Retroactive Review: The Black Album (1994)

Context is everything, so when this record was released as a contractual obligation just 14 weeks after Come, we should have foreseen the dark days ahead. Peaking at #47 on the Top 200, it was Prince’s lowest-selling album since Dirty Mind stalled out at #43 on the same list 14 years prior. Where that album was a young man discovering himself and his sound, this album is a 36-year-old industry veteran rereleasing older material that by ’94, sounded like he was trying to inject stale synths into decent instrumentation. That’s not to discredit this album, as I actually really enjoy the instrumentation on this album, but when his publicist at the time, Michael Pagnotta, announced that Prince was still spiritually against releasing the album, and was then later revealed this album was only finally given the green light by Prince for a $1,000,000 check from the incredibly persistent Warner Bros. executives1, it left a bad taste in many fans mouths. A deal was being done between Prince and the label on October 25th, 1994, while Come was plummeting down the charts, as it was at the #145 position on the Top 200 that week, only to fall to #160 the following week. It was completely off the charts by November, and that’s where this October meeting comes into play.

Warner Bros., and Prince’s mangers before that, had often complained about Prince’s penchant for saturating the market with material, but since Come had been a relative failure even without the high-profile public disputes that were to come, they had to recoup some sales. A $4 million check for the release of three albums fell through, but he was able to secure that one million dollar check by green lighting the release of this album, and it really makes me wonder what the hell Warner Bros. was thinking. This album has the unfortunate legacy now of being released seven years too late, as the more aggressive hip hop music of the mid-’90s was leagues ahead of whatever was being cooked up in the late ’80s, when Public Enemy, Rakim, KRS-One, and other, more conscious MC’s ruled the genre. Gangsta rap was in, as was grunge, so to say that angsty teens were overlooking this “legendary” album that was already being labeled as “the most bootlegged album of all time,” is an understatement.

I’ve covered the initial construction and back story to this album in my Lovesexy review, and even mentioned how WB initially planned to include the album on their proposed 1991 greatest hits package in my Come review, so there’s not much more history to cover. There was no tour, no singles, one video, which was a simple lyric video for “When 2 R in Love,” and the album didn’t even sell enough to earn a gold certification. The album was only released on vinyl in Germany, unless you wanted a limited, special-colored version of the LP, which was only available in the U.S. Worldwide CD sales were in vogue by 1994, and the only market that was buying them was the R&B crowd, as Come reached the #2 spot on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums, and this album even peaked at #18 on that same list. Both of them were in that chart for 13 weeks, so in other words, Come passed the baton to The Black Album so that WB could capitalize on a half-year’s worth of Prince material that could remain relevant in the charts, even if only for a specific niche.

“Le Grind” is WB’s obvious prognostic to continue pandering to that crowd, as the track’s layered synths and simple backbeat fill up a majority of the stereo space, while the vocals have this peculiar positioning above the instrumentation; where the horns swell. It’s an incredibly funky groove that features a plethora of background vocalists, including Prince himself, teasing at the overpowering wall of sound on the back half of the track. Piano keys flutter in and out in the background, and the synths drop for a second to allow a funky guitar line to poke through the mix momentarily, so the instrumentation is not compromised entirely of just synth work that was looped, but instead, artfully weaved into the backbeat with the idea of incorporating other instruments into the mix. It’s so catchy it makes you want to shout “grind” at strangers in public, but sadly the track isn’t perfect, as the engineering work done on a large majority of the tracks here aren’t up to par, and I honestly wonder if any sort of additional production work was done on these tracks before the album’s actual release. That’s not to say “Le Grind” is a bad track, because the uptempo pop-funk workout is most certainly not, but the engineering decisions made on this album are obnoxiously apparent in the segue between “Le Grind,” a track that is already a little too quiet for my own personal liking, and “Cindy C.,” which is unforgivably mixed and mastered at such a low level that I had to double the volume just to hear the track as well as the previous one.

The backbeat is just a simple heavy snare and bass drum, just like “Le Grind,” but this time it’s the center of the mix, and it makes the whole effort feel rather lazy; even if the actual instrumentation is rather playful and interesting. Prince’s beautiful falsetto sounds angelic against the synth bass and understated horns, an incredibly nice touch when contrasted with the thick and creamy synths that give off a retro sci-fi feeling. The instrumentation swells, and the synths flutter in the background as the track goes on a two-minute breakdown to end the track; a Prince trademark. His low tone compliments the bitter background female vocals provided by his closest female associates of that era, and Cat’s jacked rap that was removed from “Positivity” is unearthed in its original version on the final 36 seconds. The rapping is typical of Prince’s female associates during that time, as it sounds just like Sheila E.’s rap from “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” so it doesn’t really add much to the album other than Prince proving he was capable of incorporating hip hop into his wheelhouse without feeding into the mainstream sound.

“Dead on It” does exactly what Cat’s rap at the end of “Cindy C.” meant to do the opposite of, mostly due to the fact that’s primarily a parody of early hip hop. Since this track was made during hip hop’s first wave of burgeoning popularity, it’s exactly why the album getting an actual release seven years after the fact is so disappointing. If it wasn’t meant to be, then it wasn’t meant to be, and despite the fact that the instrumentation actually sounds like it could pass as an actual beat from the era, due to the sample collage that most beats were back then, the song itself isn’t so great. It’s Prince’s excuse to provide a rocking beat with a solid bass foundation, and letting the heavily reverberated snares and deep bass drums create an undeniably tight groove, making it easier for you to take him as a joke when he accuses rappers of being “tone-deaf,” and generally just ragging on emcee’s as nothing more than failed musicians essentially. It’s not too great of a track, but it’s funky, and worthy of a chuckle; demonstrating The Purple One did at least understand the production tropes of early hip hop, if nothing else. “When 2 R in Love” follows this up, and it’s rather odd to see this on The Black Album, even more odd when you realize it was originally intended to be on this all along, but I’ve already covered this track in my Lovesexy review, so I won’t waste much more time.

Including “When 2 R in Love” as the side-ender was a questionable decision to be sure, but the ballad’s deep bass drum doesn’t feel so out-of-place after listening to “Dead on It,” which, of course, hinted at the rhythmic direction he would undergo with Lovesexy upon cancelling this album. This first side to the “funk bible” is rather lackluster, and as I’ve reiterated throughout in this review, I’ve already mentioned in previous reviews that he likely already knew that back in 1987. “Le Grind” is fantastic, “When 2 R in Love” is a pretty good ballad, and the other two tracks are enjoyable enough, but releasing this would have most definitely snapped that vaunted run of albums he released throughout the ’80s. It’s unfortunate that this is the reality of the album, because I myself do enjoy most elements present on this record, but the hype surrounding it was always going to outshine the actual music. There’s simply just not enough conceptual framework surrounding the record, or interesting and innovative compositions within the tracks, and Prince, at least in his heyday, prided himself on doing exactly that.

You can argue Prince actually attempted to incorporate an overarching thematic element on the second side of this album, but this is still a collection of tracks recorded in the same loosely defined time span as each other. Don’t be fooled, these are just an assortment of jams masquerading as a thematic bridge from the rapper-hating, funk-influenced first side of pop music, to the extended “ghetto” funk jams of the second side. If that works for you, then that’s wonderful, as I’ve already stated I do enjoy this album, but when I am forced to critically compare it with his other work, then it just doesn’t hold up as well as other albums. Of all his work, this is probably the most decisive. There’s a popular train of thought that the album was released too late, and one that states it was never going to be that great to begin with; both of which I subscribe to. That doesn’t mean I would place the album incredibly low in Prince’s overall discography ranking, as many publications would2, but there’s certainly no way I could comfortably place it in my top ten either, as other publications feel comfortable in doing3.

“Bob George” is perhaps the goofiest song The Purple One ever tracked, and I feel robbed of my time after listening to this track open the second side of the album. It’s Prince using a voice changer to make himself appear as an older pimp, and the sparse instrumentation is so boring that his rambling had to be compensated with heavily reverberated snares, destructive inner city sound effects, and a badass distorted guitar line to fill the stereo space. The constant cussing is just a novelty, and after hearing the song for the first time in your life, you’ll wish he had just kept the voice off the track, and kept it for the live shows of The Lovesexy Tour only. I suppose it creates an interesting dynamic between Prince and what could be interpreted as his darker side, or his critique on glamorizing the ghetto lifestyle, but it’s really nothing to go on when “Superfunkycalifragisexy” has nothing to do with “Bob George” in the slightest.

The uptempo drum fills and quick guitar licks create an uptempo club-type of composition, complete with a chanting chorus, effectively predating the early ’90s style of club tracks that he effortlessly incorporated into his sound when new jack swing crossed over into contemporary club music. This track still possesses that vintage Prince feel, despite the fast “rapping” on the track, as his legendary Lovesexy Band is present on this album, and helped craft an inviting atmosphere for you to groove to. That feeling continues on “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton,” which begins with Prince pleading to his “love” that she’ll love meeting his new friends, as they’re musicians. A full funk breakdown then ensues for seven minutes, and there’s really nothing to say, as Prince fully embraces a blend of jazz, funk, and pop in the ever-changing instrumentation that diehard fans and music lovers should absolutely enjoy, but something that someone with a more contemporary taste would understandably skip. The horns, drums, and bass are all deep and funky, while the synths permeate in the back of the mix like electric pulses; breaking down into distorted sound clips during the final breakdown of the track.

“Rockhard in a Funky Place” swings along with a clunky snare to create a throwback rhythm more in-line with the ’70s, but the horns could have been cut or used only in certain increments, like when holding their sustained notes for segments. The guitar solo was more welcome than the goofy horns, as the soft voice of the Camille persona, and the additional background vocals, contrasted greatly with the tough groove, which complimented the guitar well; fittingly ending the album with a sexy lick after the initial fade of the track. It would appear to be a more standard affair, and the track itself isn’t anything to get too worked up over, but I rather enjoy the track myself, and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. The track continues doing what many tracks on this album have done, just done better; successfully blending together several sounds and styles of music into one amalgamation that can only be defined as “Prince.” He does that here, as this track, and to be fair, a few others on this album, do certainly still fit comfortably within the R&B genre at the time, despite the fact that this album, once again, should have been released seven years prior.

Had this album been released when it was originally intended, it’s incredibly likely Prince’s career trajectory would have been significantly altered, but it’s hard to tell how much would have actually changed. Lovesexy is the superior album, and we should all be incredibly thankful we received the string of albums and material in the years succeeding 1987, but it’s not totally fair to discredit this album, as there is material on this project that is deserving of recognition. However, all that does is further prove my point on why this album actually benefits by never receiving an official release, as the 1994 release date of this album ended any intrigue the album possessed long-term, as it was now validated as being a part of the Prince discography, and not its own special thing.

Editor’s Notes

  1. The Black Album History
  2. Stereogum – 6/25/2014, revised 4/21/2017 – Prince Albums Ranked
  3. Boombox – 4/21/2017 – Worst to Best: Every Prince Album Ranked

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