Retroactive Review: Sign o’ the Times (1987)

Released in the U.S. exactly one year after its predecessor1, Sign o’ the Times is an absolute fucking masterpiece. Peaking at #6 on Billboard’s Top 200 around five weeks after it was released, achieving platinum status just two months after that, Sign o’ the Times demonstrates the raw power music can have on an audience. Raving reviews were written, claiming Prince had returned to form, as if Around the World in a Day and Parade had nothing exciting about them. Parade has since slid up a few spots on critical lists, in part because of its killer lead single, Sign o’ the Times has no such gimmicks about it.

The recording process is as scattershot as the influences Prince wears on his eccentric golden sleeve. The outcome of multiple failed attempts at crafting a dense, sprawling monolith of an LP, it’s something short of a miracle that Sign o’ the Times was even released; a testament to Prince’s unbelievable work ethic and talent. Comprised from the wreckage of three abandoned projects, the ironic cohesion of the record is what earned it the reviews it received, as well as help keep its presence looming over the year ’87, even as it was initially overshadowed by the burgeoning popularity of hip hop in the mainstream, as well as other large competitors releasing albums that year. 1987 was a transitional year for music, and Prince certainly made himself a part of the conversation with this one.

Dream Factory was the proposed title of Prince and The Revolution’s fourth album, and work had officially begun shortly after the first show of the “Hit n Run,” American part of The Parade Tour. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” was the first song tracked for the album, and it was this painstaking, troublesome recording session that set the stage for the entire recording process of the album. On March 15th, 1986, Prince had a console delivered to his new house; wires were hanging out and the parts were in separate boxes, so he had engineer and close associate Susan Rogers help him assemble it, resulting in a temporary loss of power to the house. After a day-long recording session, Rogers discovered either the positive or negative power source was not properly powered; she knew the mix was flat, but didn’t want to ask Prince to stop recording. Upon hearing the muddled mix, Prince reportedly loved it, setting the gritty, urban tone of the record.

Four tracks had already been conceived for the album, with three of them (“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,”, “Teacher, Teacher,” and “Strange Relationship”) being pulled from the ever-expanding Vault, having been sitting around since Spring-Summer ’82 (“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “Teacher, Teacher”) and January ’83 (“Strange Relationship”)2. Likely as a way to appease to Wendy & Lisa during a tumultuous time, Prince allowed the pair to add sitar and various exotic overdubs to “Strange Relationship” while he was away in France for pre-production on Under the Cherry Moon. “Dream Factory” was recorded in December ’85, the same time recording work on Parade had finished. Unsure of how to succeed the celebratory soundtrack, The Purple One waited a month, and then recorded two more tracks in January while he had himself holed up at Sunset Sounds for the month; recording a large amount of material for himself and various artists.

Once the console was installed to his Galpin Blvd Home Studio, there was seemingly no way to minimize his recording output. Nine more songs were recorded at the home studio throughout March and April, with another being tracked at Washington Avenue Warehouse. A track listing was compiled shortly after “Starfish and Coffee” was completed on April 20th, 1985; wildly different from what we would eventually get, as only three songs from Sign o’ the Times were listed, all with slight to drastic differences. Rather than remain satisfied, Prince continued recording, tracking “In a Large Room with No Light” on May 4th, 1986, and “It” on May 11th.

The aforementioned tracks, as well as several others recorded the previous two months, were added to the track list, bringing it to 19 tracks on a June 3rd, 1986 configuration. Fearful of being anything but prolific, Prince continued editing the track list, recording “Slow Love” the next day; “Train” followed the next month, July 7th. “The Cross” was recorded just six days later on the 13th, “Sign o’ the Times” was recorded two days after that; “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” rounding out the proceedings, being reworked into the finished, extended LP version on July 16th, 1986. This resulted in a finished Dream Factory track list on July 18th, 1986; 18 tracks, eight of which eventually made their way onto Sign o’ the Times, in one form or another.

Preparing to depart overseas a little under a month later, tensions within The Revolution came to a head. Wendy & Lisa, as well as other key members, had grown upset with their shrinking roles in the band, and frustrated with the change in musical direction. Realizing The Revolution could not keep up onstage with him any longer, frustrated with their perceived inability to transition to an R&B style, Prince finally broke up the band. Before all this however, before even leaving the country, “Hot Thing” was tracked on August 6th, with “Forever in My Life” following the next day, during the midst of a creative outburst that started a month earlier with the tracking of “Train,” including a couple of songs that would become intended for what would’ve been the original Crystal Ball. That album only came to fruition once The Revolution disbanded, forcing Prince to scrap Dream Factory upon returning home after the infamous final show of The Parade Tour in Yokohama, Japan; September 6th, 1986.

“Crucial” was recorded a week later at the home studio, but more interestingly, “Shockadelica” was recorded three days later, on September 16th, 1986. Initially recorded as an in-joke between Prince and longtime associate Jesse Johnson3, the track eventually wound-up as the b-side to “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Sign o’ the Times second single, which was recorded 16 days after “Shockadelica,” while Prince was in the midst of another short creative outburst. October 3rd was the date of a one-off performance that Sheila E. opened for in Madison Square Garden, but then he quickly returned to his fortress of solitude; Sunset Sounds. However, he had personal matters that he had to resolve, so after inviting Wendy & Lisa over for dinner in a rented Beverly Hills home, he promptly fired them. He then called Bobby Z. to tell him that he was replacing him with “the more versatile” Sheila E.; Fink stayed, of course.

The resulting week-and-a-half saw him contribute to various artists at Sunset Sounds before recording “Housequake” on October 18th, 1986. Taking inspiration from that song, and resentment in his personal relationships, Prince had begun and completed work on Camille, an understated effort meant to both conceal Prince’s identity through a vocal shifter, as well as showcase his feminine side, in roughly two-and-a-half weeks. On November 5th, 1986, Prince sent in his completed configuration of his Camille album, which was given a catalog number, an expected release date of January ’87, and was set to be released under his brand-new Camille pseudonym. The two aforementioned tracks would later make their way onto Sign o’ the Times, as well as what ended up being the final mix of “Strange Relationship,” which buried Wendy & Lisa’s contributions4, in addition to discarding a brand new Eric Leeds sax overdub. Two other songs later found their way onto different projects, but for maybe about a week, we almost ended up with Camille in 1987.

The idea for a triple album had begun germinating in The Purple One’s mind around this same time. Just two weeks after submitting Camille to the label, Prince went back to work, tracking “Adore (Until the End of Time)” on November 19th, and “Play in the Sunshine” on the 22nd. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” was recorded live on August 25th, 1986, for a show in Paris, France; studio overdubs and vocals were also added to the live recording on the same day “Play in the Sunshine” was tracked. The November 22nd session also marked the last time Prince ever worked with Susannah Melvoin during a recording session, officially capping off another era of Prince’s career, as well as the pair’s relationship.

Camille was to be the credited artist for Crystal Ball, a fact I’m sure that made Warner nervous. Imagine a 22 track album across three records being released under a pseudonym from an artist with dwindling sales from just even two years ago, with hip hop standing on the verge of taking over at the height of the vinyl era. I suspect they told him much of the same when he submitted his Crystal Ball configuration on November 30th, 1986. Comprised from seven tracks from Camille (“Feel U Up” was cut), eight tracks from Dream Factory, and then seven other songs he had worked on all year, including one titled “The Ball”5 that later had the music reused for the song “Eye No,” this was meant to be The Purple One’s opus. Warner Bros. would still give him a chance, but it had to be cut down to at least a double album.

Exactly three weeks later, “U Got the Look” was tracked at Sunset Sounds. Sheena Easton makes her first appearance on a Prince release, transforming the envisioned backup performance into a full-blown power duet. In a later interview6, she stated,

“U Got the Look” was a track that he’d basically finished for himself. It was just a Prince track. He said, ‘Do you want to just come in and sing some backup vocals on the choruses?’ So I went into the studio, and because I didn’t know I was singing against him (sings parts), I was all over the place – and he said he kind of liked that, so he expanded it into a duet.

I don’t know if I fully believe that though. Despite this being her first time singing on a Prince record, Sheena Easton had already developed herself a fan base long before she first worked with Prince in 1984; when he helped her change her image from the soft-rock playing innocent girl into the pop vixen who joined him on Tipper Gore’s Filthy Fifteen when they tracked “Sugar Walls”7 together on Super Bowl Sunday ’84. She was an experienced and extremely talented vocalist by this time, and I do believe she used her influence to shape the song into something more radio-friendly and energetic.

Considering Crystal Ball was being edited down into something more palpable, Easton’s presence is well-needed. Approaching 30 is a scary truth for any man, even one who states that “time is a trick so I try not to spend much too much time reminiscing,”8 is likely to think twice about reaching the end of their youthful prime. In numerology, the number 29 represents teamwork and relationships, and halfway to his 29th birthday, Sheena Easton set the foundation for the following year. Meanwhile, 28 represents leadership and business, explaining why in ’86, Prince’s drive to create a lasting musical contribution superseded even friendships.

This new direction was cemented by the front cover of the actual record. Set to what appears to be a street backdrop, further research actually reveals it was shot in the Washington Avenue Warehouse that had gone unused since the summer. The contract on the warehouse ended in spring of ’87, likely shortly after tracking an unnamed instrumental with Eric Leeds for a visiting Miles Davis on March 24th, 1987. A short film titled Hard Life was also filmed in the warehouse that March, but remains locked in The Vault. “Superfunkycalifragisexy” was the only other song tracked in the warehouse in ’87, but this was two months prior; likely when the cover was shot.

Between the penultimate and final Washington Avenue Warehouse visits, almost coincidentally, Prince finished editing down Crystal Ball into his prideful, gritty vision of the world after nine months; keeping in rhythm with the strong feminine overtones of the album. The finishing touches came on January 15th, 1987, by recording a segue between “Sign o’ the Times” and “Play in the Sunshine,” appropriately titling the album after the eventual title track’s gloomy tone. What we have then is a man struggling to find his identity and place in the world, dealing with the demons of failed relationships and troubles with the opposite sex. We’re listening to a man going through a maturation process; realizing that to succeed, he cannot force himself on others. Back to the drawing board we go, the first “solo” album since 1982.

Immediately thrown into a dystopia, “Sign o’ the Times” paints vivid images of a world in chaos; humanity struggling with their own vices. Arranged with the Fairlight synthesizer’s sampler, the barren, spacious stereo space matches the paranoid sepia tint of the bustling city portrayed on the cover. The fluttering stock sounds of the sampler are treated like the twelve-bar blues,

In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.

That’s the opening line to this entire record. Social commentary usually isn’t a seller, but by bridging the gap between the blues with some funky guitar work in the latter half of the track, and merging that with the most popular tech of the time into something somber and introspective, it flew right up the charts, peaking at #3. Part of its success comes from the black market, as the chart was still titled Billboard’s Top Black Albums, or in this specific case, Hot Black Singles. This labeling continued until 1991, when they relabeled it Billboard Top R&B Albums/Singles, and then again in 1999, when they added hip hop to the name.

Take that industry practice how you will, but the point I’m getting at is, he had five number-one singles on that respective chart once he released the title track as a single on February 18th, 1987; six weeks before the album’s release. Compare this to his three number-one hits on Billboard’s Top 100, which were all connected to a film, and you’ll find his black audience helped him get there; “Kiss” anyone? “Raspberry Beret” was the number two single on the Hot 100, but stopped at the third spot on the Black Singles; Around the World in a Day went to the fourth spot on the Black Albums chart, but due to “Kiss,” Parade charted one spot higher on the Black Albums chart than the Top 200. It’s why he began this discovery of himself, it’s why jazz is fully incorporated into this album; hip hop influencing sounds flow through this album’s blood, specifically in this title track. Rappers even still dug the slower stuff9.

During his interview with NPR in late 2014, George Clinton said the following10,

It changes every now and then, from race music, to rhythm and blues, to R&B, to disco, to funk, blues, jazz, all of it has been one time or another, the same thing…

If Prince is connecting with his roots, then he certainly made it thematic, as the entirety of side one assembles into one seamless, murky, rhythm-driven mix with a grainy filter applied to the viewpoint. Residing in the onset of “Sign o’ the Times” apocalyptic worldview is the optimistic groove of “Play in the Sunshine,” the antithesis of the preceding title track. The lively, bouncy drums provide a homely, inviting stereo space of vocal harmonies, leading directly into “Housequake,” continuing that groove. These two tracks are similar in the way “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” from Purple Rain are, creating a 1a, 1b situation just as he did then. Circumstances are different this go-around however, as he’s created this gritty urban environment on his own, and then showcases both his masculine and feminine personality.

Refraining from drug use, expressing your feelings, and being unafraid to live your life the way you choose is how your life will improve, based on what Prince tells us in “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s an uplifting message to remind us not to take the things that bring us joy for granted, and as all the bad in this world makes the headlines, it’s a message we often forget. The sampler instrumentation radiates around the mix, letting the rather rough vocals park themselves dead center in the mix like a throwback to classic James Brown mono LP vocals. Combining current technology with old traditions is what Prince was all about, and this stretch of music to open perhaps his most ambitious release runs the gamut in commending his black influencers, setting the stage for a remarkably soulful record; progressing the art form in ways others could not.

Shut up already, damn.

Camille has been lost to time, but the overall message of female empowerment has only grown stronger in our cultural zeitgeist in the past 30 years. Not all of the credit can be applied to The Purple One, but it isn’t sacrilegious to suggest his views, or at least his determination to start a conversation, was part of a movement that began the cultural shift from conservatism to progressivism, even if his own arguments with the three closest women to him may have been rooted in distaste for a same-sex relationship11, as well as jealousy of a sororal bond. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to hear the record scratch as Camille’s feisty, chipmunk-pitched demeanor springs from the lively electronic drums. Whereas “Play in the Sunshine” is more of an optimistic, rock-n-roll throwback that radiates positivity and relaxation, “Housequake” is much more modern, funky, and raw. It’s funny to think Camille acts as the M.C. on “Housequake,” leading me to believe anytime Prince had to stand his ground or showcase his sass, he tapped into his femininity; probably why “Housequake” is such a fucking jam. My theory becomes further developed by the hilariously bizarre storytelling of the hazy “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” which closes the gritty first side of the record.

Prince is tender, horny; naturally, but he’s the one who suggested he keep his pants on while he and this imagined flirtatious waitress bathe in a dreamlike scenario. Though he does eventually attempt to initiate with Dorothy, it keeps in line with his subdued, free-spirited positivity he preaches on “Play in the Sunshine,”

We want to play in the sunshine, we want to be free/Without the help of a Margarita or ecstasy

We going to love all our enemies/Till the gorilla falls off the wall

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear he’s kind of traditional when it comes to love, which is why he falls for the girl when “…she didn’t see the movie because she hadn’t read the book first,” after he told her he was seeing someone. It’s one of the most clever metaphors I’ve heard, and to think it’s all inspired by “… talkin’ stuff in a violent room,” or regular arguments with Susannah.

The haze continues onto side two, as the second attempt at a lo-fi styled R&B track, “It,” keeps the trance active. A descendant of “Annie Christian,” Prince has a better go around this time with this specific sound approach, keeping a gritty sound without sacrificing any quality. Obviously the technology in samplers and electronic drum machines had improved in just five years, but so had Prince’s production. Blend a handful of blues licks in with the hazy sound of the track, as well as a synth breakdown to dissipate the stereo space, and you’ve got yourself a solid side-opener that continues the themes of paranoia, self-discovery, and still manages to get to the root of the culture with its instrumentation.

The vagueness of what “it” is in their relationship is fleshed out in “Starfish and Coffee,” a playful pop song that would fit in snugly with something from Around the World in a Day, obviously a result of Susannah’s input. As far as I’m aware, Prince wrote the song based on a story of Susannah’s childhood encounter with a particular child who may or may not have been autistic. Using that feeling of naive innocence to build a supporting world of uplifting positivity for all people is part of the charm to this brief catchy tune, but the transition from a cheery pop tune that’s feminine-centric to the cool adult, masculine jazz world of “Slow Love” shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s the closest we get to what can be considered a statement towards Susannah since it follows the track most closely associated with her.

I don’t believe she’s the central idea of the tracks here, but I do believe these songs, particularly on this side, were written with her in mind. I’ve established one of the themes of this record is the relationships with women in Prince’s life, and since Wendy & Lisa were metaphorically buried in this album, I don’t think it’s ludicrous to suggest his mind momentarily lingered on how great things were, and could’ve been. “Slow Love” is great for the slick horns and expert crooning, but it takes life experience to write something that requires such confidence to sing about, and Susannah, Wendy, and Lisa were all apart of those experiences in the last five years of this ride. The irony of the masculine worldview to this laid-back track is that it was co-written with Carole Davis, keeping with the inclusive feminine nature of the record, as well as adding actual passion to the lyrics, since they were likely written during a tumultuous time in Prince and Susannah’s relationship; considering Davis was likely (briefly) romantically involved with Prince.

It’s why when Prince squeals and pleads on “Hot Thing,” I don’t think it’s meant to be towards anyone, especially since the “only 21” line seems more to suit the rhythm than to provide a factual statement. Susannah and her sister were likely in the back of his mind as it was being written though. Remember, this song was tracked a month before departing overseas for The Parade Tour, just before things reached a breaking point, and look, a reference to a crystal ball, a full month before the band even broke up! True to his Gemini nature, Prince is always switching ideas and his stance on things around, meaning even though he desired contentedness in a relationship, he still needed it on his terms. It’s why the most lustful track on this side is another stab at the lo-fi R&B approach that became a staple of early hip hop breakbeats, while simultaneously being catchy enough to be a nod to his former bandmates.

After slowly brimming to a playful ending, the heavy snares and kicks of that minimalist R&B approach quickly return, and suddenly we’re grounded. “Forever in My Life” is practically gospel, with Prince utilizing his own backup vocals to take over as lead at points, singing against himself, and just generally sliding in and out of the wide open stereo space. It ends side two on a glorious note of revelation; love conquers all. It’s cheesy of course, but if it wasn’t true, he wouldn’t have devoted so much time to remind us of that fact.

The haze of side one evaporated upon the alarm clock of “Starfish and Coffee,” allowing us to wake up and realize that forging relationships and finding love is really what this life is all about. Record one is all about finding your identity, it’s why everything is so dour and foggy before gradually grounding itself into reality with declarations of monogamy and acceptance. Near the end of your prime, you realize your youth is ending; what kind of man will you spend the rest of your years as? At 28, Prince got in touch with his roots, finally incorporating jazz into his sound, as well as returning to a more R&B-centered style. The second record, as well as the following year, would see Prince expand on these principles he’d established for himself on record one; explaining why the creative outburst that had started in 1986 and lasted until 1988 resulted in material that would be used in at least four different albums for the next decade, all of which were influenced by what he had originally envisioned during this time period.

“U Got the Look” opens record two, giving the entire project a boost of energy, potential crossover appeal, and even more verisimilitude to an already extensive project. When your friendships run their course, you simply makes new ones; Easton was already a longtime associate, but this showcased Prince’s ability to bring outside musicians into his world. The following record and tour further developed that ability and concept, but for now, it’s the tying theme of side three. Relationships are never easy, they require attention and effort, but a casual attraction may only lead to some fun for the night. In a world of relentless disagreements, and after devoting so much time in crafting songs to reflect that somber truth, “U Got the Look” reminds us to cut loose and have some fun every now and then. It’s no coincidence Sheena Easton was the one asked to help reimagine the track into the power pop, side-opening jam that many fans have grown attached to.

The end game is to settle down with someone however, as he clearly states on “Forever in My Life,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” demonstrates that longing better than anything else he could’ve fit in this spot on the track list. The second Camille-shifted track in a row, and by far the most legendary, Prince goes through scenarios and raises questions of the woman’s perspective, gender, and even brushes with the idea of being transgender. There’s a whole theory on the “…get married have a baby, we’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy” line from the title track that suggests Nate could mean Nativity, which plays with that gender balance he’s been striking at since his debut; hitting a peak with “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and the succeeding album. Nativity could also imply humanities desire to hit the reset button; the result of a nuclear holocaust, but you already knew this album’s outlook is rather glum, right?

Whatever the case may be, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” showcases the best traits of Prince’s tender side, gently asking the proposed boyfriend a plethora of questions, all with a varying degree of comfortability assumed. The relaxed, mysterious instrumentation is perfect for losing the pitched vocals into the stereo space, giving it a rather bouncy flow and melody. The concept is creative, and the pure influence of this track is legendary; Beyoncé had to jack a few lines for Jay-Z’s “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” and that song is nowhere close to the greatness Prince gifted us.

Almost as a response, Prince’s masculine side returns on “Strange Relationship,” the song responsible for tying the connecting knot of side three’s relationship themes. Much like “Slow Love,” it takes some life experience to write and express the lyrics in this song.

I guess you know me well, I don’t like winter/But I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold/Oh, what the hell, you always surrender

Baby I can’t stand to see you happy/More than I hate to see you sad

The song is odd, fitting considering the title, but the catchy nature of the instrumentation is definitely at odds with the melancholy lyrics. The masculine ego solemnly mourns a borderline emotionally abusive relationship with a wink to his feminine pop sensibilities; “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” concludes the underlying arc of acceptance and relationships. After a record of gloom and discovery and a side of reflection on relationships and acceptance, it’s energizing to hear those power chords spring from Prince’s guitar on the closest thing to the Minneapolis sound since “Raspberry Beret” stretched the constraints of the sound to their limits. I believe this stretch of the record is more so for Wendy & Lisa, but as I stated before, they are not the primary focus. Susannah is still a part of the process of course, but when constructing a record, much thought is put into the track list. Things need to sound organic and flow naturally, and Dream Factory, Camille, and Crystal Ball were also sequenced in this fashion. Circumstances were different for every configuration, and the intentions behind each were slightly edited from the previous vision each time, but the underlying intentions of these tracks when sequenced in a clever way, are ironically, very open.

I once joked to my friend that side four of this record was “o.p.,” or overpowered, for those who aren’t privy. It may come off as rhetoric, but this three-song stretch really is some of the best music you will hear committed to record. Once the extended breakdown and jam of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” that’s been stolen from the public in subsequent re-releases has ended, you’re flipping the record over, curious how he intends to close such a magnificent record. Gradually, the subdued strumming to the beautiful acoustic guitar work for “The Cross” snatches your attention, and refuses to relent for the ensuing side of music.

Often, I’ve described Prince’s vocals as airy, or dreamy, mostly because I’ve refrained from using ethereal as a description due to the sheer level of elegance and class on display for these final three tracks of his most personable and professional release. Beginning side four with a clean slate; devoting oneself to God, what more can you gather from the message? People have their struggles, which are only matched in intensity by the slow build in the instrumentation, erupting at the halfway mark into the greatest rock song about religion of all time, and just in case you think that’s hyperbole, go ahead and tell me what christian rock song has more energy, sincerity, and just flat-out sounds better than this song?

Once the ’60s-styled harmonies of the ending cry for the cross at the end of the track are over, the inviting band performance on “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” allows you to escape into a trance, or float in that ethereal plane created from “The Cross,” whichever way you prefer to interpret it really. It takes a talented musician to craft a song live, and Prince has dozens of tracks recorded in these conditions. The magic of a song like this is how it was never intended to be recorded in a studio setting, as well as being the only full-band performance on the record. The extended Revolution is in full force, and with Susannah’s input, various overdubs and the inclusion of Sheila E.’s “transmississippirap”12 were done on their last session together; even out in France they like to get funked up. Brown Mark’s bass and Bobby Z.’s surprisingly heavy snares create a funky foundation for Prince to run around the stage, sing his ass off, dance, and play to the crowd, because, well, they paid 160 francs to see a show dammit. The “Detroit crawl” shout out just gives the whole jam a certified Motown stamp of approval, and those “oh-we-oh”13 chants to start the performance return at the end, this time louder, much more crowd-involved; ending the occasion with hand claps and riding out the groove. A mix of jazz, funk, and pop in all the best ways, the song would be a worthy way to end the album, complete with a live audience cheering him on as the ending note, but then he hit us with the best vocal performance of his career.

I stated in my Controversy review that “Do Me, Baby” was one of the top two vocal performances of his career. This is the other one, and just to clear that up, this is better. This is the best baby-making jam of all time. The slow, strong snares, the classic Prince falsetto at its highest and most potent, the sexy sax and trumpet duo of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss; everything about this song is just perfect. Dropping the subtitle only adds to the perfection; a long, smooth, sexy love-making joint with an appropriately concise title? Where’s the flaws?

Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you/You own my heart and mind, I truly adore you/If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I’ll still see/Love is too weak to define just what you mean to me

That’s absolutely gorgeous, and it’s the chorus. He even gives us humor in the second verse, peeling a little of the mystique back to give us a laugh.

You can burn up my clothes, smash up my ride/Well, maybe not the ride

It’s not a question then of how he was so seductive when his very nature is this sensual; flirtatious. It’s at the end of the track however, when the track slowly swells to its climatic, gorgeous ending, you realize for as much as he’ll be remembered as “a dog,” in the best way possible of course, it was The Purple One who wrote some of the most poetic and loving lyrics.

I’ll give you my heart, I’ll give you my mind/I’ll give you my body, I’ll give you my time/For all time I am with you, you are with me

I mean, come on, it doesn’t get any more endearing than that. I adore this song, and it’s the best possible way he could’ve ended the record. A complete declaration to love during a tumultuous time in America, as well as when he was undergoing significant changes in his personal life. Reflection, growth, and maturity are the interconnecting traits required to make such a leap in your life, and nearing his 29th year in life, he was willing to make those changes. Where record one reminds us to be positive despite the negative factors in life, record two devotes most of its time to remind us to unapologetically love, make relationships, talk to the opposite sex; have some fun while you have the chance.

In order to properly explain the importance, and greatness, of Sign o’ the Times, allow me to use a metaphor. In the film American Psycho, Patrick Bateman goes on three monologues explaining the pop sensibilities of three different artists. One of them was Phil Collins, and during this particular monologue, he explained to the prostitute he picked up how the early material from Collins’ previous band Genesis was “too intellectual,” and how he “didn’t really understand any of their work”; Purple Rain would likely be Bateman’s favorite shade. Where the intelligent songwriting and stadium-driven, pop rock atmosphere brings in casual music fans like Patrick Bateman who just want to fit in and enjoy what’s current, Sign o’ the Times is the artsy statement, or as the psychotic serial killer would’ve maybe said, “…sounds too black for me,” a lie Bateman told Detective Kimball when asked if he enjoyed Huey Lewis and the News, but there’s always a little truth said in jest. Genesis may have been “too artsy,” but they didn’t have to deal with white businessmen not liking them for that reason. Fore!, their “undisputed masterpiece,” according to Bateman, went straight to #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 in 1986, just five months after Parade stalled at #3 on the same chart. Rather than waste time with an unappreciative guest, Prince confided in himself, and in return, we hold Sign o’ the Times in higher regard as each year passes. Until the end of time, this will all be here, as he stated on his debut, for you.

Editor’s Notes

  1. The start of Prince beginning to cater more to the European market. Beginning with this LP, every album until Diamonds and Pearls was released overseas the day prior to the U.S. release date.
  2. Conflicting reports have “Strange Relationship” recorded in late ’82, but due to Prince being on The 1999 Tour and “I Could Never…” as well as “Teacher, Teacher” having already been recorded, I can only assume this ’82 version was just a general sketch of what the estimated January ’83 tracking became. January ’83 is the best estimate due to the break in-between tour legs from 1/4/83-1/31/83; resuming with a 2/1/83 performance at Savannah Civic Center in Savannah, GA.
  3. Johnson’s forthcoming album was titled Shockadelica, but had no title track. Prince argued every great album title should have a great title track, and so “Shockadelica” was created.
  4. The mix was completed sometime during the 10/26/86-10/30/86 stretch that resulted in vocal overdubs on “Housequake” (10/26), a re-recording of the 1981 track “Feel U Up” (10/27), tracking of “Rebirth of the Flesh” and “Rockhard in a Funky Place” (10/28), and tracking of “Goodlove” (10/30), unless it was done between the tracking of “Goodlove” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”; three days later.
  5. This is one of the songs mentioned in the seventh paragraph, recorded on July 26th, 1986, the day before tracking “Adonis & Bathsheba”; 11 days before “Hot Thing.”
  6. Windy City Times – 8/8/2012
  7. Written under one of Prince’s aliases, Alexander Nevermind, and also produced by The Purple One, but credit was given to the sole producer of the album, Greg Mathieson.
  8. 3:45 – 1999 TROS TV Interview
  9. In his 2010 autobiography Decoded, Jay-Z writes how the ending lyrics on his track “My 1st Single” is “a bad Prince impression”; mentioning him as one of his favorite artists in this interview, ’96 Jay-Z.
  10. NPR – George Clinton, 11/5/2014
  11. So Prince knew the full extent of your relationship? “He wouldn’t spend the night at our house. He was very much aware of it.” – 4/6/2009
  12. Named as such due to Prince recording her verse while she was on the phone, on the other side of the Mississippi River. She opened for Lionel Richie at the Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, OH later that same day.
  13. Detroiters, is this where we got the chant for Magglio Ordóñez from?

2 thoughts on “Retroactive Review: Sign o’ the Times (1987)

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