The biggest problem with being a singular mind and talent is that there comes a point at which you are chasing only yourself, trying to find new ways to rebuild the miracles that only your hands know how to build. Prince built his legacy in the years between 1980 and 1984, in a series of four albums: Dirty Mind in 1980, Controversy in 1981, 1999 in 1982, and the titanic Purple Rain in 1984. It marks an incredible run — one of the greatest in music history, punctuated by an album that would, for most artists, be impossible to top. These albums showed Prince's full evolution from hedonist to hitmaker, expanding his range as a songwriter and carving out a permanent home on the charts by the middle of the decade.
The best artists don’t peak as much as they find new ways to enter the same conversation they’ve been trying to have with both their audience and themselves. From 1985 until 1987, Prince retreated creatively, releasing a bomb of a film (Under the Cherry Moon) and two less-stellar albums, Around the World in a Day and Parade, even though the latter was better received (especially in retrospect) and gave us “Kiss.” This period can be seen as strategic, and not entirely a failure. Someone like Prince, who had such an intimate understanding of his vision and capabilities, was interested in producing work, but not work that was driven by the pressure to top his masterpiece. He had reached the point in the game at which an artist can coast, having already put up enough points to cushion any comeback attempt by the vast majority of his direct peers.
Prince, though, was burdened with too much limitless vision to rest on what he’d already built without building something newer and just as challenging, or perhaps better. In the early fall of 1986, Prince disbanded The Revolution, his backing band, after hitting a wall working on the Revolution-heavy double-album project Dream Factory. The album fell apart when Prince, after initially trying to appease the band’s complaints about songwriting credits, took it over for himself, replacing their songs with his solo efforts. At the same time, Prince was also cobbling together an album called Camille, to be released under an alter-ego, with the vocals sped up to sound as if a woman was singing them.
At the end of this creative burst, Prince was left with no band and a wild arc of songs that didn’t directly face each other in any way, in sound or theme. The logic, then, was to pull from both shelved albums to create a triple album called Crystal Ball. After fighting with his label, Warner Bros., Crystal Ball was also shelved. Prince was told that there would be no use for it unless the triple album could be trimmed to a double album. So, with three shelved albums and a label that wouldn’t meet his vision where it was, despite his record of delivering massive hits, Prince had to reconsider his approach.
The joke whispered into the cover art of 1987’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, released 30 years ago this week, is that Prince has left all of his biggest and brightest moments behind him. There are illuminated signs in the background advertising arcades, bars, girls, and hotels. A drum set sits on the hood of an old car. Prince’s signature guitar is laying on the ground at the edge of a pile of flowers. It is a bright and glamorous shot, punctuated, in the lower right corner, by Prince himself. The artist is blurry, and only half in the photo, walking away from it all, one eye turned toward the camera. For all of the talk of the politics in the album's content — which is indeed worth unearthing — the album itself was a political act before the music began. Isolation can be a political act. Refusing to contain yourself and giving in to sprawl can be a political act. Forcing yourself into a conversation with the past version of yourself and creating a new road instead of building on top of the old one is, almost always, a political act.
Sign ‘O’ The Times clocks in at nearly 80 minutes, Prince’s longest album to that point, and almost double the length of Purple Rain. It is, musically, one of the last double albums in rock history that doesn’t feel exhausting. This is, in part, because some of it is pulled together from two different projects — but another reason is because Prince himself seemed to be more thematically curious: about women, about time, about life (his own and the interior lives of others).
The talk of Prince as bandleader is accurate and impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the talk of Prince as the band himself, playing into whatever his impulses allowed for. It was, essentially, a one-man-band album, littered with tons of samplers and Prince’s wide range of songwriting. But more than that, it was an album of brilliant structure and the confidence of Prince’s editorial eye and ear. Sign ‘O’ The Times was a ground-up effort, starting with the dismantling, rebuilding, refining, and sharpening of what was once Crystal Ball. This is the hard and far less glamorous part of Sign ‘O’ The Times that doesn’t get talked about as much: the way that it was a child of many parents, still put together and refashioned in a manner that honored all of them, and the artist that pushed them forward.
To restart the album, Prince first pulled the “Crystal Ball” title track, which took up an entire half of an album side, and leaned instead into another track as the lighthouse. “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” as a song, is a perfect opener for this album. Sparse, electric, and haunting, it isn’t so much a political call to action as it is an archive. Someone steps outside to yell the news of the world to the apathetic masses. “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name” is the line that opens the album, and it is as much a lyric as it is a literary device: showing and not telling. At the end of the '80s, no one had to be told the name of the disease to know it was AIDS. The song trudges on, somewhat apocalyptically, with Prince rattling off notes on nuclear bombs and crack cocaine. It is a song without a solution, like walking through the aftermath of an apocalypse. But this is what makes it the best song to open the album. Prince had no answers, but those without answers shouldn’t be denied their mourning when it arrives.
In a way, the album was Prince’s way of staying ahead of the curve. In 1987, rap had been archiving the street’s stories for mass consumption for years. The title track on Sign ‘O’ The Times serves as Prince echoing back what he was picking up: raw, touchable storytelling with no necessary end in sight. But the album’s main fight doesn’t rest in those politics as much as it rests in the politics between sin and pleasure, the thin rope that Prince walked for his entire career. A song like “Hot Thing,” for example, churns along with an electronic beat that gives off the steam of sex. And while some of the lyrics are certainly sexual (“Hot thing, what's your fantasy? / Do you want to play with me?”), so much of the sexual encounter is implied while Prince, instead, plays up a connection built outside of any immediate sexual urges (“Hot thing, when you smile, when you smile, when you smile / Are your smiles, are your smiles for me?”). The balance comes with ballads like “Slow Love” and the iconic “Adore,” the latter closing the album and finding Prince showing off his considerable vocal dexterity over an Eric Leeds horn part, punctuating every movement.
Though he gets righteous credit for his more explicitly sexual songs, like the bold and aggressive “It,” one could argue that Prince’s best explorations of intimacy that translate to real life are his ballads. He always seemed to understand himself best here, building toward some grand musical climax that pays off in “Adore” like in almost no other Prince song. It takes work to deny yourself a quick dose of pleasure in the name of some shared, slow-collecting dance. The best Prince ballads are made for that work. To open this album with “Sign ‘O’ The Times” is to say, “the world is coming apart at the seams.” To close this album with “Adore” is to add, “but we’re still here for now, and the time is right for honoring the bodies we still have.”
Sign ‘O’ The Times is kaleidoscopic in vision, which, when paired with its length, makes it a lot to take in, due to how much is happening in each track and how rapidly the genre shifts follow one another. From the whimsical piano of “Starfish and Coffee” to the old-timey ballad “Slow Love” to the jazzy choral arrangement of “Play in the Sunshine,” it is both fascinating and overwhelming to understand the mind of Prince. It is a restless album that would, perhaps, sound unfocused if the artist behind it weren't so skilled at forcing the most out of all of its moments. The arrangements are, largely, without flaw, daring and delicious.
Sign ‘O’ The Times is a soundtrack, not just for the era of the world it sits in, but the era of Prince that it sits in. It is entirely specific to the uncertainty and risk that Prince was asking of both himself and his listeners in 1987. If it is briefly frantic, it seems only right, coming from an artist who was entering the end of his most brilliantly productive decade with questions about his future in the next, up against creative choices that hadn’t been as well received as his previous ones. There is reportage and storytelling here, in songs like the aforementioned “Starfish and Coffee,” which tells the tale of an eccentric child. Then there is the boastful Prince of “Strange Relationship,” which opens with the line “I guess you know me well / I don’t like winter / But I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold.” The album feels like watching someone try on 16 different outfits in a row, killing all of them.
My favorite song on the album is “Housequake,” a funk jam with a synth drum and a bass that is almost speaking out loud, summoning anyone stagnant to the nearest available and un-danced-on surface. By the time the live horns jump into the mix, the song makes it impossible to sit still. I like most that “Housequake” is only one track removed from the opening song, in such a way that feels like Prince throwing up his hands and saying, “the world isn’t going to fix itself, so we might as well dance.”
There have been few times in my life as uncertain as these, today, and I don’t want to make light of them by waxing poetic about how pop music and a great album from 30 years ago will save us. But what I like about Sign ‘O’ The Times as a political action is that the politics are not those of solutions, but those of survival in the face of that which you might not survive for much longer. The politics of survival say that we may dance in the face of a coming apocalypse. We may, in the face of a coming apocalypse, go to bed with someone we love or someone we didn’t know before the night started. We may play in the streets, or fantasize about a new world to run into. On Sign ‘O’ The Times, after laying out the terrifying landscape, Prince pushes the landscape aside, lays out all of our options for survival on a table, and tells us to take our pick.