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MUSIC: Born Again

4 minute read
David E. Thigpen

In the 1980s Prince — yes, he now goes by an incomprehensible glyph, but we’re old-fashioned — became a huge star by ingeniously weaving together two powerful strands of pop music: the guitar-based rock of Jimi Hendrix and the rhythm-heavy funk of George Clinton. With a great gift for melody and a protean instrumental talent, Prince released such commercial and artistic triumphs as Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times. In his persona, meanwhile, he presented himself as a sort of pansexual sprite. Tiny, mascara wearing, lubricious, he gave erotically charged performances and bestowed on his records titles like Lovesexy.

It comes as a great surprise, then, to finally hear the mysterious Black Album. In 1987 Prince ordered all the copies of the record destroyed just before they were to be shipped. It has now been released, and listening to it one learns that it was Prince — of all people — who anticipated the decidedly unlovesexy anger and violence in the gangster rap of the 1990s.

Extremely prolific, Prince would like to make three or four records each year, but his label, Warner Records, wants only one a year from him. Out of pique, he has decided to fulfill his contract by dipping into his backlog of 500 songs. Black Album is the first of these releases, and it covers the same ground that multiplatinum rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre explored years after it was recorded. Densely rhythmic and riddled with violent imagery, obscenities and the sound of gunshots, the Black Album is a bleak tour through an American ghetto of fractured homes and misogynistic, rootless young men — a Clockwork Orange-style landscape ruled by drug dealers and petty hoods. Two of its songs, Le Grind and Dead on It, are explicit, sometimes monotonous odes not to sexual pleasure but to sexual conquest. On Bob George, a well-armed drug dealer kills his girlfriend after learning she’s cheating on him (“I’m the one who pays the bills,” he says), then holes up in his apartment and shoots it out with the police. The album is not relentlessly dark, however. When 2 Are In Love ranks among the most gorgeous love songs Prince has ever written.

Rumors spread in 1987 that the Black Album was kept from release because it was too raunchy and violent for radio (true) and the distributor was squeamish about its content (probably also true). But the real reason for holding the record back, Prince later told some of his friends, was that after finishing it he had a dream in which he experienced a religious vision. “It was like a born-again thing,” recalls a close associate. “He felt this music was way too dark and said if he died, he didn’t want this being the last thing representing him.” So instead, Prince released Lovesexy, a sin-and-redemption song cycle in which he placed God and sex on equal footing.

Since then Prince’s career has faltered, and the ’90s have been unkind to him. His risque sexuality no longer shocks pop sensibilities. His last album was a flop, and his decision to change his name has been greeted with snickers. The Black Album is far too stark and angry to restore him to his previous place on the charts — no one buys a Prince record for scenes of social decay — and it is not of the same quality as his best work. Nevertheless, it is a rich and complex record by one of pop’s most talented, multifarious performers. And the CD may sell better now than it would have in 1987. In those days listeners probably wouldn’t have known what to make of its bitter outlook; today it is almost conventional. Seven years is a couple of generations in pop music, and at his best, Prince has always been that far ahead of his time.

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