Prince’s “The Black Album” Reviewed
“People get ready for the Nuevo dance,” Prince intones at the start of his bootleg album # 16th official release but as far as we’re concerned, the funkier than you want him to be album # 10, bootlegged prodigiously around the village where $25 could get your hands on the blacker than black album cover. Or maybe we mean, blacker than NWA, name checking Compton a year before NWA got around to it, and quarter of a century before Kendrick Lamar. Which is not to suggest The Black Album wasn’t well informed by hip hop even as it sneered: it was really black: r&b, funk and jazz were the lodestones for song after song, more than the funk workouts you might expect from his later work these weren’t deeper into the grooves, they were heart of darkness, polyrhythm mindfucks uber alles. If Prince had actually released The Black Album in late 1987, it would have detonated his career and left it in pieces.
The Curtis Mayfield reference to kick off “Le Grind” at the top of the album is no coincidence, Mayfield, the Isley brothers, god knows George Clinton and James Brown, Sly Stone, all the masters of r&b were musically added to the mix. as well as Miles, though maybe not Coltrane, plus skronk stuff, that No New York sound, all of it tipped into a pot and boiling up and overflowing.
But it sounds like Prince, it is minimalistic synth based polyrhythms, with Prince’s vocals fucked with sometimes beyond recognition (“Bob George” -a horrible little song), but whatever might be happening elsewhere, all of it was really great Nuevo dance: unnerving bass parts that ring against the beat where you expect the melody line to be. It is minimalistic, or maybe what I mean is the pop sound is minimalistic, the rap slap down “Down on It” sounds like a sample stretched out and snapped back in place. “I got a silly rapper talking silly shit”, Prince charms the youngster next generation. But he protests too much: Rap was enjoying a golden age in 87, what was Prince’s kick against a subgenre, still in its infancy, which loved him?
Indeed, The Black Album is so black it appears to be apologizing about something, Prince has no reason to reget: his white and black sides, when he merges them, Prince is at his best, his creative zenith. This is a great album, and following, as it does, right on the heels of Sing O’ The Time, it makes an interesting pairing head in the ring as the greatest artist of the mid-1980s.
The two tracks at the top “Le Grind” and “Cindy C.” (for Crawford, a woman I once tried to pick up at an MTV party, much to her amusement) are straight ahead funk workouts of the first order. I am not crazy about the two character studies “Dead On It” and, the yucky “Bob George”. The last three songs move from funky wildness to instrumental improve through jazz to the nth degree. These three songs sound like templates for his 90s-00s collective grooviness. But if by the time you reach Crystal Ball and Emancipation, The Black Album seems like more than just his gravitational pull, maybe his only gravitational pull. And that would include the most Princely moment, “When 2 R In Love” -which coulda come off For You… or Best of the Stylistics!
Prince recorded Black to prove he could out black the blackest, but he shelved it because he realized he had nothing to prove. And then released it in 1994 because he also had nothing to hide. I bought the boot at the time and I was disappointed, if I want funk workouts, they weren’t that hard to find. But listening today, I much much prefer it now. It hangs as the most commandingly eccentric of records, a funk work out by a pop genius so egocentric he seemed self deluded in where his skills lied. Or perhaps blinded a little.