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Think of this as Prince's very own 'White Album'. Like the Beatles' famed 2-LP masterpiece, 'Sign O The Times' foregoes any kind of unifying theme; what it offers instead is a dazzling showcase of everything that Prince does best. Its lack of focus can probably be explained by the circumstances surrounding its conception. Newly divorced from his backing band (The Revolution), the singer/composer recorded a monumental amount of material between 1986 and 1987 that was being earmarked for several different projects. Eventually, he delivered to his then-record company, Warner Brothers, a 3-LP set entitled 'Crystal Ball', which Warners promptly rejected because of its commercial riskiness. The compromise was a condensed, 2-LP version baring the title 'Sign O The Times'.
Over a spare beat and some bluesy guitar riffing, the title track opens the album somewhat ominously, touching on social ills like gang violence, drug use and AIDS. From there, the singer gives us James Brown-inspired rave-ups ("Housequake", "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night"), plenty of dancefloor raunch ("U Got The Look", "Hot Thing"), rousing rockers ("I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man"), a touch of whimsy ("Starfish And Coffee") and some of the most romantic music of his entire catalogue ("Adore", "Forever In My Life"). Standout track? Hard to pick just one, so I'll narrow it down to the uplifting anthem "The Cross" and the deliciously clever "If I Was Your Girlfriend". For anybody new to his music (if such people exist), a greatest hits package would serve as a more appropriate, less intimidating introduction, but for my money 'Sign O The Times' is Prince at the peak of his immense creative powers. Michael Jackson may have sold more albums in the 80's, but His Purpleness ruled that decade.
By the way, if you dig this album, make sure to seek out some of the many leftover tracks from his aborted projects from this period, which have been made available over the years through various sources (e.g. B-sides; compilations). Songs like "Shockadelica", "Power Fantastic" and the jaw-dropping, 10-minute epic "Crystal Ball" are as good as anything on 'Sign O The Times', which is saying a hell of a lot.
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