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The Black Album

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History

The Black Album is a Prince record that was originally planned for release in December 1987, as the follow-up to Sign o' the Times. Referred to as The Funk Bible by preceding press releases, and in a hidden message within the album itself, the work seemed to be a reaction to criticism that Prince had become too pop-oriented. The 1987 promo-only release had no printed title, artist name, production credits or photography printed; a simple black sleeve accompanied the disc. On promotional copies, only a song listing and catalog number—25677—were printed on the disc itself. The commercial version was to only have the catalog number printed in the color pink on the spine. The original compact disc pressing was made by Sony DADC rather than WEA Manufacturing. The Black Album contains eight tracks, of more darker, denser, funk-rhythm groove oriented tracks that have a more masculine, aggressive feel than is typical of a Prince album. The album also contains slowed down vocals, messages, side dialogue from "characters", and "scenes" depicted through lyrics and sound effects that are expertly integrated into the overall flow of the album.

The album was canceled mere days before its scheduled release, after hundreds of thousands of copies were pressed. A few escaped destruction, and rank among the most coveted Prince collectibles. In addition, the Black Album became the most bootlegged record of all time.[citation needed]

At the time, a rumor circulated that Warner Bros. canceled the album due to concerns about explicit lyrics. Prince, on the other hand, has said that he canceled the project after having a religious experience involving a vision. What really happened? Per Nilsen, respected author of several books on Prince, claims that Prince decided to scrap the album after an experiment with the drug MDMA (aka ecstasy) that resulted in a bad trip. Former Prince associates have confirmed the ecstasy story.[citation needed]

The Black Album was replaced with Lovesexy, an album that contained one track ("When 2 R in Love") from the Black Album. Lovesexy is a brighter pop-oriented album with elements of religious affirmation.

Just before The Black Album was released to the market, Prince recalled all copies and abandoned the entire project, leaving roughly 100 European promotional copies in circulation, and several US copies that would be widely bootlegged in the coming years. Several reasons, including speculative ones, have been given as to why the release was derailed: Prince became convinced that the album was evil or represented an ominous portent. Prince experienced a crisis of conscience and marketing identity over the eroticism and violence of its lyrics. Warner Bros. Records, his record label, reached the same conclusion. Further evidence that Prince felt The Black Album was a mistake: In his first music video for his next album, "Alphabet St.", the video can be paused after it shows him holding an umbrella and the words "Don't buy the Black Album. I'm sorry" can be read running vertically. Prince decided to scrap the album after an experiment with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) that resulted in a bad trip.[1] Former Prince associates have confirmed the Ecstasy story.[2] Immediately after the decision to pull The Black Album from stores, the album emerged on the streets in bootleg form, arguably becoming popular music's most legendary bootleg, after The Basement Tapes and Smile. Several celebrities, including U2's frontmen The Edge and Bono, cited it as one of their favorite albums of 1988 (Rolling Stone magazine celebrity poll).

The 1994 Deal

In 1994, Warner Bros. officially released the Black Album. By the time it was released by Warner Bros. legitimately in November 1994—again, containing only a track listing and a new catalog number—45793—printed onto the disc itself, the copyright date of 1994 (with the exception of “When 2 R in Love,” which was released in 1988), and only legal copy appearing on the spine—almost every dedicated Prince fan already owned an illegal copy. It was released in a strictly limited edition and deleted by Warner Bros. the following January.

Fans have speculated that this release was legitimized so that Prince could get out of his new seven-album contract with the label. While that's partially true, it isn't the full story. During 1994, Warner Bros. negotiated a deal with Prince which involved them paying $4 million upfront in exchange for the release of The Black Album in November 1994, the release of The Gold Experience in early 1995, and a soundtrack album. These three albums would count towards Prince's contract as two of the four he owed them at that point.

However, Prince canceled this deal while his attorney was on his way to Warner Bros to pick up the cheque and sign the papers. Prince's attorney advised him against canceling the deal but Prince insisted. The attorney left a week later, and this is when Prince hired his sixth lawyer since he signed with Warner Bros., then 28-year old L. Londell McMillan.

Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin were leaving Warner Bros. around that time, but still managed to secure part of the deal: they paid Prince $1 million, in exchange for an official release of The Black Album. However, the album did not count towards the seven-album contract.[1]

Track listing

All tracks written, produced, and performed by Prince.

Side 1

  1. Le Grind – 6:44
  2. Cindy C. – 6:15
  3. Dead on It – 4:37
  4. When 2 R in Love – 3:59

Side 2

  1. Bob George – 5:36
  2. Superfunkycalifragisexy – 5:55
  3. 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton – 7:01
  4. Rockhard in a Funky Place – 4:31

Also appears on Lovesexy.

Personnel

Music

Despite the mystique surrounding it, The Black Album has typically been viewed by some fans (especially new listeners) and critics as a somewhat pro forma, rushed effort by Prince, although it is treasured by aficionados of the artist's funkier side, being as close to a straight funk album as anything he had recorded. A careful study of the sound reveals that Black album contains very cohesive and creative production layers, arrangements, and effects in light of more simplistic (if not misogynistic) lyrical themes. In reality, Lovesexy was the rushed album and it's spastic hyper production sounds much less fused together despite more conceptual themes and complex lyrics. Judging from the large percentage of positive reception by fans and non fans over its bootlegs, it is arguable that "Black Album" would have been a commercial success in it's intended schedule of release.

The opening track also mentioned the title of the album as being "The Funk Bible", which was apparently dropped in practice when the (nickname?), "the Black Album" began to even be used by Prince. The title refers both to the album's all-black cover design and to Prince's attempt to earn back his credibility among the black pop audience with a release that was heavier on rhythm than its last few predecessors[citation needed] — in particular Around the World in a Day and Parade, both of which had been viewed as moves away from the funkier music he was known for on albums like 1999, Dirty Mind, and Controversy, that had once been his mainstay.

A few of the tracks were originally debuted as birthday party music for Sheila E. The album features one of the most shockingly unusual Prince songs, "Bob George", in which he assumes the identity of a cursing, gun-wielding alter ego who murders a woman and dismisses the figure of Prince as "that skinny motherfucker with the high voice" (later used as the title of an album of lo-fi Prince covers by Dump). The track is a direct answer to music critic Nelson George, who was very critical of Prince's music in the mid-1980s.[citation needed] "Bob George" features a growling monologue that is slowed down to the point of being almost unrecognizable as Prince. Some[who?] interpret the track as a commentary on the glorification of violence and misogyny inherent in the gangsta rap musical genre, which was in its infancy at the time. The voice at the end of the song that says "bizarre" is actually a stock sound from the Fairlight CMI IIx library, pitched up[citation needed].

The Black Album features unique songs such as the tongue-in-cheek, hip-hop tune "Dead on It", which directly makes the accusation that all rappers are tone-deaf and unable to sing in a nerdy "white" minneapolis accented voice that eventually becomes more soulful and boastful. The playful "Cindy C.", refers to supermodel Cindy Crawford. The rhyme at the end of Cindy C was originally written by Steve "Silk" Hurley and was included on a song titled "Music is the Key", which was previously released by Chicago house music group JM Silk, of which Hurley was the founder. Hurley would later go on to remix two of the songs from the "Gett Off" maxi-single, the Housestyle and Flutestramental versions. The album contains several instances of characters by way of either a sped up or slowed down vocal track by Prince (ones noted before were Camille tracks such as "If I Was Your Girlfriend", "U Got the Look", "Strange Relationship", and "Housequake", all originally intended for the aborted "Camille" project). One of the most interesting passages occurs halfway into "Cindy C.", where a woman can be heard in the right channel railing on Cindy for not being able to dress, dance, or even walk. The instrumental funk jam "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton" was revisited as a live song on the One Nite Alone... Live! album, but was hardly the same track. "Rockhard in a Funky Place" was originally a song for the aforementioned Camille project. After the album's fade out, dissonant feedback fades in, followed by Prince saying "What kind of fuck ending was that?" before fading out again. "When 2 R in Love" is the only ballad on the album, and although The Black Album was quickly pulled from distribution at the last minute, this song turned up on Lovesexy, released the same year. Prince performed "Bob George", parts of "When 2 R in Love", and "Superfunkycalifragisexy" on his Lovesexy tour. "When 2 R In Love" was usually part of the piano medley in Act II, whereas the other two songs were part of the Act I segment, where Prince's evil side showed through (coinciding with the idea that The Black Album was evil, hence its being pulled from release by Prince). Act II was his born-again segment, with more upbeat spiritual songs, highlighting most of the Lovesexy songs, and top 40 hits.

References

  1. More details are available in the entry for "October 25, 1994" in Uptown's "Days Of Wild" book.