Dig if u will a picture. It's 1987 and in the three years since his breakthrough Purple Rain album, Prince has somehow even managed to out-chameleon David Bowie in his meteoric rise to becoming rock and pop’s most precocious star. In a breathless feat of balance he's pretty much covered every base in an astonishing period of creativity that's even managed to drape weird psychedelia all over the top forty. It's an avant garde procession that has seemed to break more ground with every release. Incredibly, two of his top ten hits in this period don't even contain a single note of bass in them.
The culmination of all this is the release of the astonishing Sign Of The Times- a double album that's part social commentary, part molten funk, and even by Prince standards, taken eclecticism to other worldly levels. Not since Sly Stone's whip hand early seventies soul revue has a black artist bridged the gap between funk and rock and psychedelia so effortlessly. In many ways in fact Prince managed it better and without falling head first into a narcotic whirlpool. His only problem it seems is almost trivial in comparison, an accusation that his eclecticism is aimed strictly towards a white audience rather than the ethnic origins it was formed from.
The one thing that shouldn't be bothering Prince in this period - the idea that he's somehow sold out on his early funk roots - has got behind his skin before. Circa 1986 and the release of a single that many thought to be a love letter back to his dance music roots. 'Kiss' had seemed to appease the dissenting voices at least temporarily in the ongoing argument that he'd somehow sold out on his black audience. In many ways however the real story wasn't even about the Minneapolis artist. He was a victim of his own success, unlucky to be caught in the cultural crossfire of another artist who seemed intent, both artistically and physically of bleaching out his heritage with a remarkable lack of self awareness and naïveté.
The spectre of Michael Jackson had always hung heavily in the trajectory of Prince whatever he managed to achieve. Jackson had skillfuly managed to create a masterpiece of an urban album in Off The Wall before pretty much becoming the biggest pop star on the planet. In many ways he'd actually managed to defeat Prince on both fronts. Such was their rivalry however - that when Jackson went all Brundlefly into his strange physical metamorphosis in the business end of the eighties, Prince got stung into the argument. Lazily certain critics decided that Jackson wasn't the only artist bleaching out his heritage in the race for world domination. Unjustly some even decided that Prince was too.
Prince didn't exactly hate Jackson but he did demand both validity and respect as a black artist. However, It was a double edged sword. The dance clubs and stations had championed Prince when his relatively poor sales had threatened to derail his early career. He was seen as one of their own. It was also a strange and marginalised time for black American music. The rise of the MTV empire and it's stubborn refusal to embrace urban music had caused both paranoia and a rift to develop between the two camps. Whispers of racism were muted, leaving a nasty taste to the debate. To make matters worse two of its biggest stars on rotation were both Jackson and Prince - black artists who had embraced pop ( in Jackson's case ) and strange eclecticism ( in Prince's ). Things were changing too. With the rise of rap and it's inherent social commentary - black music had begun to reforge its identity. Prince and Jackson may have been perfectly poised as two of the biggest stars in the world at the time, but politically they were also threatening to be cut adrift from the new wave of musical socialism. Suddenly showing your reflection on the world stage as a black artist through sales wasn't enough anymore. You had to have a valid voice. There were angry, dissenting voices in this period everywhere.
With this in mind, Prince retired to his Paisley Park studio in an attempt to go back to his black music roots. There were however problems from the start. For the first time the Minneapolis artist had begun to have a crisis of faith in the motives behind his songwriting. Up until that point, Prince had always used both sexuality and religion almost as tongue in cheek references in his songs. Early on in the Black album’s creation, however, it was noticeable how on both fronts Prince was heading into far edgier waters. One blistering funk track seemed to be an eye opener to all that heard it. On 'Bob George' Prince pushed the envelope further than he ever had before. The tale of a sinister lover seeking revenge was like something from Conrad with its lyrics of building violence and eventually murder. If this was precursor to the album’s intent, even his most trusted musicians were beginning to wonder how far he was going to go with it.
Prince of course wasn't the only deeply religious musician in the Paisley Park studios, and eyebrows were beginning to be raised in the studio at the way he was using slowed down, almost demonic vocals during the Black sessions. Odd vibes were beginning to form in the studio. In many ways in fact, despite the religious regalia draped in the booth, the room didn't seem a very holy place at all.
It was one incident in particular however that would really enter into the annals of Prince folklore. During an alleged bad ecstasy experience in the studio, the artist himself claimed to have witnessed an ominous portent open up in front of him. The incident, later verified by studio musicians seemed to spook Prince to his very being. As much as he'd always seemed to have a direct line to the devil's best tunes, quite understandably he didn't fancy old Nick clip clopping through a metaphysical, drug induced portent and appearing in the studio himself.
Whatever paranoia now reigned however, Prince somehow pushed on and managed to complete the album.
Upon its completion it was pencilled in for a December release in 1987. As the waiting world rubbed its hands at the thought of another Prince album however, things began to derail very quickly indeed. As the album went to the presses in fact, Prince now pulled the plug on the entire project. The music press went into overdrive. There were a number of reasons cited for its disappearance. Record company nervousness at the albums content and whispers of the artists mental state became the most prominent conspiracy theories, but if Prince was seeking to silence the project all he really succeeded in doing was throwing a huge wave of mystery around the entire album. Worse still for him, a handful of copies managed to be sneaked out of the German pressing plant it was due to be distributed from. Over the coming months it would be bootlegged to death. Around the world millions of fans ended up owning the album anyway and the original copies became one of the sought after records of all time.
Finally released a number of years later, the ultimate irony was that the Black album had set out what it intended to do perfectly anyway. A riotous blast of funk and groove it locked in to the dance floor more than any Prince album had ever done before or since. There can be no doubt however that the entire Black album had spooked the Minneapolis artist. The next album he released in Lovesexy was draped in religious fervor and seemed an attempt to exorcise the demons of his notorious project.
Creatively in many ways it also it left a lasting damage to his recording career. Whatever happened or didn't happen during the Black album, it was a record that sent the artist as close to edge as he would ever get. For a man used to risk and having his musical legacy constantly dangling on the line, the fact that he pulled back from the project at the last minute made a lot of people wonder whether those strange 'ominous portent' rumours were not the stuff of myth and legend, but in the strange world of Prince could they actually have been much closer to the truth.
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