TBT: Prince – The Black Album

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

Running down vertically on a luminescent green silhouette of Prince, this message appears in a flash about 24 seconds into the video for “Alphabet street” and if you blinked, you missed it. It’s one of several hidden messages, including “heaven is so beautiful,” “4 the light dance,” and apparently loads more which didn’t make it to the final edit according to the editor, Peter D.Beyt. “Don’t buy the Black Album, I’m sorry,” however is probably the most cryptic of them all and incredibly well hidden compared to those other messages. 

Released in 1988 as the first single from the incomparable “Lovesexy” and only a year after Prince’s chart-topping LP a “Sign o’ the Times” few people would’ve even known what the Black Album was back then. The album never saw the light of day, with almost all 500 000 copies of the original pressing destroyed, but today it lives on in infamy, locked in a story of intrigue and mysticism, pieced together from unsubstantiated claims and a lot of conjecture, with a few unsolicited copies floating around the marketplace.

Many consider this album one of Prince’s greatest achievements, a bold claim and most likely in light of the fact that it’s been a white whale for many record collectors over the years. A Canadian pressing of the LP sold for $27 500 in 2018 and even bootleg versions can fetch 4 digits on the market today, but it’s significance is about more than just that.

It’s down to exclusivity, yes, but it’s also rooted in the story around its creation and its ultimate demise. It’s a story about drugs, gangster rap, the parental advisory board, a label and an artist at the peak of his creativity. It could’ve been the best LP he ever released, but we’ll never know for sure, since it’s been enshrined in some mythic lore, perpetuated by collectors and vinyl enthusiasts alike and revolving around a hollywood like tale that starts at Paisley Park.  

A Bad Trip

On the eve of the album’s release, Karen Krattinger, the production manager at Paisley Park Studios received a telephone call. It was Prince telling her to halt the shipment of 500 000 copies of the record sitting on a pallet somewhere at Warner Bros records. “We’ve got to stop this album, it’s so evil” he reportedly told Krattinger who in turn pleaded with the label and the shipment was destroyed.

Prince came to the conclusion that the album was “evil” after what he would later refer to in interviews as a “dark night of the soul.” The night in question? According to some unconfirmed reports, Prince had been out at a local nightclub, to test out some of the tracks from the LP. Poet, Ingrid Chavez, had apparently bumped into Prince in the audience and followed him back to Paisley Park, where it soon became clear that the artist was more impish than usual and clearly in the midst of a bad drug addled trip. Chavez had told Prince “If you smiled, you’d be a nice person” and upon seeing his unseemly gurning reflection in the glossy cover of the “Black Album,” he apparently had the epiphany that the album was evil and should be destroyed.  

Prince would also later say “I was very angry a lot of the time back then, and that was reflected in that album. I suddenly realised that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind… I didn’t want that angry bitter thing to be the last thing.” 

This is the story as told by keyboardist Matt Fink, who heard it first hand from the bodyguard so none of it’s ever really been verified. It’s more likely that it’s a litany of a few factors that include label pressure, timing and of course the content of the record that brought Prince to his conclusion and why he pulled the plug on the “Black Album”. What ever happened to that copy he had seen his reflection, is anybody’s guess, but what’s sure is that 500 000 copies of the LP had been ordered to be destroyed, lost forever save for a few copies that fell through the cracks and set  a whole bootleg culture in motion, which forced Prince to release that message on the Alphabet street video.    

While it might have been a “bad trip” that influenced Prince’s decision to finally pull the LP, there is a lot to suggest Prince was no stranger to the drug experience during the recording of the LP. “Superfunkycalifragisexy,” the first track to be recorded in 1986 is a track about ecstasy, which in 1986 was starting to infiltrate club floors around the US. “If you do too much, your skin will be sensitive to touch / The first person that touch you, you’ll wanna fuck,” he sings over the second verse in one of two tracks on the LP that also references squirrel meat (a confusing eighties term foir MDMA apparently) and the character of Maurice – who some believe might have been Prince’s brother in law and assumed drug dealer Maurice PhIllips.

Was this whole album perhaps a drug experience captured in music?

The Hip Hop Connection

“Superfunkycalifragisexy” consists primarily of a Linn Drum kick and snare, a low slung bass and stabbing atonal synths that make up the bulk of the stark repetitive arrangement. It’s an arrangement that would stay mostly consistent throughout the LP, making the “Black Album” one of Prince’s most  machine heavy LPs ever recorded. A lot of the tracks even seem to take their cues from the Hip Hop of that era in fact. 

To understand the significance of this, you have to remember that Prince was incredibly critical of Hip Hop at that time, often very outspoken about the kind of gangster lifestyle they “promoted” through lyrics about violence. Even so Hip Hop would be a constant reference on this record, especially on “Bob George” where Prince is said to evoke the character of Spooky Electric, with lyrics about a gun-wielding psychopath that shoots his lover. “Bob George” is considered to be an amalgamation created from “Bob Cavallo and Nelson George”; Prince’s former manager and a music critic respectively, and the track goes on to be self-referential, calling Prince “That skinny motherfucker with the high voice.”

Prince’s voice is pitched down in a register below, giving the voice an ominous growl as he raps over a pounding drum machine. In an interview with Sheila E (former girlfriend and Paisley Park artist) she said that; “he couldn’t sleep at night thinking about 10-year-old kids believing, ‘This is what Prince is about – guns and violence.’” And with this track, “Dead On It,” and “2 nigs united for West Compton,” making blatant references to the glorification of the gangster rap “lifestyle,” it’s believed that Prince most likely didn’t want to expound on the hype.

It wasn’t the first time he had broached themes of gun violence, and only the year before it made a prominent reference in the title single for “Sign O the times” too, so the validity of this claim does come into question somewhat. What is clear however is that Prince was clearly highly aware of what was happening in Hip Hop at that time, and had clearly borrowed something from what was still an emerging genre at that time. If the “Black Album” was released as scheduled it would’ve most likely been the first charting LP, that would utilize the sounds and working processes of drum machines and synthesisers so extensively, leap-frogging N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” by a full year. It somehow preceded gangster rap, with the very same musical tropes that would eventually inform much of the music; a very significant aspect considering that besides perhaps for Schoolly D’s first proto efforts, the genre hadn’t even been invented yet. 

Perhaps it was exactly the fact that gangster rap hadn’t fallen in cross-hairs of the authorities, that Prince also pulled the plug for fear of punitive measures from the powers that be.

The provocative imp

By 1986 a new censorship body called the Parental Advisory board had been established in America and Prince was no stranger to their conservative influence on music. It was in fact his 1984 song “Darling Nikky” that had been the reason for the creation of the Parental Advisory Board and those parental advisory stickers that anybody that bought a Hip Hop record in the nineties would remember. He clearly would’ve been at loggerheads again with the censorship body for a track like “Bob George,” but also for the more sexually charged moments on the LP like “Cindy C.”

“Cindy C,”in case it wasn’t obvious is a kind of perverted love poem from Prince to Cindy Crawford, who Prince had been infatuated with at the time. “Oooh Cindy C, will you play with me? / I’ll pay the usual fee” likens the eighties super model to a prostitute while also referring to her as a super-fine-heifer at some point. The lyrics are quite ridiculous in fact, and it makes you wonder if Prince had ever talked to human woman before, but there’s no doubt the fantastically pervy “Your furry melting thing waits me” would’ve certainly raised a few eyebrows on the parental advisory board, as would have much of the album.

Even “When 2 R In Love,” which would in fact be released later on “Lovesexy” was certainly not free from Prince’s particular brand of provocative perversions, especially in the third verse when he sings: “Their bodies shiver at the mere contemplation / Of penetration (let alone the act) / Let alone the actual act / When two are in love / The thought of his tongue in the V of her love / In his mind, this thought it leads the pack.” That track, which is about the erotic possibilities of taking a bath with a lover, a theme he would revisit a lot in his work (I kid you not), alongside “Cindy C”, and all the drug related and violent themes Prince would resurrect in his music, would certainly have been a headache for Prince and the label at that time.

If it was released in 1987, and especially considering the fairly recent development of the  parental advisory board, it would have certainly not seen the light of day without huge protest from the censorship board. It’s very likely even it would’ve been banned. The fact that it was officially released in 1994, off the back off albums like Madonna’s Erotica and his own “Come”  would also suggests that perhaps even Prince thought it might still be too provocative for audiences in 1987. If not for its lyrical content then also for the music. 

The third eye

“Serve it up, Frankie” goes the intro to “2 nigs united 4 west compton” before descending down a lysergic rabbit hole of funk and jazz, sans any appearance of a vocal. Besides the reference to club music and Frankie Knuckles in the opening line, the track breaks with anything Prince had been doing around that time. The structure almost feels improvised as he seems to channel the fury of the likes  of Parliament Funkadelic in that track with stabs and horns combining in a maelstrøm of an irreverent funked up cacophony. Like much of the album, it’s quite different from the type of music he was making at that point. 

The left field nature of the tracks and the prominence of drum machines and the stark synth programming that dominates the LP are more comparable to what was happening in the underground with Hip Hop and House music music at that time, than the two LPs that bookended it. Much of the songs are just one verse taking over from the next, with a bridge at the most, and from “Le Grind” right through to “Rock Hard in a Funky place” the Black Album contains some of the most unusual phrasing and melodic treatment in Prince’s entire discography, including his more jazzy albums from the late 2000’s. 

There’s not much in the way of a memorable hook or an impressionable refrain, and certainly nothing like “Sign o’ the Times” or “Alphabet Street” on the LP, beckoning the question again how much the drugs played a role in this albums creation, but also was this not perhaps Prince’s most experimental album ever? Regardless, it seems quite poignant today, not only for the relationship to Prince’s music but the musical zeitgeist of the time too. It stands out amongst the rest of the Prince catalogue and in many ways it was way ahead of its time.

This is part of the reason why the album lives on infamy today, and why it’s such a white whale for collectors amongst the myriad of other reasons that delayed its eventual release. It’s easy to enshrine the LP in the mythic lore of a drug-addled epiphany, but it’s it quite likely that it was this and all these other factors would influence the decision to shelve the release until 1994. Today it’s a classic amongst heads and collectors, and not just for its exclusivity (although you can stream it on Tidal and YouTube) but for the latent obscure significance it would have on Prince’s discography. 

He would never make music like this again and would always downplay its significance, but that would only encourage the allure of the Black Album. Many of the more eclectic and knowledgeable DJs today will have a digital copy of “Bob George” somewhere, and while the audience might recognise it as music from a familiar artist, few would place a finger on that record, and that’s why it still garners fascination and interest from heads and collectors alike.

The lyrical content, the production, the significance of the period and the strange story around the LP has taken on some reverential undertones in vinyl culture, but it has lived on beyond Discogs hype today and it has made an unexpected invaluable contribution to modern music history.