There has never been a doubt in my mind that Sign ‘o’ the Times (that ‘o’ is stylized as a peace sign in the title) is the best Prince album. For me, it represents The Artist at his peak, showcasing all of the styles that he’s proficient in. Though it is very much an album of its time, in this case 1987, with references to the AIDS pandemic, the Challenger disaster, Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program, and the crack epidemic, it still sounds as fresh as today’s newspaper — or, given the state of the newspaper business, maybe I should say the most recent website update.
The album opens with the title track. The sound of a sequencer creates a water dripping effect and Prince takes on the role of a herald, chronicling the events of the day, while warning of the peril ahead:
“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.
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys
And their idea of fun,
Is being in a gang called the Disciples
High on crack, toting a machine gun.”
Chilling is the only way to describe it. Even as I listen now, the dark days of the late ’80s come vividly back to life through this song. All is not gloom and doom however. As I said earlier, this album connects on a number of levels. There’s also the primal electro-funk of songs like “Housequake” and “Hot Thing,” an epic nod to spirituality on “The Cross,” steamy jams like “Slow Love,” and the album closing “Adore.” Of course there’s the great pop songwriting that Prince is perhaps best known for on songs like “Play In the Sunshine,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and the album’s biggest hit, “U Got the Look,” sung as a duet with Sheena Easton. Throw in a little gender-bending with “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and the simply lovely “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and you have yourself a classic double album.
After a great deal of success with the Revolution, Prince returned to his roots on Sign ‘o’ the Times and made a solo album. He wrote the songs, played all the instruments, and sung all the vocals on this one. Prince has made a lot of great music in the last 20 years, but for me, this was his summit.