By David Browne
Updated December 02, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

The tapes started circulating almost immediately. It was the end of 1987, and Prince, then at the peak of his powers, had recorded an album supposedly so dark, lurid, and expletive-drenched that it would be sold with an all-black cover. But it never appeared. Two rumors surfaced: Either his label, Warner Bros., got nervous and shelved it (which Warner denies), or Prince had a dream in which God told him it was too offbeat to unleash on the public and Prince complied. A few months later, a rock-critic friend gave me a copy, which turned out to be a fuzzy, muffled dub of a dub of a dub. Of course, that only added to the mystique. What could be heard through the audio murk were layers of back-alley funk sleaze, the occasional line like ”I just hate to see an erection go to waste,” and a riveting song called ”Bob George,” in which Prince distorted his voice and seemed to be verbally abusing a woman (a prostitute?) over a Eurotrash beat

Now, seven years later, The Black Album, one of pop’s legendary unheard (and much bootlegged) albums, is finally being released. (For the moment, anyway, [Prince] is disassociating himself from it and is only making it available for two months.) Releasing such a bound-to-be-discussed item certainly can’t hurt, since Prince’s latest album, Come, has become one of the biggest duds of his career. But now we face the tough questions: Does the album live up to its legend, and exactly how risqué is it in 1994?

Hearing a clean, first-generation copy, it first becomes obvious that The Black Album isn’t that dark. For all its mysterioso qualities, it’s essentially party music. Sure, there are some expletives and references to a ”bitch” and ”ho.” But the songs are mostly jumping-bean jams for Prince and his band, which at the time included percussionist Sheila E. The joint themes of spirituality and the flesh would be explored in a more complex way on his next album, Lovesexy. For Prince, The Black Album was merely a funky little strut, as when he salivates over a well-known fashion model in ”Cindy C.” (”Where’d you get that beauty mark?/You and I should be undressing”) or leads the band through the cracking-whip rhythms of ”2 Nigs United 4 West Compton.” The one exception is the cushiony ballad ”When 2 R in Love,” the only song here that was eventually released (on Lovesexy).

But playtime is really all the songs are about; in fact, most of them aren’t really songs, just jigsaw-puzzle jams. There’s nothing wrong with funking out with your band, but in retrospect, this tendency to leave tight songwriting in the dust was the blueprint for most of Prince’s lackluster music to follow. In that sense, The Black Album may well have been the beginning of the end. The sexual side of his music is here, too, but it’s mostly goofy and one-dimensional, without the religious conflicts that gave his earlier come-ons their depth and shadings.

In the pre-gangsta days of 1987, The Black Album was jarring, but now that our ears have become jaded — at times liberated — it sounds downright average. (And how ironic is it that Prince mocks rap in the sarcastic ”Dead on It” yet later used the genre to bolster his own music?) At least time hasn’t diminished ”Bob George,” an experiment that’s spooky, scary, and funny, sometimes all at once. The beat is stark, chilling; Prince, playing someone who sounds like a crackhead coming down from a high, barks out complaints and accuses his girlfriend of sleeping with Prince’s manager (”Prince? That skinny motherf — -er with the high voice? Please!”). Guns go off, the police arrive, and he shoots at them too. ”Bob George” unmasks the black-humored side of Prince we rarely see, while the rest of the album shows what he would become — a fast-talking jive machine content to ride a groove. Hearing the now-modest Black Album all these years later, part of me wished it had remained a salacious mystery. B