62: Bob George

The Black Album (1987)
Bob George is a lot of things. A cartoonish gangster daydream. A hilarious satire on hip-hop misogyny. A diss track on both his previous manager Bob Cavallo, and antagonistic critic Nelson George. But one thing I didn’t peg it as was a club banger. Yet when I heard it at a clubnight a few months ago it detonated the dancefloor. The night in question was called Purple Rave and featured DJs spinning nothing but Prince records so it shouldn’t have been too unexpected, but hearing Prince’s thug noir comedy booming out of a sound system in an East London warehouse made my jaw drop. I fell in love with Bob George all over again. This was its intended setting, having been recorded to play at Sheila E’s birthday party. Feeling its sparse funk hammer at my ribcage must have been how fans at the Lovesexy tour felt, where it was last performed live as the first part of a two-part morality play with Anna Stasia. In those performances Prince’s character – decked out in rhinestone sunglasses – would answer the phone as Camille, but on the album it’s not apparent who the protagonist is and sounds more like Prince resurrecting El Virus from Brown Mark’s Bang Bang video. Whoever he is, he’s the zenith of Prince’s beautiful dark twisted comedy and deserves an album of his own. Fun fact: the sped-up Charlie Brown voice you hear on the other end of the line, when slowed down repeatedly says “yes operator, which city please?”

82: Le Grind

The Black Album (1987/1994)
Axing the Black Album was a masterstroke by Prince. It meant Lovesexy was then presented on a pillow of redemption and cleansing spirituality while the album it replaced became forbidden fruit – a party record which, like all the best parties, had an air of illicitness about it. I bought my copy of the Black Album at a record fair and initially thought it had the wrong record in the sleeve as the label listed different track titles and gave the name of the artist as Morris Ashbey. The thrill I got on playing when I realised it was Prince’s Black Album made me love this lp even more. I’d beaten the man; discovered the speakeasy; received the rave’s location by ringing the number on the flyer. This was unsanctioned by the label and even the artist himself. It felt faintly subversive like listening to pirate radio. Never mind at this point the album already had an official release and I could have easily bought the CD on the high street. I wasn’t interested in killjoy logic. Le Grind then is the perfect opener to this illicit party. It has the unpredictability of a live jam feeding on the energy of the crowd – Prince corrects his backing singer (“not yet Boni… now!”); Cat inexplicably gives shout-outs to house legend Frankie Knuckles; there’s a hilarious Cockney call and response section – you’d never know that the horn and backing vocals were overdubbed almost a year later, it feels so spontaneous. But what makes Le Grind the perfect opener are the welcoming words “so, you found me, good, I’m glad, this is Prince…” A barely audible message to let you know the album’s recall was a ploy to screen out critics, the incurious and those of a weak mind susceptible to subliminal messages in the Alphabet St video. Greetings. You passed the test. You’re one of us. Now let’s la chantez all night long!

127: Rockhard in a Funky Place

The Black Album (1987/1994)
This house of ill-repute is dripping with sleaze and erection metaphors so in your face you wouldn’t dare linger if it wasn’t for the saxophone enticing you like a red-light beacon. Eric Leeds’ horn-line was taken from a song he wrote for his previous band and later used in live performances of I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man and It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night, but it’s in Rockhard in a Funky Place where, along with Atlanta Bliss’s trumpet, it found its spiritual home as Ariadne’s red thread guiding you around the sticky walls and away from Camille’s randy, diseased Minotaur. The memorable line in this Black (and Camille) Album closer is the one about being “soaked in banana cologne”. Undoubtedly as much a double entendre as the song title but even taken literally it works as delightfully repugnant poetry. L’eau de dépravation. At the end of the track, you’re told to tune in next week like this is an X rated Batman serial – same bat-time, same bat-brothel – but no matter what time you switch on the telly it’s still the same programme. Camille’s going nowhere. It’s like the Hotel California. You can turn off but you can never leave.

134: Superfunkycalifragisexy

The Black Album (1987)
The Hammer horror funk of Superfunkycalifragisexy starts with synthy Psycho stabs and a Thriller laugh by Prince. Then we get some of the weirdest and most intriguing lyrics in his whole canon. They’re often interpreted to be about ecstasy (a reading which ties in a bit too neatly with the rumours surrounding the album’s non-release) and it may well be, but not in my head. I don’t want my “bucket of squirrel meat” to be metaphorical. The imagery is pure b-movie along with its Vincent Price laughs and Wilhelm screams. The song is like a cross between the Gett Off video and a schlock horror production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or a porno Rosemary’s Baby. Camp and nightmarish in equal measures. It runs out of ideas halfway through but that’s probably for the best. Where do you go after singing about the aphrodisiac effects of drinking squirrel blood?

187: When 2 R in Love

The Black Album (1987) / Lovesexy (1988)
Poor When 2 R in Love. A song with no true home. The sweet and lullaby-like ballad (his last tailor-made side 1 closer) always sounded like it wandered into the wrong neighbourhood on the Black Album (even more so when nestled up to Bob George on the eventual CD release) and on Lovesexy it was the refugee stowaway, sheltering under I Wish U Heavens protective wing. Two places to bed for the night but no sense of belonging. At one point it was even scheduled to be the title track of a compilation of ballads. You can’t say Prince didn’t try to find its forever home. But who needs an album setting when your Linn drum snaps like teenage hearts and your synths caress with the sound of the universe purring. On second thoughts, When 2 R in Love probably found it’s rightful home on the flip side of the Scandalous 7″ single. Two drum machine halves forming a perfect yin yang of love and lust.

218: Cindy C

The Black Album (1987)
Well here he goes again, falling in love with the face in a magazine, but this is no normal love letter – what elevates Cindy C is the extremes it’s pushed to. Enough eyebrows would have been raised if Prince had left this as a three-verse indecent proposal to Cindy Crawford. But as usual he goes further and the randy devil is in the details. First Prince plies her with booze: elderberry wine and whatever concoction his mixologist Sheila E serves up (listen to her making a percussion cocktail ninety seconds in). Then in the third verse Wendy tears into the supermodel in the right-channel “…she can’t even walk in those shoes… she can’t even dance…” So far, so restrained, and if Prince had plumped for the conventional fade-out at four minutes Ms Crawford could sleep easier. But there’s a fourth verse where a discordant guitar darkens the mood and Prince launches into a spoken verse about her “furry melting thing” awaiting him. This is immediately followed up by him going full-deranged, yelling “what’s the matter with meeeee” while the right-channel voice becomes a justly horrified Cindy. After that plunge into psychosis, the bubblegum chaser of Cat’s verse seems incongruous. Prince was unaware she had lifted the rap from JM Silk’s house tune Music is the Key, and only found out when he initially reused it for Positivity. It was probably best left where Cat found it but at least it lightens the mood. Cindy C is the only Black Album song Prince never played live, suggesting it may hold a particular embarrassment. Or maybe he was sparing the subject’s blushes. Either way, the only times he used the word savoir-faire again on record, was on the spiritually cleansing Eye No and 7.

248: 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton

The Black Album (1987)
Prince and Sheila E’s instrumental funk jam is an elbows-out, jostling tour de force. If you need to move through a crowd with haste, put this in your earbuds and go hell for leather. It reminds me of a time in France when I was followed by a friendly goat for several miles. I couldn’t escape him. No matter how often I thought I’d shook him off, within moments I’d hear the familiar bleats and he’d appear around the corner. Part of my journey home included a walk along a beach; my perfect chance to outrun the pursuer, especially as it was the hottest day of the year and the world and its wife were there. I ran full tilt, leaping over holidaymakers and sandcastles, certain that I’d lose my caprine admirer in the crowd. But no, after five minutes I looked back and saw the goat steadily trailing me, trampling surprised sunbathers underhoof. That’s what 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton is to me: a persistent and unpredictable bundle of art and mischief, with a wake of destruction that only an amorous goat could leave.

467: Dead On It

The Black Album (1987)
A problematic song for Prince and one often thrown back at him when he later embraced hip-hop. It’s a diss track. Not on any particular rapper, but on ALL of them. He derided their lack of musical ability which is best summed up in the lines “the rapper’s problem usually stem from being tone deaf” and “what does that have to do with the funk?”. Deep down I don’t think he ever changed his position on this – understandable from such a musical polymath – but he later excused the track saying it was only ever aimed at rappers of that period having nothing to say, with Public Enemy and NWA since changing the landscape. It’s true that he went on to work with Chuck D and Ice Cube but he also went on to release the lyrically vacuous Jughead so that argument has thin legs. Where Dead On It fails as a diss track is that Prince’s own rap suffers from the kind of cadence that blighted a lot of 80s hip-hop (and certainly on pastiches of it). It should make my critical ear cringe but, like Blondie’s Rapture or even Alphabet Street, it has an outsider charm. And as for the music – the beats are hewn from the finest Schoolly D stone and Prince’s guitar-licks funk with the power of a hundred James Brown samples. It’s just unfortunate that by the time The Black Album was officially released seven years later hip-hop had its first golden age under its belt and Prince and the NPG were playing catch-up, making the message an embarrassing albatross for him.