His’ way, his stance on youtube videos and the like is a bit daft, and doesn’t really do him many favours, but generally I like his innovativeness.
‘2 Nigs United 4 West Compton’ is jazz-funk workout with fantastic organ work from Matt ‘Dr’ Fink, an instrumental piece it showcases the individual artists skills, the drum and bass breakdown from Sheila E and Levi Seacer Jr in the middle is heavenly.
The album finishes with ‘Rockhard In A funky Place’, this double entendre of a track was leftover from the aborted ‘Camille’ album after the bonkers craziness of ‘2 Nigs…’, it almost seems out-of-place, but to end with a proper ‘song’ is a good place to finish.
When I finally purchased a vinyl bootleg of the album- trying to find one of a suitable quality was quite hard going, many were very ‘muddy’ sounding, often if you looked at the grooves, it would appear like one continuous track, I found one which had separate tracks visible, which I’d thought at least meant some extra care was made in ‘mastering’ the bootleg- the copy I got had also included ‘In All My Dreams’ and ‘Old Friends For Sale’ which were culled from the ‘Parade’ demos set often referred to as ‘Charade’, which made for a nice bonus (although I had already got ‘Charade’, incidentally there is an excellent recent ‘low generation’ and remastered bootleg of ‘Charade’ circulating- get it).
Despite the official Lovesexy Camille V’s Spooky Electric version of the non-release, I think the reason is far more straight forward- it doesn’t quite hold together as a finished Prince album. Lovesexy was released in May 88, just 6 months after pulling ‘The Black Album’. Aswell as ‘When 2 R In Love’ it also contains excerpts from the aborted ‘Crystal Ball’ album (mostly the segues, introductions and incidental parts), it flows much better, is no less weird (‘Eye No’, a version of sorts of ‘Crystal Ball’s ‘The Ball’ is another Prince-can-only-do-this track) features a classic single in ‘Alphabet Street’ (the video of which has a ‘don’t buy the Black Album’ message), an overlooked classic in ‘I Wish U Heaven’ (the 3 part 12 minute, 12” is a beauty) and finishes well with ‘Positivity’.
It did get a limited release in 1994- thought at the time that the release would count towards Prince’s contract with Warner Brothers as a ‘release’ to bring an end to his contract with them. It didn’t. Prince changed his name to THAT symbol and wrote ‘SLAVE’ on his face- folk thought he was mad, I thought it was genius- can’t write a contract if the symbol can’t be pronounced, or written or typed, right?
Spotify doesn’t have The Black Album, but here is a playlist which I hope compliments this piece.