The Black Album was announced and scheduled mere months after his double album set of Sign O’ The Times (1987). Then suddenly, and without much warning, Prince halted distribution of the album while it was on the shipping docks ready to be widely distributed to retailers. The Black Album soon became the topic of many discussions, even appearing on Rolling Stone’s best-of list for that year. Despite being not officially released, The Black Album would go on to become one the most infamous and popular bootleg of all time.
Contributing to the mystique of the album was that in the tour book for Lovesexy—the album Prince made after The Black Album and would take its place—Prince referred to an event he called “Blue Tuesday” where he claimed to have a spiritual epiphany that elucidated him on the evils of The Black Album. Prince would go to the extent of constructing a narrative in the replacement album Lovesexy (1988) about a devil-like figure called Spooky Electric who, much like Lucifer, tempted people to think or act in an evil manner. The Black Album, then, came to represent the evil side of Prince that he felt necessary to quash or destroy in favor of spiritual optimism.
Blue Tuesday and Regrets
The actual source of “Blue Tuesday,” however, is somewhat murky and ambiguous. Keyboardist Matt Fink claims it was the result of a bad trip while experimenting with ecstasy: “He had a bad ecstasy trip and felt that the album was the devil working through with.” Warner Brothers marketing executive offers a similar story: “I was told that he got very scared when he was high on a trip and it made him realize he was wrong to release the album. He thought he was going to Hell, and that stopped him from releasing it.” Ingrid Chavez, who was working with Prince at the time, frames it as a more of a pure mystical experience: “The night we met we had a really intense conversation and I think it sort of made him believe in his concept for the Lovesexy album.” In yet another interpretation, drummer Sheila E. posits that it was a crisis of conscience about Prince’s role as an influence on the young that affected his decision: “He couldn’t sleep at night thinking about ten-year-old kids believing that ‘this is what Prince is about—guns and violence.’ He said, ‘I can’t leave this on little kids’ minds. I don’t care if they pressed 500,000 copies.”
I can’t leave this on little kids’ minds. I don’t care if they pressed 500,000 copies.— Prince
Whatever the reason, the experience resulted in Prince removing the album from circulation and moving forward with Lovesexy. If anything, the narrative surrounding “Blue Tuesday” and the supposed evil of The Black Album only enhanced its mystique, contributing significantly to Prince’s cultural caché without it being officially released (seven years later it would be released in a limited edition in order to appease Warner Brothers during a contract dispute).
Concerns with Crossover Success and The Black Album
At this time in Prince’s career his crossover success into the mainstream had affected his reputation among the Black community. The perception was that Prince had sold out, or was focusing more on the white-dominated hard rock and pop genres rather than R&B or soul music. The implication of these accusations being that Prince was ignoring his musical roots and not being ‘authentic.’ Although authenticity, as Nicole R. Fleetwood writes in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness,”is a highly racialized and complex term,” which carries with it cultural expectations of “a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality,” especially in connection with rap and hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s. Authenticity in this regard is connected to images of heteronormative masculinity, such as streetwear, sneakers, and aggressive lyrics that refer to the hardness of life on the street. This became most apparent in the newly emerging gangster rap genre, which Prince was competing against at the time.
In response to these criticisms, Prince initially decided to release The Black Album, originally conceived as a birthday gift for Sheila E. They were dance tracks put on an acetate that Prince would give to a DJ at a nightclub to play so he and his crew could dance to the music. Prince did not conceive of it with a creative vision in mind. Susan Rogers contends that Prince “just wanted to lay down some mindless jams.” As such The Black Album does not have a narrative or thematic idea behind it as most Prince albums tend to have. In contrast to the recently released Sign O’ The Times, which dealt with themes of modernity, alienation, drugs, AIDS, fractured relationships in the modern world, The Black Album existed as a dance record of funky, albeit sometimes weird and disturbing, club music to dance and sweat to.
Following along these lines, Ben Greenman Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince argues that it was not a devil album, but it was a defensive one. Prince had grown concerned that his rise as a pop star was jeopardizing his bona fides as an African-American artist. The Black Album solved the problem to a degree, rolling back to the hard funk of 1999.” Considering Prince’s penchant for self-mythologizing, it could very well have been a calculated move to establish a mystique to the effect of bolstering his reputation for raunch and funkiness. Prince himself added to the album’s mystique by saying, “I suddenly realized 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 statement has the effect of both adding to the mystique of The Black Album, thereby ensuring its iconic status as the bootleg everyone wanted to find, while simultaneously promoting what would become his next album, Lovesexy (1988), as the next step in his musical evolution and a result of his spiritual redemption.
I suddenly realized 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.— Prince
There are some in the Prince community who argue that it would have made a significant contribution to the musical landscape, had it been released in 1987. Alan Leeds argues this very point: “It would have been a kind of marker in a career, a turning point, for better or worse, at a time when arguably he needed one. It would have had a bigger impact than either Parade, Sign O’ The Times, or Lovesexy.” It is a point that is debatable, as Sign O’ The Times, while only moderately successful in terms of sales upon its release, was critically appraised at the time and is now largely considered to be one of Prince’s most creative triumphs. I would agree that The Black Album could have had a notable impact if it had been released in 1987, much more so than as an afterthought seven years later as part of a contract dispute with Warner Brothers. By the mid-1990 rap and hip hop had grown immensely popular and people had become more familiar with lyrics and a style that was more aggressive in its depiction of urban decay and life on the streets, lessening the impact when the album was eventually released in a limited edition.
It is possible, although by no means assured, that The Black Album could have had a more significant impact than Lovesexy. The appearance of such a dark, gritty, yet funky album, could have made a large critical impact, even if it did not translate into immediate album sales. There are debates surrounding the quality of The Black Album, especially in comparison to some of his other works. For Susan Rogers The Black Album was stuff he could do in his sleep. “He didn’t have to think about it. The ‘one-on’ funk stuff was so easy for him.” In her estimation, the album was regressive in that Prince was simply laying down some quick dance music jams. In effect, a return to the sound he mastered early on his career with his fifth album, 1999. Where the listener falls in the argument of The Black Album’s potential impact rests on where the listener positions a return to raunch and funk reminiscent of Prince’s earlier work.
The argument for The Black Album’s potential impact in our ‘what-if’ scenario also brings to the forefront some culturally loaded ideas regarding ‘authenticity’ (a highly debatable term in popular music studies) and crossover success. In the 1980s music was much more segregated with more clear delineations between white-dominated rock music and ‘urban’ markets (the industry term for rap, hip hop, soul, and R&B). These are distinctions that are racially divisive terms predicated on obsolete notions of demographic separation and the unfortunate business practices of the music industry.
Evaluating its Legacy
In comparison to Dirty Mind, Purple Rain, Sign O’ The Times, The Gold Experience, or Hitnrun Phase Two, to name just a few critically popular Prince albums, The Black Album might not be as accomplished or as sonically complex. The Black Album is a bit of a mixed bag, but when it hits, it really hits. For comparison, we can compare it to its eventual replacement, Lovesexy. Reception on this album is also decidedly mixed, receiving most of its praise in later years after a critical reassessment. Of Lovesexy Alan Leeds has stated, “I thought Lovesexy was going to be a great album, but when I heard the final mixes, I was very disappointed. I thought he just completely over-produced the music.” There is merit to this view, as controversial as it might be to people in the Prince community. The original demos for Lovesexy point to a much different album, one that is more sparse, minimalist funk. There is a great core to Lovesexy, one that could potentially have exceeded The Black Album, but in my opinion, the final result had a tendency to be overdone and layered to such an extent that it ended up sounding somewhat muddled.
I thought Lovesexy was going to be a great album, but when I heard the final mixes, I was very disappointed. I thought he just completely over-produced the music.— Alan Leeds
Lovesexy forwards a mythology that Prince constructed, about “Blue Tuesday,” the negative influence of Spooky Electric, and all these elements in his reconstructed cosmos, but was also mired in Prince’s own distinct cosmology, which did not always make sense. The Black Album is stripped of any grand narratives or self-mythologizing that Prince usually engaged in, which makes The Black Album unusual in his discography. Admittedly some of The Black Album is quite dated by now, especially “Dead On It” where he criticizes rap and hip-hop music. But songs like “Le Grind” and “Rockhard in A Funky Place” make for great Prince club mixes. “Bob George,” with its slowed-down vocals and violent lyrics, is still a darkly humorous piece of music. The Black Album might not rank among Prince’s best works, and its potential impact (if it had been released as originally planned) is a contestable point—the mystique and its status as a desired bootleg outstripped the actual album—but it is certainly an interesting album that occupies a notable place in the Prince canon.
- Fleetwood, Nicole R. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Greenman, Ben. Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince. Henry Holt & Co., 2017.
- Nilsen, Per. Dance Music Sex Romance: Prince: The First Decade. Firefly, 2001.
- Ro, Ronin. Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.
Supposedly Ingrid Chavez was friends with Anthony Keidis’s drug dealer and she procured the ecstasy for Prince- at his asking- and that night when he took it he called Susan Rogers and other people of his camp to tell them that he loved them- in midst of the trip. I feel as that experience changed him as an artist forever- his ‘muse’ had disappeared after that Blue Tuesday. After that night his music became more mainstream -more pop orientated – as if he lost his creative footing. Great article and a wonderful read!
This is incorrect. The story of who procured the XTC is well-known, and it wasn’t Ingrid.
No, no, no. Ingrid has stated repeatedly that she did not give Prince ecstasy or any other drug. Cat has said she acquired ecstasy for Prince.
Ingrid is one of my closest friends and I really wish these stories about her providing Prince with drugs would stop.
Very well written..by the way, Lovesexy and the Black Album are my favorite works. That’s when it all began between me and him.
Very well written. Sing of the Times, Black album and Lovesexy, what an era.
It’s interesting The Black Álbum still gets referred to as an ‘album he gave to Shelia E as a birthday present’ and ‘to dance to in the clubs’. My understanding is he gave *some* of the songs to her, as part of celebrating her birthday, to play at a venue. Are we sure this consisted of the whole album? I just thought is was *some* of the tracks?
Lovesexy accrued a reputation for being overproduced from the day it was released. Personally I think the production makes the album full of energy. It’s an invigorating experience. Sure there’s a lot going on in some of the songs, but I love it, it gives it a complexity and fizz. It will always be one of my most beloved pieces of music.
And I love The Black Album too. So funky and funny, I never felt it was particularly ‘dark’ – Bob George is just one song? Le Grind, Cindy C, 2 Nigs United, Rock Hard, Superfunkicalifragisexi, I mean these are just FUN and full of funk. I don’t think they’re ‘dark’?
Good article – always happy to see the conversation about these seminal works being kept alive 🙂