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Album Review : Prince's 'Black Album': 7-Year Wait Ends

November 19, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ah yes, another posthumous album from the late and lamented Prince--or, as we prefer to think of his erstwhile persona, TASTAHA-TAFKAP (The Artist Soon to Acknowledge Himself as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince).

Since he and Warner Bros. aren't seeing eye to eye on what his output should be right now, he's apparently resolved for the time being to only give the label material recorded during his previous life. First out of the vault was "Come," and now--hot on its heels and in stores on Tuesday--comes the legendary "Black Album."

Question: Is there any halfway-hardcore Prince fan in America who doesn't already own a copy?

"Black" may have sold more units as a bootleg in the seven years since it was recorded than "Come" has on the open market in recent months.

When Prince scotched its planned 1987 release, rumors had it that it was too "dark" for the spiritually-minded one to conscientiously release without bad karma coming back on his "positivity."

These things do grow in legend, and by 1994's utterly lax post-gangsta standards, "Black Album" doesn't prove so extraordinarily profane. But it is nasty--both in the literal and the Vanity 6 sense.

At least two songs are performed under the guise of unsavory characters: In "Dead On It," Prince does an early rap as Hellzapoppin, a ladies' man who sleeps in a coffin and brags he's got "a gold tooth, cost more than your house!"

In "Bob George," his weirdest number ever, he electronically alters his voice to do a long quasi-comedy shtick as a jealous lover who pulls a gun when he realizes his gal has been sleeping with Prince's manager.

But when he pays homage to the future Mrs. Richard Gere in the mash note "Cindy C."--sample lyric: "Where'd you get that beauty mark? Baby, you and I should be undressing"--well, that's Prince.

Any "ideas" therein are incalculably silly. The funk isn't so quickly dismissible. Most of the tracks are relatively unstructured jams that find Prince in an interesting stylistic transition phase.

At heart, it's a one-man-band project, the uniquely dense and compressed mix as well as trademark sex-addict lyrics suggesting the scraping out of a neurotic skull we'd never heard scraped before. (Which is why the later New Power Generation albums, for all their instrumental acumen, will never be as exciting as the pre-TAFKAP solo Prince.)

But some outside musicians do pop in to "open up" the sound, including a brilliantly arranged horn section that takes the closing "Rockhard in a Funky Place" into territory that can be described, without a hint of charity, as jazz. It's as great a party album as it is a subject of study for armchair psychoanalysts interested in arrested development.

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