More about: Prince
On 31 March 1987, Sign “O” the Times, Prince’s ninth studio album, was released into the world.
The album’s eponymous lead track alone caused a cultural revolution, establishing Prince’s musical output as more than a sexually-charged celebration. 'Sign O’ the Times’ political message was hammered into public consciousness through one of the first ever lyric videos. Akin to a speed reading training video, viewers were forced to read along and face the bleak reality of drug addiction, the AIDS crisis, and racial inequality as lyrics disappeared as fast as they arrived. A metaphor in itself…
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It was always in Prince’s nature to be confrontational, to push boundaries, but the song 'Sign O’ the Times' was a statement of intent, forcing many to face their uncomfortable reality. Luckily, it was also in Prince’s nature to make music undeniably listenable, accessible, and empowering whilst continuously pushing boundaries in new and unheard of ways.
Prince’s musical prowess is displayed in every element of Sign “O” the Times, and whilst his compositional choices seem effortless, or even improvised, they are finely tuned to provoke emotion. In the chorus of 'Strange Relationship', for example, he implements a minor seventh at the end of the line “I hate 2 see U sad” after the major lift of the first line, perfectly posed to induce a bluesy longing in the listener.
Prince’s understanding of intermingling music and emotion on this album proves he was one in a million, and whilst the production sometimes errs on the side of undeniable '80s kitsch, Sign “O” the Times absolutely holds up as an exemplary album to this day.
Contextually, this album was a struggle for Prince to release. Between his last album Parade and the release of Sign “O” the Times, Prince had scrapped three different albums due to label tension. Therefore, by the time Sign “O” the Times was released, songs from different aborted albums had bled into the final track listing—including four songs written from the perspective of Prince’s female alter-ego Camille. So, whilst Parade, 1999, and even Purple Rain seemingly had singular goals, Sign “O” the Times, brimming with ideas, tried to do it all.
Though this turbulent compilation of ideas produced a brilliant album, it would be foolish to skip over its contribution of some of the bizarrest musical entries in recent history. 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker', with its decay-heavy synths and subdued, ongoing funky instrumentation, carries Prince sharing an almost form-less story with the most insane trajectory. Only Prince could convince fans to enjoy a rambling story about taking a fully-clothed bubble bath with a waitress acquaintance to quell your anger issues four tracks into the album.
But perhaps it was Prince’s audacious choices that constituted his genius.
Only Prince could release 'If I Was Your Girlfriend', a song from the perspective of Camille, with pitched-up vocals sharing chaste yearning leading into a spoken word outro with a whirring build to a boiling point of graphically-explicit lyricism.
Again, it is only Prince who could lead straight from the song's climax into 'Strange Relationship', a song with a riff that would likely go on to inspire composers writing for Mario Kart.
And only Prince could release a song with the lyrics “starfish and coffee / maple syrup and jam / butterscotch clouds, a tangerine / and a side order of ham” followed by the playfully condescending “if you set your mind free, baby / maybe you’d understand” and not appear as pretentious as, say, Beck refusing to explain “dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose”.
Prince offered something genuine through his storytelling that all fans could connect to: it didn’t matter that he would sometimes present inaccessible lyricism or instrumentation beyond its time, his magic touch was enough…and we wouldn’t get it anyway. Prince was always way beyond his time.
None of this is criticism, they’re pinpoints of standout moments on an album that, through its provocative nature, sustains timeless relevance. I share 'The Ballad of Dorothy Parker' to see people's excited disbelief. I always recommend 'Strange Relationship' and 'Housequake' first, two of the four Camille songs, because they are musically rich and make me want to dance. I play 'Starfish and Coffee' because it is a tune and I want to sing along to the chorus at the top of my lungs.
So what if Sign "O" The Times was not Prince's highest charting? This was Prince’s Magnum Opus, his creative peak, and without it the music world would be a very different place.
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More about: Prince