I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Like a Rolling Stone, I Wanna Be Your Lover… when a song has a single snare hit as an intro it rarely disappoints. It takes a certain level of self-assurance to get somebody’s attention with a snapped finger. Black Sweat pulls the same move. No hellos, just a starting pistol for a killer riff. But straight away you notice something’s not right. That’s not a snare. It’s the sound of the Neptunes’ business model collapsing. A smash and grab on the Minneapolis Sound by it’s rightful owner. The purple prodigal son has returned from his jazz fusion hinterland to clear his court of these Timberlake and Timbaland suitors.
But Black Sweat wasn’t always a hydraulic blast of still-got-it machine funk. It started life as an acoustic number sung during the Musicology tour. A cheeky scamp of a lad in need of bulking up. The Prince database princevault.com suggests it was re-recorded sometime in 2004 but my money’s on it happening after a certain Little Richard interview aired in January 2005. Months earlier, Prince had told Rolling Stone magazine the music industry had moved on from the days it “could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken” which upset the 72-year-old Hall of Famer who went on a chat show to vent his ire. “I wish [Prince] was here tonight I’d put him across my lap and spank him real good” he tells the host who responds by suggesting Prince may “scream like a white woman” – a quote of Rick’s from earlier in the interview. With an almost identical phrase added to the re-recorded Black Sweat, Prince clearly wasn’t going to let such disrespect go uncommented upon.
I read somewhere that Prince coined the song’s title after an energetic concert performance caused black hair dye to run down his face. Morris Hayes says the phrase came from Prince’s James Brown impersonation. Both stories could be true. Whatever the origin, the sweat Prince is working up isn’t caused by physical exertion. He glides over the track with an effortless cool that is amplified in the accompanying video. Here, dancer Celestina brings the heat while a reserved Prince oozes sex and humour with minimal movement (a role-reversal of the Kiss video where Wendy is the steady counterpoint to Prince’s unpredictable cavorting). This simultaneous building up and cooling off of steam powers the groove like a piston engine, making Black Sweat one of the most potent dance machines he ever assembled.
For me, Black Sweat is the greatest song Prince recorded after his Sign o’ the Times creative peak. Others have called it the worst track on 3121. This gulf in appreciation previously confounded me but after reading Susan Rogers’ This is What it Sounds Like I now have a better understanding why. Black Sweat ticks all the boxes of my sweet spot in music – staccato and abstract with a below-the-neck emphasis on the groove. If you like your music cerebral and lyrically meaningful Black Sweat will do nothing for you. But if, like me, you prefer your music to one-inch-punch you repeatedly in the loins with a velvet-clad fist, this is your jam.