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The Funk Bible - Prince’s Black Album Explained

22 June 2019

This week sees the posthumous release of a new album by the late Prince, touted as Originals . It is an album consisting of mostly unreleased, demo material which Prince had recorded specifically to pass onto other artists. Tracks on Originals includes “Manic Monday” (The Bangles) and “Love…Thy Will Be Done” (Martika). As the record company opens up the vaults for those unreleased quality works, there is a famous lost album which hopefully gets a wider release on all formats.

After the success of 1987’s Sign O’The Times , Prince’s most acclaimed work, and most successful release since Purple Rain (1984). He had gained a spectacular momentum, and become even more relevant in the music industry along with the public eye. Prince now had the world at his feet, and being the workaholic as always, everyone waited with bated breath for his next move. Undoubtedly there was pressure on his shoulders to follow one masterpiece with another, what happened is the making of a legend, that being The Black Album. Prince did not create or release the album he wanted to but instead created a holy grail, an album that became somehow forbidden, spoken about in sentences starting with ”What if..”

The recording, subtitled the The Funk Bible, was scheduled for release on December 8th 1987. However, this time Prince would get back to his roots, becoming less pop, and lose the over-the-top need for commercial acceptance. His intent was clearly to let the music stand on its own, and speak for itself. Think of Led Zeppelin’s masterful fourth album, and you get a sense of where Prince was going. The idea was from one extremity to another, commercial appeal versus artistic credibility.

The album got its title The Black Album from the way it was to be distributed, presented in plain black sleeve. With very little, if any information on the front or back cover, but instead a hidden title on the disc itself,The Funk Bible. The sound however heralded a return to heavy funk, along with delving into his African roots, and signaled a withdrawal from the more pop-oriented sound. At this point in time, and during the album’s creation, it was alleged Prince was heavily under the influence of substances such as LSD. This rumor if true, may have been a major contributing factor in the withdrawal of this album from circulation.

When a mind, regardless of how talented it is, sinks into an addictive habit, the normal frame of conscious thought dissolves. A week before The Black Album was due for public release the plug was pulled by Prince. His reasons, preposterous as it sounds, were because he allegedly cited inner voices. These inner voices berated him into a state of madness, remarking that the album itself was evil and should not be released. Although, more truthfully Prince probably thought the recording may have been too much of a musical shift in direction, and shelved it. Not before one hundred promo copies made it to Europe, and an unknown amount in the States, opening up the area to illegal bootlegging of the recording.

One track from the album survived, ”When 2 R In Love”, this out of the eight tracks was the only ballad scheduled for The Black Album. It did get a general release because of its salvation for the rush released Lovesexy album. The subject matter throughout the album was also a creative change. Tracks such as the odd but brilliant “Bob George” was a prominent feature, a song centered on a supposed affair between Princes’ then manager and some random woman. Steeped in vocal distortion as well as double tracked, and slowed down lines it became one of the more curious tracks. It was also was added to the set list and performed on the Lovesexy Tour. As to was the funk-driven masterpiece “Superfunkycalifragisexy” reach the live set. All these factors expel the fact that the recording was seen as evil, if it was he would never have performed or attempted to save the tracks.

From December the 11th 1987 until January the 31st 1988, Prince worked on the replacement album Lovesexy. Instead of the sexually dark and violent themes visited on The Black Album, this instead was a more spiritual and upbeat affair, at one point actually praising God. Prince obviously, by way of penance, repented for what he believed The Black Album was (If you chose to believe that story). The nature of the struggle between good and evil is prevalent throughout Lovesexy as is his aim to build a positive experience from the negativity of what was originally planned. When it was finally released in May 1988, Lovesexy was poorly received in the in many parts of the world. Maybe audiences were not grasping this as a concept album, regardless it became his least successful album since 1980. However, in the UK, it debuted at number one, and was hailed as his finest achievement. Although its one failing is still the cover, a minimalist plain sleeve would not have hurt after all.

Listening back to The Black Album now, it still stands apart from any other album Prince released, The intense darkness at its core is miles apart from the superstar pop he dominated charts with in the eighties. Some hearing the album back in 1988 stated The Black Album was the best release of the year, even if it was via bootleg. The album quickly became a cult legend, with one original promo copy selling on music site Discogs.com for an estimated fifteen-thousand dollars in 2016. Whatever the reason for Prince’s decision to withdraw it, either the superstitious, drug induced paranoia or perhaps he saw it as too much of a change in direction for his audience to accept. He still went about creating a mystique of rumors surrounding the unreleased album, at the same time adding the same uneven mystery to himself.

But that is not the end of the story of The Black Album. A well publicized legal battle ensued in 1993 between Warner Brothers and Prince surrounding the output and control over his releases. One of the heavily stated points was that Warner Brothers wanted to clear the bootlegged Black Album’s off the market. In 1994, an unprecedented move by a record company was acted upon. The record company ran a series of advertisements in music magazines, stating anyone who owned a bootleg copy of the album could send it back to them and receive an official format in return. However, they said it was a limited run, some who did send it back received nothing, instead they were told they could purchase it. Warner Brothers had quietly released the album to little fanfare in its original black format, appearing in the Prince CD section of record stores worldwide.

This did nothing but incite a larger war between the artist and label, resulting in the use of the ‘Symbol’ instead of a name, and the word ‘Slave’ appearing on his face when photographed in public. Finally, both Prince and the record company parted company in 1998. Closing this chapter on one of the most curious releases by one of the most enigmatic performers of the 20th Century.

”No one can come and claim ownership of my work. I am the creator of it, and it lives within me.” – Prince