Sign O’ The Times: 30 years later, a look at the importance of Prince’s critically acclaimed album back in 1987 and today.
Imagine yourself as an artist. Actually, a musician. You have reached the height of your fame, people love you, critics love you, you’re internationally known.
You’ve sold countless amount records, had one successful movie and one okay movie made. You’re traveling with the best band in the world on a remarkable tour. A tour so influential, D’Angelo garnered inspiration for his “The Voodoo World Tour” in 2000.
You are on a complete high, then suddenly, you just don’t care anymore. You split up your band, the girlfriend you loved and adored leaves you and you are all alone. And you can’t figure out why your record company doesn’t respect you anymore.
If you can imagine this, then you are living the life of Prince in 1987, when he created his magnum opus, Sign O’ The Times. A 16-track, double album, sprawling with Minneapolis Funk, folk, rock, an early use of neo-soul and R&B.
This album showed the musical strength of Prince that he can, perform any genre and churn it out to be a hit or at least a spectacular song. Prince not only created such passion with his vocals on certain songs (“Adore”, “It”, “Sign ‘O’ The Times”), he used the Linn LM-1 drum machine repeatedly and made it sound so fresh and innovated in each song (“Housequake, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, “Strange Relationship”).
He also found solitude with spiritual freedom (“The Cross”, “Starfish and Coffee, “Play in the Sunshine”), exploring further than he did on 1985’s “Around the World in a Day”.
In a sense, this album truly revealed who Prince really was, a musician giving us his world from a musical point of view; this piece of artistry has truly been missing in today’s standard of music. (Thankfully you can stream it on any music streaming site.)
An Unfollowed Formula To A Hit Record.
Thirty years later, after the passing of Prince, Sign O’ The Times has been analyzed, taken apart, dissected into a study of creating a nearly flawless album. Nelson George, 29 years later, wrote: “…a double album made with a restlessness that never allows it to settle into complacency or formula.”
Simply stating, Sign O’ The Times doesn’t follow the formula of a perfect album, nor does it try to be one. Remember, most of the album is a collection of recordings created a year prior to the album’s release and is stripped down from a 3 disc record.
It is essentially, a complication album that was sequenced and placed together perfectly. The songs blend well together, the music ages gracefully, there’s no filler because each song has its own raw emotion. If you compare “Adore” to “Do Me, Baby”, you can see that Prince is not just talking about sex in general. He is truthfully pouring his heart out to his woman, showing her that having sex with her will make angels cry, it is a beautiful visual that God created sex for. An act that intertwines love and God, an conversation Prince will discover and talk about in the followup album Lovesexy. It is honestly, Prince’s first mature album.
The period following 1987 was the first time Prince had to play catch up in the music scene. Once a music transcender in 1984, Prince exposed the Minneapolis Sound to the rest of the world. Other artist began using similar techniques in their music, for instance, Ready for The World’s “Oh Shelia” or “Let Me Love you Down” are tracks you would think came from Prince.
Three years later, Run-DMC would take Hip-Hop music to higher heights, Whitney Houston was blazing up the charts and interest in Michael Jackson‘s upcoming album Bad was at an all-time high.
Kids were bumping hip-hop and not Prince. “Kiss” was a cool record, but it didn’t catch on the same way Hip-Hop did. Even so, Prince was still taboo in many families, kids would sneak to listen to “Darlin’ Nikki” or the “Dirty Mind” album. Questlove himself has stories about sneaking a listen or two of the “1999” album behind his parents back.
Although, listening to a Prince album at the age of 14-years old was close to getting to second base. You just knew you would end up hearing something about sex but in a higher sense. Nevertheless, Prince had to either go to the hip-hop scene or create something spectacular that would get people talking about him again.
Can’t Nobody F**k With Us.
When Sign O’ The Times drop March 30th, 1987 and lingered around the charts, critics widely praised the album. Famed music journalist Robert Christgau claimed that “Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish.”
Critics deemed this as Prince’s best album, but did the public agree?
The public agreed to the point where Sign O’ The Times hit #6 on the Billboard 200, #4 on the Billboard R&B charts and sold over 3 million copies. “U Got the Look” reached #2 on the Billboard 100, the title track reached #3 and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reached #10.
The album did alright in 1987, but culturally, people could care less about the album. Some people felt Prince created music for white audiences. Nelson George criticizes Prince’s abandonment of his first audience, the black community. There was only a handful of R&B/Funk tracks on Sign O’ The Times (“Adore was the latter to it that people still fall in love with) and the rest were pop/rock tracks and the black community couldn’t connect with the music.
It also didn’t help that Prince only toured Europe for the album and not America. Prince knew he was losing his black audience, therefore he created The Black Album, a mammoth of funk, dissing hip-hop and R&B tracks that he knew would get the black audience back. That’s another story to talk about.
Thirty years later, the black audience views this album as a juggernaut to Prince’s career, knowing it is one his best albums. They recognized it as the body of work that included the early creation of neo-soul on “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”.
Listening to the song, at the beginning, you have a complex Linn drums pattern playing at a loop, a swanky, un-tuned electric piano playing a dream like a chord. Laying in the back of the mix is the bass grooving along with the piano, while Prince actually played the drums with the Linn pattern, triggering the right amount of hi-hats and fillers to get the track popping.
The mix was at fault due to an electric problem that was caused by a snow storm, giving that dull, dense mix of the track, but it gave it character. The song structure makes “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” the inaugural neo-soul song. There is no chorus, it is straight story telling found in most neo-soul songs (Harken Erykah Badu’s “On & On”). The lyrics make the song realistic and relatable, a common characteristic of neo-soul music. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is a rare gem of a song, no matter how weird it sounds, it’s still a bad ass song that no one could recreate.
The same can go for “Housequake” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. Those two tracks symbolize the characteristics of the album. On those two songs Prince’s vocals are pitched up and his alter-ego Camille takes over.
Camille was created when Prince was experimenting with tape speed, he did this in early recordings of “Erotic City” and “Hello”. Prince would accomplish this is by recording the music first at normal speed, then he would sing and record the song at half speed, then play it back at normal speed and voila, Camille is born.
Prince planned to release an album full of “Camille” songs, with “Housequake” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, but pulled the plug at the last minute. “Housequake” is a funk jam Bono famously said, “People like Prince wouldn’t be just a song and dance man which he isn’t that. U2 wouldn’t be able to make ‘Housequake'”.
That statement doesn’t really express how powerful the song truly is. It is another dimension of Funk, that can’t be recreated. The driving bass gives the track it’s full funkiness, while the Linn drums and live drums put in work, keeping you dancing. The groove is downright dirty and nasty and will make you put your Funk face on. Critics say this track is a tribute to dance tracks of the 1960’s and James Brown, but this record stands on its own. It is truly a classic Prince song.
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”, a song that left people confused at that time with lyrics like:
If I was your girlfriend
Would you let me dress you
I mean, help you pick out your clothes
Before we go out
Not that you’re helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein’ in love’s about.
Some people thought Prince was speaking from a female point of view to a man. It got people kind of upset, but not too upset because they were confused on what the hell “staring at silence” is all about.
The song is about being jealous of his girl and her best friend’s close relationship. Not only are the lyrics mind-bending, it’s a concept never written before in any fashion. In the beginning, you have a collage of sounds, reminiscent of The Beatles “Revolution 9”. Then the Linn drums come in, which lets the listener understand, this is going to be a trippy song. Then the bass comes in, giving it a groove you can stride to with a serious bass line, and cold synthesizers, which lends room to focus on the lyrics.
Sign O’ The Times is an album I adore and listen to 2-3 times every month. A new listen means a new study, a new experience that I didn’t encounter before. It affected me as a musician, that I can push my limit to whatever I want to and make music just for me. But also, it affected me personally because, this album reflected who I was when I was 16 years old, just being a new person when I have lived a previous life of being on top. Thirty years later, it’s an album people have grown to appreciate and love wholeheartedly. Many have come close to creating an album like this (Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/LoveSounds), but those projects don’t capture the essence of Sign O’ The Times.
In 1987, the future looked bleak, the space race was at its high, drugs were being pushed all around the inner cities, love wasn’t pure love anymore. Thinking about it, thirty years later, we are almost in the same place. This album is still relevant to this day. Everyone needs a little truth, everyone needs a little love, everyone needs a little sex.
Sign O’ The Times is an album adored by his fans until the end of time. It is the heart and mind of every musician. If God one day struck people to be deaf, the sound of the album will still be heard. The influence and love are too weak to define what the album means to the world until the end of time.