Purple Spring Review: The Black Album (1994)
Written by Alexius
Those troublesome rock musicians cause me no end of pain. I will release them when they are ready. In the meantime, they are feasting on hell’s finest cuisine, or at least the best of what I could hunt up in the last few hours. Raw meat isn’t to everyone’s taste, so I let them cook it. Too merciful? Perhaps. But we want to get this one well and out of the way. We’re well into this marathon of Prince reviews, and this might be one of the more intriguing works yet.
Prince’s musical style had been evolving since the early 1980s in a more pop-friendly direction. This is not to say that the music had grown less complex or more accessible–the weirdness of Parade and the cacophonous menagerie of Sign ‘O’ The Times are enough evidence to refute that–but the palette of sounds had grown away from straight synthesizer and drum-machine funk and toward more lush, expansive sounds.
This had led Prince and some others to worry that he was becoming too distanced from his core black audience. Originally intended for release in December of 1987, only a few months after Sign ‘O’ The Times dropped, the untitled slab you see above was shelved for seven years, leaked to all the hardcore fans, and finally released in 1994. It acquired an aura of mystique and mystery. Long period without a release plus completely black album cover with no credits equals a recipe for intrigue. If people know about something and can’t have it, God help the one who wants to keep it from them. The most likely story behind its long sojourn in limbo was that Prince had experimented with ecstasy and had a nightmarish trip.
Since I wasn’t too interested in music during the period this album was sitting on the shelf, I have no stories about feverishly anticipating the release of The Black Album, gnawing on my toenails and combing conventions for bootlegs. Considering the reach of the Internet and its tendency to dispel the power of the unknown, the gap between finding that this album existed and listening to it was a few days at most. That said, I was excited to see what a post-Purple Rain Prince would do with a project that had been feted as The Funk Bible before its first scheduled release date.
What does he do? What, indeed? Retreating wholesale from the overgrown wildness of his last few records, Prince tones down the rock bombast and plugs back into sickly addictive grooves. He opens with “Le Grind,” dispensing with any intros or sermons. A hard-hitting bass groove dominates the low end and Prince celebrates physical activity like few can. The track is an extended one, lasting over six minutes, and it makes the most of it. Piano riffs scatter for cover under the weight of the groove. The lyrics fall mostly along these lines:
Welcome to the Funk Bible
The new testament
People get ready, nouveau dance here
All the girls and all the boys
Get close, have no fear, (have no fear)
We’re gonna do le grind y’all
Once we’ve been properly introduced to The Black Album, we can get acquainted with its stark sonic landscape. The land is dotted with slick odes to supermodels (“Cindy C.”), a somewhat tepid, though still soulful, ballad (“When 2 R In Love”), and far more impressive funk workouts. Eminently danceable and relatively straightforward in comparison to Purple Rain and Parade, The Black Album is still no regression. While it does retreat from the eclecticism of those albums, the sound is still full of surprises and at times breathtakingly tight in the rhythm section. Especially recommended is “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton,” which coils and winds for seven minutes, keeping active and leaving the unprepared listener with an elevated heart rate.
Would I have been disappointed with this in 1987 had it been released and had I been possessed of any money? That’s a silly question, but I might have been. Listening today, however, what I hear is Prince creating inspired music. It’s less ambitious in some ways than its immediate predecessors, and it lacks the sheer scope of his best work, but The Black Album is 45 minutes of weaponized funk that never fails to feel dynamic and fresh. That’s enough, really.