Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: Unpacked

Only Prince could release a double album and have it be considered a back-to-basics move. His 1987 masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times, works in spite of itself, bubbling over with ideas and sounds that form an encyclopedic study of funk music and reconnect Prince to himself and to his roots. On its 30th anniversary, it sounds just as timeless, complex, and vital.

But in the wake of its triumph, it’s easy to forget Prince had a difficult 1986. His label, Warner Brothers, did very little to promote “Kiss,” a song from his then-latest album, Parade. The record doubled as the quasi-soundtrack to Prince’s directorial debut, Under The Cherry Moon, in which he also starred, however, widespread critical pans prevented it from becoming his next Purple Rain. Additionally, members of his band, The Revolution, wanted more credit for their involvement in the songwriting process, particularly Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, resulting in Prince dissolving the band and scrapping his next record, a project called Dream Factory. At the same time, his relationship with Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister) was on shaky ground.

He eventually poured his work into Crystal Ball, a triple album that combined new songs, reworked songs from Dream Factory, and songs he’d written for Camille, a failed offshoot in the vein of his female-fronted acts Vanity 6 and Apollonia. Warner had doubts about the album and the feasibility of releasing a triple album after having such a rocky year. Embattled, Prince was on his own for the first time in years.

Obliging Warner, he cut Crystal Ball down to a double LP, renaming it Sign O’ The Times. Rather than sounding like a record with its wings clipped, Sign has absolutely no filler despite its still-sprawling size and the fact that it had been cobbled together from other projects—as soon became clear, Prince would stockpile songs and save them for later throughout his entire career.

If anything, the record revels in natural contradictions. The minimal drum beat of “It” and the lean, undeniable funk of “Housequake” are set against the maximum pop of “Strange Relationship” and the live full-band exhibitionism of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night.” Styles and time periods are juxtaposed as well, with references to Grandmaster Flash (the title track), Joni Mitchell (“The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”), Sly Stone (“Forever In My Life”), and Prince himself (“Adore”) grounded in songs that sound modern yet often recall the paisley-eyed heyday of peace and love. This was undeniably a return to form and a conversation between styles and even genders, all held together by Prince’s ample charisma—which can be seen as well as heard in the concert film that followed.

This slamming playlist serves to contextualize this overwhelming record, sussing out reference points and digging up discarded songs to highlight the brilliance of the record as well as the process that created it.