“Black Sweat” – 3121 (2006)

3121 was released by NPG Records and Universal on the twenty first of March in the year two thousand and six (that’s 3/21 for you American numerology fans, 21/3 for the rest of us) and is Prince’s 31st album (31 again!). It’s also his first to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 and his first number one since Batman back in 1989. Finally the prodigal son had returned out of the wilderness and taken his rightful seat at the table between T.I. and the kids from High School Musical. This album was the Purple Rain of the era and Musicology was the 1999. But even though 3121 made it to number one it didn’t sell anywhere close to Purple Rain or even Musicology for that matter which went double platinum in 2004 but only because it was given away as part of the cost of a concert ticket to see Prince on tour. The same tour that saw him become the highest earning musician in the world that year; an ingenious tactic given that most of those concert goers would have purchased their tickets in order to see Prince perform all his hits from the 80s (and maybe some from the 90s) and not necessarily to hear any new stuff. 3121 sold over 500,000 copies and is a certified gold record, which is no mean feat, but for comparison the album that it knocked off the top spot (the High School Musical soundtrack) sold over ten times that amount (four times platinum). So like a shooting star, this album burned brightly for a moment (183,000 copies in the first week) and then faded away. Which raises the question, why the sudden dip in sales? If I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with a buying frenzy around the “purple ticket” promotion that saw a lucky handful of people win tickets to see Prince perform at a private gig at his house in Los Angeles (Purple Prince and the Phunk Phactory – where all my oompa loompas at!). Well technically it wasn’t his house; he was just renting it from Carlos Boozer, a basketball player in the National Basketball Association (playing for Utah at the time I believe). But it was the place that Prince christened “3121” and it became his home/studio away from home/studio. It was also the place that Boozer filed a lawsuit over after Prince went about renovating the place in his own unique style[1]. You see when I say “christened” that means that he (allegedly) painted the lovesymbol and “3121” on the outside of the house, removed carpet, removed baseboards, cut a hole into a wall and installed plumbing for beauty salon chairs (maybe the purple ticket winners got facials?). Talk about the tenant from hell.

 

So “3121” is a reference to the house (Party Central), and the date (numerology kids – better than calculus), and I’ve read that it is also a reference to Psalm 31:21 (a bible reference in Prince music – unbelievable!). Depending on which translation you’re reading, the quote goes something like, “Praise be to the lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege,” which if nothing else tells you what Prince thinks about Los Angeles. With the “3121” concept, house, studio and beauty parlour Prince built himself an island of paradise in a sea of diarrhoea. Like most things Prince does, it appears that there is more going than is obvious at the surface. But also like most things Prince does, that deeper layer often only make sense to Prince (or maybe I’m just clueless). If Los Angeles is a city under siege, is Prince here to rescue it? The CD is sub-titled “The Music” or at least my version is. “3121 – The Music” implies (to me at least) that this record was intended to be one part of the “3121” experience. “3121 – The Tour,” “3121 – The Movie,” “3121 – The Book,” “3121 – The Magazine,” “3121 – The TV Show,” “3121 – The Scent,” “3121 – The Fashion,” “3121 – The Ice Cream,” “3121 – The Tax.” Could the album be an oblique reference to section 3121 of the Internal Revenue Code? Nothing gets a party pumping harder than income taxes (where all my CPAs at!).

 

If you put the 3121 album into your CD player and skip to track 4, you’ll hear “Black Sweat”. An acoustic version of this song became part of the set list on the Musicology tour on 25 June 2004 (that’s two years before the album came out for those not paying attention) so it’s probable that the song was written and recorded around that time. Although as you no doubt would have realised, the version on the album is not an acoustic song. It’s an electronic minimalist funk track – old school Prince. But if anyone has the acoustic version, feel free to send me a copy. The song that we get to hear on the album is all drum machine and synthesisers – dog whistle keyboard sounds and simple drum programming combined with Prince’s falsetto and background vocals. The song is a “Kiss” for the modern era and definitely a throwback to Prince’s earlier career but with enough of a spin on it that it sounds fresh. Like the rest of the album, it’s trying to appeal to a new generation whilst at the same time feel like a Prince song. And just what is “black sweat” anyway? To me it sounds like the kind of sweat that you get when you’ve been working in a coal mine and your sweat mixes together with the coal dust and just pours down your face. Toe Jam from the Peach & Black podcast relates the story that apparently “black sweat” refers to the sweat that flows down Prince’s face as he dances (or has sex maybe?) and his black hair dye starts to melt. You could also imagine that “black sweat” has something to do with race but on the surface this is a funky dance song and other than mentioning a white lady, doesn’t appear to be racially driven. That being said, I wouldn’t totally discount it (like I said earlier – I’m pretty clueless).

 

The song opens with the dog whistle and drum machine. Prince’s background vocals and some more keyboards comes in to add some layers to the sound before everything drops out but the drums and Prince’s vocal; a vocal that sounds a lot like “Kiss.” The verses are just drum machine and three or four layers of vocals. The keyboard comes in during the rest of the song but that’s all. Guitar? Bass? I don’t hear any. But I’m clueless, remember and I don’t pay too much attention to these things.

 

Eye don’t want 2 take my clothes off
But eye do
Eye don’t want 2 turn nobody on
‘Less it’s U
Eye don’t want 2 dance 2 hard
But this is a groove
Eye’m hot and eye don’t care who knows it
Eye got a job 2 do

 

He doesn’t want to take his clothes off but there is some force, some urge, compelling him to do just that. Or perhaps he’s trying to say that at the same time he doesn’t want to take his clothes off he also does want to take his clothes off. As though there are two conflicting thoughts battling for supremacy in his head. I’m leaning towards the former though. He just can’t help but get naked. There’s some deep, primal urge that’s driving Prince to get naked and funky with “U”. Because “U” (me? I’m so flattered) are the only one he wants to turn on (he’s making me blush now). Monogamy is the name of the game y’all. From the outset this song is telling us you can’t deny your urges. Whether you want to or not, you will find yourself on the dancefloor if the groove is funky enough. The thing is, in the first line he’s taken his clothes off so it seems fairly unlikely that he’d be dancing naked (although not impossible). Given that he’s naked and wanting to turn “me” on, I’d hazard a guess that he’s talking about sex and using “dance” as a synonym for “fucking”. It has been hypothesised that dancing (especially coupled dancing) is a public substitute for sex so it makes sense that Prince, with his PG mindset, would use it as a replacement in his lyrics. Maybe that makes the “groove” a vagina? Or a butt-crack.

 

I’ve always heard the second line as “I don’t want to take nobody on” not “turn” which if that is the actual lyric skews the meaning ever so slightly and actually mirrors the opening line. It indicates that the urges presented here are more of a battle – taking someone on in the sense of fighting with them. If you look at the first two lines in isolation with “take” in both of them you could almost interpret them as the internal monologue of some southern plantation worker or slave being forced to take his/her clothes off at the command of an overseer – the “U” that is being taken on. “Black sweat” then obviously takes on an entirely different meaning. It’s not unlike Prince to put some hidden meaning into his songs but in this case I think that such a strong misreading might be reaching a little too far. I suspect that Prince may well have accidentally sung the incorrect lyric here but decided to leave it in anyway because the take they recorded was so good and for whatever reason the lyric book that came with the album couldn’t be updated in time (or he just didn’t give a fuck). Any political message would be totally at odds with the entire vibe of the song. But you never know maybe I’m not totally clueless.

 

Eye’m workin’
Workin’ up a Black Sweat
Eye’m workin’
Workin’ up a Black Sweat

 

So he’s working on his black sweat. Dancing? Fucking? Mining coal? Who knows. All we know is that he’s working. And sweating. And the keyboard comes back in for a little bit.

 

Eye don’t want 2 break Ur pride
But eye got 2
U better take Ur woman and hide her
‘Cuz eye’m about 2
Show U what’s really good
Break U off like U knew eye would
Eye got a brand new dance
And it’s called the … workin’

 

Where the first verse appears to be directed at the objection of Prince’s affection (I’m assuming it’s a female but it’s not explicit and I wouldn’t judge him if it wasn’t), this verse is targeted at the partner of the “woman” (boy or girl, it don’t matter no more). I’d say it would almost certainly be a man since most women who have partners happen to have male partners (statistically speaking). I suppose they could both be women but something tells me that Prince is calling out this guy and telling him to stand back because Prince is gonna go to work. In the background you can hear Prince say “about to hurt him, go on hurt him” which leaves no doubt that we aren’t dealing with lesbians here. He’s going to show this guy what’s really good. What’s he going to show him, you ask? Why he’s going to “break U (him) off.” What does that mean? Is he going to break is back? Break one of his legs off? Break his cock off? Whatever does this mean? Well the phrase “break you off” is one of those slang phrases the kids these days use when they want to say something naughty but don’t want to use a naughty word. The top definition for the phrase on urban dictionary is “going down on someone and making them cum.”[2] So the thing that is “really good” here appears to be Prince giving a blowjob just as this guy knew he would. So it turns out that this brand new dance may well be a new gay anthem (fabulous!).

 

Workin’ up a Black Sweat
Eye ‘m workin’
Workin’ up a Black Sweat

 

“Black sweat” as a euphemism for cock? Could he be working his tongue up and down the “black sweat” until he breaks him off?

 

U can act hard if U want 2
This groove will make U sweet
U’ll be screamin’ like a white lady
When eye count 2 three

 

Being told to “act hard” is usually something that is told to men. In my experience I’ve never heard of a woman being told to “act hard” (not to say that it never happens). This leads me to conclude that this verse must be about the man that got broken off in the previous verse. A man being “hard” is also code for a man with an erection so it seems to clearly still be about him. Prince is telling him that he’ll make him scream like a white girl. He’s going to make him ejaculate so hard that he’ll be screaming his lungs out.

 

Work little sister, work
Work little brother, work
Eye don’t want 2 do nothin’ crazy
But eye do

Eye ‘m workin’
Workin’ up a Black Sweat

 

He doesn’t want to break the guy off and get crazy but he does it anyway. The song ends as it had begun. Prince doing things that he claims he doesn’t want to do breaking a sweat while doing it.

 

The structure of each of the lines in the verses indicates a struggle that is going on in our protagonists head. He doesn’t want to do a thing (break pride, turn on, take clothes off, etc.) but he goes ahead and does that thing anyway. Clearly his initial claim of not wanting to do that thing is false. He obviously does want to do the things that he’s railing against. Now you may or may not agree with my homo-erotic interpretation of this song (bigots!) but it seems glaringly obvious that this song is about giving into temptation. This is not a song that Prince would have or could have written in the 80s. Back then he wanted to take his clothes off and he did, he danced and turned people on; he did go crazy (some would say he went nuts). Now, or at least in 2006, he still does those same things but he wants to pretend that it is somehow happening under duress. As though he has no choice in the matter and is compelled to act. Dragged kicking and screaming over the precipice of sin and carnal delight. Dragged by some sexy man (or woman) with whom he can work on his “Black Sweat.”

 

 

 

 

Running time: 3:13

References:
3121 (released 2006)
Parade (released 1986)
The Peach & Black Podcast
Wikipedia
Urban Dictionary
The Smoking Gun
Prince Vault
AZ Lyrics
Prince Lyrics (http://www.princelyrics.co.uk/search/)
Prince In Print
Prince.org

 

[1]http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/crime/extreme-makeover-prince-edition

[2]http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=break+you+off

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