Prince – The Black Album (1987/1994)

“Don’t buy The Black Album, I’m sorry.”

With those deeply apologetic words, Prince attempted to erase a year’s worth of dark, humorous, overtly sexual funk jams intended as an olive branch to his hardcore fans. Or possibly a middle finger to his detractors. Communicated via hidden message in the “Alphabet St.” video, it was clear. Quit seeking out and buying bootleg copies of this unnamed Paisley Park album with a simple black cover and buy my new album, Lovesexy. It’s about God and stuff. Not creepily obsessive sexual feelings towards supermodels, club culture (e.g., drugs + sex), violent fantasies, and boner jokes. So ignore this dope-ass record I made and buy my latest release instead.

Hardly anyone listened to Prince’s please because The Black Album remained one of the most widely bootlegged and sought-after “lost” albums in the history of modern music. If you want to know more about the theories behind The Black Album’s genesis and abrupt pull from Warner Bros. release schedule in December of 1987, I recommend Matt Thorne’s Prince: The Man and His Music and Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert’s The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. I’m sure there are other fantastic books by amazing authors that also cover this period, but these are two I have personally read and can vouch for. 

Once it was finally released in 1994, The Black Album’s mystique had worn off some. It was still being touted as “legendary” by Warner Bros. to hype up its official, Prince sanctioned release, but the musical landscape had changed so much in those seven years. Rap, a genre still burgeoning on the mainstream pop charts in 1987, had taken over by 1994. Even within the framework of R&B and Pop music, Hip-Hop aesthetics and style had penetrated these long-standing genres. Rock music had also changed fundamentally since 1987. Gone were the cock-rock, hair-metal bands, while grunge and alternative rock were in favor. How did this affect Prince? He was incorporating hip-hop elements into his music (Diamonds & PearlsLove Symbol albums), clearly embracing the genre in a way that was opposed to his initial thoughts communicated on this album’s “Dead On It.” Dropping this album in 1994 while Nas’s Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle were some of the top albums of the past 12 months only reinforced the “dated” sound this record had.

Placing The Black Album in its proper context, post Sign o’ the Times, pre-Lovesexy, it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, the music here sounds like a natural progression from point A to point B. I don’t believe we get Lovesexy without The Black Album, so I firmly believe that despite its “official” 1994 release date, this is a 1987 album, through and through.

“Welcome to the Funk Bible. The New Testament.”

Eight tracks, 45 minutes – no frills, just raw, dirty funk. You may consider The Black Album a proper album in the sense that Prince created all of these songs with a single theme in mind, to funk your socks off. You might have the opinion that it’s simply a collection of raw, dirty dance tracks Prince was working on in late ’86/early ’87 that had the same general theme, with the obvious exception of “When 2 R In Love.” Whichever camp you belong to, I don’t think anyone can deny that “Le Grind” is a great opener. It has a nearly hidden message in the intro, and it demands that you learn yet another new dance to participate in the party atmosphere the song creates. All indicators that you are listening to something nouveau. There are many lyrics here to parse through, so people get ready!

“Super-fine heifer, I saw you in the Vogue. I knew you would be trouble, from word go.” 

Prince’s neurosis put to a club groove, that’s one way to describe “Cindy C,” one of the more bizarre songs on The Black Album. As a man who has dated extremely attractive women throughout his life, something about Cindy Crawford must have sent him into a spiral. Who knows which encounter with her he might have had in the mid-’80s that led to the creation of this song, Rhonda and I speculate on a couple, but the song he created, as a result, is certainly unique. Just like the man who wrote it.

“My bed’s a coffin, Dracula ain’t got shit on me.”

I guess there is some debate as to whether “Dead On It” is either a tribute to early rap or a diss track. I don’t exactly see how it can be interpreted as an homage, considering the scathing lyrical content. Still, I will concede that Prince understood the potential importance of rap music enough to include one on this project, even if it was lampooning the genre. I’m not sure he could foresee just how prevalent hip-hop would be on the pop charts a mere ten or so years later, but it has undoubtedly overtaken rock as the most popular style of music in the world. “Dead On It” may sound like a relic in the 21st century because that’s precisely what it is. A relic from a time when hip-hop was something that not everyone understood and accepted, including Prince.

“When 2 R In Love” is the next track on the album, but I am saving coverage of the song until the Lovesexy record. This was the only song “saved” from this project to be placed on another album, and Lovesexy was technically the next official Prince release, so I felt it best to save the lyrical deep dive for that record. 

“Why can’t we just dance? Why can’t we just dance?”

The craziest song of Prince’s career up to this point (“Sister” would still get a lot of votes), “Bob George” is one of those tracks that you play for people who know “Kiss,” “Purple Rain,” and “Raspberry Beret” to send them into a spiral of confusion. It’s violent, misogynistic, and frankly, hilarious; it worked amazingly well to represent “bad-Prince” during act 1 of the Lovesexy tour. An unreleased song used as a touring centerpiece, Prince knew bootlegging was a thing and winked at this knowledge while flashing his little gun.

“This beat is on time, refined, and designed to make you do the do.”

Between the obsessive behavior found on “Cindy C,” the rap-diss that may rub some the wrong way on “Dead On It,” or a super-darkly humorous tale of jealousy and murder on “Bob George,” Prince had plenty of reasons to consider The Black Album too evil to release. Here’s exhibit D for your consideration. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” is essentially a tale of a drug-fueled night of horny energy put to music. Detractors might consider the song glorifying party-drugs (e.g., Ecstacy) to stimulate the senses and enhance libidos. Fans of the song love to get down to the funk-groove and chicken-scratch guitar. Grab some squirrel meat and dance!

“You’ll like them, they’re musicians.”

Another (almost) instrumental that I’m still covering for my show about lyrics, I still get a kick out of talking about all Prince songs, including “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton.” Lyrical content to dissect gives me more focus, but I can still find a way to fill out 30 minutes or more, especially when I have a guest! Hopefully, you find some value in our discussion for this song and any future instrumentals to come! This one’s a straight-up banger, made for moving butts and feet.

“Something near your leg is haunting you, such a disgrace.”

Prince finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to keeping his boner under control. At least, that is how we interpreted the lyrics to this album closer. Prince uses his Camille persona for this track, and it fits in quite nicely with the vibe of other Camille songs such as “Shockadelica” and “Feel U Up.” Good thing you can’t see me blushing on a podcast as I talk about this song!

Memory Bank Withdrawal

With no singles and no re-release as of this writing, this CD is the only physical copy of anything Black Album-related that I own.

One of the things I tried to do with the podcast episodes I recorded for The Black Album was capture my guest’s stories. When they first heard it and managed to get a copy of the album and all of the trials and tribulations involved. Why was this important for me to capture? Because I don’t have a Black Album story myself. I was not part of the release-withdrawal hype in late 1987, early 1988. I didn’t know this album existed until several years later, so I didn’t know what I was missing until it showed up in stores in late 1994. I remember seeing copies of the CD in my local mall store in the college town I was attending school. “The Legendary Black Album – Limited Edition” was how it was being marketed and sold. I was intrigued and needed to hear it for myself.

I wasn’t blown away when I listened at the time, but it’s an album that has grown on me over the decades. I genuinely enjoy all of the songs, except for “Dead On It,” which I hated then and still mostly dislike now. For years, I dismissed The Black Album as that record with the shitty rap-diss song. It’s funny how the opinion of one song can incorrectly frame my view of a project. I’ve since come back to the Black Album many times over the years, and I now consider it one of Prince’s better overall records. Yes, some of the lyrics may cause one to cringe here and there, but it’s not quite enough to keep me from enjoying an album that Prince never wanted us to hear.

My order of preference of The Black Album tracks from most favorite to least favorite with my personal ratings next to them.

  1. Bob George 5/5
  2. Superfunkycalifragisexy 4.5/5
  3. Rockhard In a Funky Place 4/5
  4. Cindy C 4/5
  5. Le Grind 4/5
  6. When 2 R In Love 4/5
  7. 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton 4/5
  8. Dead On It 2.5/5

Overall Score: 4/5

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Press Rewind – Prince Lyrics Podcast: The Black Album

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