Sign “☮” the Times
Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 2012 edition (number: 93)
In spring 1987 Prince hit his peak with his 16-track double album, Sign 'O' The Times. Recorded at Paisley Park in Minneapolis and Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, it was his ninth release and his first solo outing since disbanding his band, the Revolution, after their 1986 tour.
Its recording marked the end of a period of unparalleled productivity for Prince – he had once claimed to have 320 finished songs in his vaults – and his collaborations, from film work to playing with his idols such as Mavis Staples and George Clinton. He retreated into the studio, working largely alone with support from Revolution members, piecing the album together from no less than three abandoned projects (Dream Factory, Camille and Crystal Ball).
It was the moment artistic, critical and commercial collide, capturing the quixotic essence of the man – rock here, some folk, hip hop, jazz and, of course, out-and-out funk. The title track was released as a single in February 1987. With its stripped-down Fairlight-driven funk, and topical state-of-the-planet lyrics, it was a proper protest song and was a huge hit both sides of the Atlantic.
The rest of Sign 'O' The Times lives up to the challenge of the single: the quasi-religious imagery of The Cross is a standout. But it's not just the material with gravity that shines through: the 'shut up, already, damn' fluff of Housequake or the kids' anthem Starfish and Coffee are among his best work. Sheena Easton cameos on U Got The Look; Prince's alter-ego Camille duets with him on If I Was Your Girlfriend.
Although Sign 'O' The Times didn't rival his commercial sales peak of Purple Rain, it is his White Album; even the live-with-the-Revolution funk-by-numbers of It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night is redeemed by the slow-dance extraordinaire of Adore. The rock-out of I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man and the complexities of Strange Relationship make this the most satisfying Prince album.
This, and the supporting concert film remain one of the most scintillating documents of an artist at the summit of their powers. It was never the same again. The controversy over The Black Album and the frankly mediocre Lovesexy sent Prince off to enjoy a more conventional, if still controversial, career. But when you listen again to Sign 'O' The Times, you realise why Prince was routinely labelled a genius in the late 80s.