Vinyl Gazing: Prince – The Black Album

Prince – The Black Album
Bootleg: 1987

The story of Prince’s Black Album can sometimes overshadow its content. In the wake of the artist’s monolithic and essential Sign O’ the Times, Prince recorded an album that many have seen as a response to his own national popularity, an appeal back to the African-American audience that gave him his start before he became the most talented crossover pop-musician of his generation. The album would be a reevaluation of his funk roots, returning to the fun and ecstatic sounds of Rick James, the Isley Brothers, and Parliament.

Suddenly and without explanation, however, Prince refused to release the album, with rumors of religious and commercial reasons spreading in its wake. The album was widely bootlegged on vinyl before its official release seven years later in 1994. Thus, the album is both a treasure and a divisive set argued more among diehard fans rather than music critics. The consensus is mostly scattered on its importance. The Black Album is almost definitely Prince’s funkiest album, complete with loads of bass and kick drums filling in basically every necessary hole. It’s funky image, however, comes at the expense of a certain amount of creativity. Many of its songs are simply very funky updates of much more characteristic earlier cuts. “Le Grind”, for example, can be easily seen as a bass-heavy derivative of the much more exhilarating “Housequake” from SOtT.

Many seem to forget, however, that two songs on the album are incredibly-enigmatic time capsules both of Prince’s career and the late ‘80s culture that he struggled to please. The song “Dead On It” is basically a rap track, dissing Brooklyn musicians for lacking in lyricism and copping his production style. To some extent, he’s right. Most mind-boggling, however, is “Bob George”, a song featuring heavily distorted vocals from Prince himself.

The monologue is a warped portrait of a bitter and violent man who repeatedly spits the line “ain’t that a bitch”. At first, it could seem like a parody of the gangsta rap of the late ‘80s, at least until you remember that Straight Outta Compton came out a full year later, leaving you to speculate on Prince’s knowledge of Schoolly D. Further listening, however, shows the track to be much less of a satire than a very immersive character portrait, a very fun one at that, as if we needed more evidence that Prince was one of the most creative and prolific musicians of the 20th century.

Note: Prince is a notorious anti-internet advocate, so it makes a lot of sense that basically none of his songs are available on Youtube in their original form. They are available, however, while a girl mugs for the camera and mouths the lyrics. Enjoy.

Colin Small explores old genres and revisits somewhat forgotten favorites through his ever-expanding vinyl record collection.


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