The much mythologized Black Album was supposed to be released in late ’87. A raunchy collection of down and dirty funk, the plan was to release it with no name, no label, just landing in stores without any commercial consideration. A novel gimmick. Of course, as the story goes, Prince at the last minute cancelled it because he had a change of heart over its explicit material. The fact is that the album never would have lived up to the hype it had generated had it been released. A new Prince album of full-throttle raunchy funk, like an updated Dirty Mind? Then yeah, that would have done the trick; but that’s not what The Black Album is. It’s really a cobbled-together collection of so-so material by Prince’s ‘80s standard. But once it was pulled at the last minute and left unreleased… suddenly everybody is dying to get their hands on it. That a loose collection of mostly throwaway material became one of the most famed bootlegs ever is pretty amazing. There are some strong moments, though… “Superfunkycalifragisexy” and “Cindy C” are high energy funk, and the lascivious “Rockhard in a Funky Place” sounds like it would have made a great B-side from a Sign ‘o the Times-era single. After being shelved in 1987 with the eventual release of the much better Lovesexy, The Black Album finally saw the light of day in 1994 as part of his deal with Warner Bros. to get out of his contract, but by that time it was stale and dated, and everybody who wanted it had a bootleg copy anyway. It limped to #47 on the Billboard Top 200 and quickly went out of print. The Black Album’s mythology and reputation far outweigh its value as a collection of great Prince music.
After the disappointing Graffiti Bridge project yielded a film that was a fiasco and only one substantial hit (“Thieves in the Temple”), Prince aimed to get his commercial mojo back. Diamonds and Pearls proved that he could still connect with wider audiences. A return to a more R&B influenced sound, Diamonds and Pearls was loaded with commercial material and yielded his fifth and final (thus far) #1 single, “Cream.” The title track, an ornate ballad featuring significant vocal contributions from Rosie Gaines, was a major hit and the socially-conscious “Money Don’t Matter 2Nite” hit the Top 40. The album’s highlight, though, was its first single, the audacious and sexy hip-hop influenced “Gett Off,” a track that suddenly rendered Prince cool again beyond his hard-core fan-base. Unfortunately there are a few blunders, most notably the much-despised “Jughead,” a straight-up rap track performed by Tony M., whose input on Diamonds and Pearls and the follow-up O(+> is widely (and rightfully) derided by fans and critics. Fans were glad to see Prince gain some commercial success again, but many were perturbed by the increasing influence of hip-hop on his music, which didn’t seem a natural fit for him. Prince was always one to start trends, not follow them, and his forays into hip-hop and rap — with a couple notable exceptions — generally sound like a square peg trying to jam itself into a round hole. Diamonds and Pearls has more strong material than weak, and some truly outstanding moments, but it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of his best ‘80s work.
It’s easier to enjoy Graffiti Bridge if you pretend that its accompanying film is only a bad dream brought on by too much purple punch. Despite its association with a film that is, let’s face it, unwatchable, the soundtrack is quite good. Most of the material had been sitting around for years, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. George Clinton himself guests on “We Can Funk,” which is appropriate as the song is clearly an ode to the legend’s work with Parliament & Funkadelic. People talk about Prince’s many gifts as a songwriter, vocalist, musician, and performer, but his genius as a producer and arranger is often overlooked. The vocal arrangement on “We Can Funk” is a prime example — just listen to it build as it reaches a shrieking climax, layer upon layer of sound all working together to form a euphoric cacophony. The gospel-flavored ballad “Still Would Stand All Time” is another example of Prince’s deft touch in handling vocal arrangements. The haunting, atmospheric “The Question of U” and “Joy in Repetition” both feature blistering guitar work. “Thieves in the Temple,” a late addition to the project, became the first single and a Top 10 hit, but the follow-up — the energetic funk/pop “New Power Generation” — failed to catch on with audiences (the annihilation of the movie by critics and its disastrous box office performance likely didn’t help). The album did yield a surprise hit for young Tevin Campell, singing lead on the track “Round and Round.” “Can’t Stop this Feeling I Got” and “Elephants and Flowers” are strong tunes worthy of consideration as singles. Unfortunately Graffiti Bridge contains two of Prince’s worst tracks — the embarrassing “Tick, Tick Bang,” and the sweetly saccharine title song that’s trite and irredeemably cheesy. But despite that, Graffiti Bridge has too much great material to overlook.
This was the album that Prince fans had been eagerly anticipating for years. Finally, emancipated from Warner Bros, as illustrated by the cover image of chains being burst apart. Finally free to do what he wants, how he wants, and as often was he wants. Three full CDs of new material — each one exactly 60 minutes. Three hours, 36 new Prince songs… what could possibly go awry? It turned out to be more complicated than any Prince fan imagined. Emancipation occupies an odd and painful space in Prince’s discography. It’s an awkward listen at times, as the album heavily emphasizes his relationship with Mayte Garcia and the impending birth of their child. As we know in retrospect the relationship was doomed, and the child would not survive — which makes the joyous “Let’s Have a Baby” particularly heartbreaking, and devotional love ballads like “Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife” bittersweet. “Sex in the Summer,” which even features a sample of a recording of the baby’s heartbeat, now seems oddly creepy. That said, there are plenty of great songs on Emancipation; unfortunately the plastic, too-pristine, soulless production that plagues most of the album hampers it. High points include “Sleep Around,” “Somebody’s Somebody,” “The Holy River,” “Curious Child,” “Dreamin’ About U,” a sublime cover of The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!” and the prescient “My Computer” which features backing vocals by Kate Bush. There are some real miscues as well… “We Gets Up,” “Mr. Happy,” and “Da Da Da” are at the top of that list. Despite the presence of ultra-commercial material, Emancipation didn’t do as well as Prince fans might have hoped. At the time Prince was out of favor with the general record buying public, largely because of his name change to an unpronounceable symbol, and the promotion behind the album was spotty. The bottom line with Emancipation is that, despite the dated production and some painfully awkward moments relating to his personal life, the strong material far outweighs the weak, and under different circumstances it might have been a huge album for Prince.