Sign o' the Times

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Sign o' the Times
Prince sign-o-the-times 250.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedMarch 30, 1987
RecordedMarch 1986 – January 1987
Studio
Genre
Length79:52
Label
ProducerPrince
Prince chronology
Parade
(1986)
Sign o' the Times
(1987)
Lovesexy
(1988)
Singles from Sign o' the Times
  1. "Sign o' the Times"
    Released: February 18, 1987
  2. "If I Was Your Girlfriend"
    Released: May 6, 1987
  3. "U Got the Look"
    Released: July 14, 1987
  4. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
    Released: November 3, 1987

Sign o' the Times (often stylized as Sign "☮" the Times) is the ninth studio album by American singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Prince. It was first released as a double album on March 30, 1987,[1] by Paisley Park Records and Warner Bros. Records. The album is the follow-up to Parade and is Prince's first album following his disbanding of the Revolution. The album's songs were largely recorded during 1986 to 1987 in sessions for releases Prince ultimately aborted: Dream Factory, the pseudonymous Camille, and finally the triple album Crystal Ball.[2] Prince eventually compromised with label executives and shortened the length of the release to a double album, whose music encompasses a varied range of styles, including funk, soul, psychedelic pop, electro, and rock.

As with many of Prince's early 1980s albums, Sign o' the Times features extensive use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine on most songs. In addition, many songs on the album feature minimal instrumentation, and use of the Fairlight CMI, a then state-of-the-art digital sampler. Four of the album's standout songs, "Housequake", "Strange Relationship", "U Got the Look" with Sheena Easton, and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" offer sped-up vocals, ostensibly the voice of "Camille", Prince's alter ego of the Sign o' the Times era.

Sign o' the Times' release was supported by several singles, among them the socially conscious "Sign o' the Times" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend"; in addition to a well-received concert film of the same name. Sign o' the Times peaked at number six on the Billboard 200. It reached the top 10 in Austria, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK and reached number one in Switzerland. "Sign o' the Times", "U Got the Look" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" were all top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.[3] Sign o' the Times was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) four months after its release.[4] Following Prince's death in 2016, the album re-entered the Billboard 200 at number 20.

Though not as commercially successful as Purple Rain, Sign o' the Times was Prince's most acclaimed record, being voted 1987's best album in the Pazz & Jop critics poll and since being ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time by several publications. It has been regarded by many critics as Prince's best album, ahead of Purple Rain. Writing for The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Michaelangelo Matos regarded it as "the most complete example of [Prince's] artistry's breadth, and arguably the finest album of the 1980s".[5] In 2017, Sign o' the Times was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[6]

Background[edit]

Prior to the disbanding of the Revolution, Prince was working on two separate projects: The Revolution album Dream Factory and a pseudonymous solo effort, Camille.[7] Unlike the three previous band albums, Dream Factory included input from the band members and lead vocals by Wendy & Lisa.[7] The Camille project saw Prince create an androgynous persona primarily singing in a sped-up, female-sounding voice. With the dismissal of the Revolution, Prince consolidated material from both shelved albums, along with some new songs, into a three-LP album to be titled Crystal Ball.[8] Warner Bros. balked at the idea of trying to sell a three-LP album and forced Prince to trim it down to a double album.[9]

Recording[edit]

As with many of Prince's early 1980s albums, this album features extensive use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine on most songs.[10] In addition, many songs on the album (such as "If I Was Your Girlfriend") feature minimal instrumentation, and use of the Fairlight CMI, a then state-of-the-art digital sampler. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Prince used the stock sounds of the Fairlight to create the title track. Four of the album's standout songs, "Housequake", "Strange Relationship", "U Got the Look" with Sheena Easton, and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" offer sped-up vocals, ostensibly the voice of "Camille", Prince's alter ego of this era.[11]

Prince was known for recording his vocals in the control room area of the studio. Typically, in the recording process, a vocalist records in the recording booth, separated from the control room by a window or soundproof door. To have privacy during the vocal recording process, Prince usually asked his engineer, Susan Rogers, to leave the room. Rogers recalls:

We'd get the track halfway or three-quarters of the way there and then set him up with a microphone in the control room. He'd have certain tracks on the multi-track that he would use and he'd do the vocal completely alone. I think that was the only way he could really get the performance.

On some occasions, Prince recorded vocals with his back to her. Prince monitored the vocals with a pair of headphones so Prince's recording microphone would not pick up the speakers she would usually have used. Prince typically used a Sennheiser 441 dynamic microphone (recommended to him by Stevie Nicks) for recording vocals at this stage in his career.

Though Sign o' the Times was regarded as "less polished" than his earlier efforts, Prince points out that "we spent more time and money on Sign o' the Times than anything he'd ever done. Much more work went into it."

Two of the album's songs were first recorded in 1982 and 1983: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" and "Strange Relationship". Prince did additional work on both for their placement on the Dream Factory project and involved the "Wendy & Lisa" partnership of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman on the former. When the project was canceled, "Strange Relationship" was further updated for Camille. The remaining tracks were recorded between March and December 1986. The surviving Camille tracks feature a playful sped-up vocal. "U Got the Look" was also recorded in this manner, though it was not intended for the Camille album.

Music and lyrics[edit]

Described by Rolling Stone as "the most expansive R&B record" of the 1980s,[12] Sign o' the Times encompasses a wide range of styles. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine said Prince utilizes a palette of genres, "from bare-bones electro-funk and smooth soul to pseudo-psychedelic pop and crunching hard rock, touching on gospel, blues, and folk along the way".[13] Similarly, writer and Prince scholar Ben Greenman observes "spooky political R&B, full-throated psychedelic pop, bone-rattling skeletal funk, and pocket soul so gentle and nuanced you could almost call it folk".[14] According to music journalist Touré, the album is Prince's foray into soul more than anything,[15] while writer and composer Paul Grimstad deemed the record an example of avant-pop.[16] Prince's use of the drum machine throughout the album is an example of "authentic rock music [made] with computers", Yuzima Philip writes in Observer.[17] In the opinion of Star Tribune journalist Jon Bream, the music can be described as an absolute "balance of everything" the artist had explored stylistically up to that point, including "grinding funk, catchy pop, anthemic rock, tender balladry".[18]

Regarding the themes explored throughout the album, MTV News writer Hanif Abdurraqib said it functions "as a political action" and "that the politics are not those of solutions, but those of survival in the face of that which you might not survive for much longer. The politics of survival say that we may dance in the face of a coming apocalypse. We may, in the face of a coming apocalypse, go to bed with someone we love or someone we didn’t know before the night started. We may play in the streets, or fantasize about a new world to run into. On Sign ‘O’ The Times, after laying out the terrifying landscape, Prince pushes the landscape aside, lays out all of our options for survival on a table, and tells us to take our pick."[19]

Release[edit]

Sign o' the Times peaked at number six on the Billboard 200. It reached the top 10 in Austria, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK and reached number one in Switzerland. The singles "Sign o' the Times", "U Got the Look" and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" reached number three, two and ten on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively.[3] Sign o' the Times is regarded as one of Prince's best albums.[20] Following Prince's death in 2016, it re-charted on the Billboard 200 at number 20.

Critical reception[edit]

Sign o' the Times became Prince's most critically acclaimed record.[21] Reviewing for Spin in 1987, Bart Bull said the musician's loosely organized songs are "genius" rather than indulgent and that, although there is no song as groundbreaking as "Girls & Boys", "nobody else's outtakes would sound so strong, rock so hard, swing so free."[22] Don McLeese from the Chicago Sun-Times hailed it as "a one-man show, a tour de force, and a confirmation that pop's former prodigy has come of age."[23] In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau said the album is not a "formal breakthrough" but rather "the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish." He particularly praised Prince's "one-man band tricks" and multi-tracked vocals, which he said "make Stevie Wonder sound like a struggling ventriloquist" and express real emotions: "The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection, and respect. Some of them he may not even fuck."[24]

Sign o' the Times was nominated for Album of the Year at the 30th Grammy Awards.[25] It was voted as the best album of 1987 in The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[26] According to Christgau, the poll's creator, the album was "easily the biggest winner" in the poll's history and "established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer."[27] The title track "Sign o' the Times" was named the best single of 1987 in the poll, while "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" and "U Got the Look" were also voted within the top 10.[26] The album also ranked second among "Albums of the Year" for 1987 in the annual NME critics' poll, and the title track ranked number one among songs.[28] In an interview in December 1989, Robert Smith of the Cure cited Sign o' the Times amongst the best things about the 1980s.[29]

Reappraisal and legacy[edit]

Retrospective professional reviews
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic5/5 stars[13]
Blender5/5 stars[30]
Christgau's Record GuideA+[31]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music5/5 stars[32]
Entertainment WeeklyA[33]
The Guardian5/5 stars[34]
Pitchfork10/10[35]
Q5/5 stars[36]
Rolling Stone5/5 stars[15]
Spin Alternative Record Guide10/10[37]

In the decades that followed, Sign o' the Times has been regarded by critics as Prince's best album.[38] According to journalist Kristen Pyszczyk, "critics tend to be pretty evenly divided over Prince’s best album: about half will go for Purple Rain, and the rest usually vouch for Sign o' the Times, a double album sometimes regarded as Prince's magnum opus."[39] In a retrospective review, John McKie of BBC News cited it as "one of the most acclaimed albums of the second half of the 20th century" and a "masterpiece - encompassing all of [Prince's] musical personas: bedroom balladeer; penitent Christian; one-track-mind loverman; modern-day Basie-style bandleader; whimsical storyteller; meticulous orchestrator, guitar-wielding axeman and pop craftsman."[38] Simon Price deemed it Prince's best album,[34] as did Michaelangelo Matos, who wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that it was "the most complete example of his artistry's breadth, and arguably the finest album of the 1980s".[5] Matos also believed it was "the last classic R&B album prior to hip hop's takeover of black music and the final four-sided blockbuster of the vinyl era".[40]

Writing in The Brooklyn Rail, Grimstad said that Sign o' the Times is "to be included with other double sets that actually cohere (The White Album, The Basement Tapes, Something/Anything). Proves there is no limit to what [Prince] can do."[16] In a BBC Music review, Daryl Easla also compared the record to the Beatles' The White Album, saying "Although Sign ‘O’ The Times didn’t rival his commercial sales peak of Purple Rain, it is his [The] White Album". He also regarded Prince's Sign o' the Times era as one the greatest eras in popular music: "This, and the supporting concert film [Sign o' the Times] remain one of the most scintillating documents of an artist at the summit of their powers...when you listen [again] to Sign 'O' The Times, you realise why Prince was routinely labelled a genius in the late 80s."[41] Keith Harris of Blender called Sign o' the Times a "masterpiece" and comments that "never has [Prince's] curiosity about women strayed into so many unpredictable corners",[30] while Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson deemed it a "double-disc blowout of sweat, funk, and raw, concentrated talent".[42] Kenneth Partridge of Billboard regarded Sign o' the Times as the album that broke the theory of Prince needing the Revolution to "keep him in check" and, like other critics, described the album as a "masterpiece".[43] In a Pitchfork review, Nelson George regarded the artistry in Sign o' the Times as Prince's peak and that, even though some of the production sounds dated, "the scope of the songs, the musicianship, and overall arrangements are just too glorious to nitpick." He concluded that the restless power of the album saves it from being formulaic or complacent: "All these years later, it’s still a vibrant thing, the product of a great artist at the height of his power."[44]

Sign o' the Times has appeared frequently on publications' lists and polls of the greatest albums. According to Acclaimed Music, it is the 26th most acclaimed album on critics' all-time lists and the fourth most acclaimed from the 1980s. In 1989, Time Out magazine ranked Sign o' the Times as the greatest album of all time. The album was ranked number 16 on the New Musical Express list of the All Time Top 100 Albums, 3rd in Hot Press magazine's list of the 100 Best Albums of All Time, and number 35 on VH1's 100 Greatest Albums. The album was also placed 8th on Nieuwe Revu's Top 100 Albums of All Time. The Times listed Sign o' the Times as the 29th greatest album of all time.[45] It was voted number 19 in the third edition of Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums (2000).[46] In 2003, the album was ranked number 93 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[12] maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list.[47] In 2006, Q magazine placed the album at number 12 in its list of "40 Best Albums of the '80s".[48] In 2012, Slant Magazine listed the album at number 11 on its list of "Best Albums of the 1980s", calling it "Prince's most varied album and his most self-consciously auteurish".[49] In 2017, Sign o' the Times was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[6]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Prince, except where noted.

Record one: Side one
No.TitleLength
1."Sign o' the Times"4:57
2."Play in the Sunshine"5:05
3."Housequake"4:42
4."The Ballad of Dorothy Parker"4:01
Record one: Side two
No.TitleLength
1."It"5:09
2."Starfish and Coffee" (Susannah Melvoin, Prince)2:50
3."Slow Love" (Prince, Carole Davis)4:22
4."Hot Thing"5:39
5."Forever in My Life"3:30
Record two: Side three
No.TitleLength
1."U Got the Look" (features uncredited vocals by Sheena Easton)3:47
2."If I Was Your Girlfriend"5:01
3."Strange Relationship"4:01
4."I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"6:29
Record two: Side four
No.TitleLength
1."The Cross"4:48
2."It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" (Doctor Fink, Eric Leeds, Prince)9:01
3."Adore"6:30
  • Sides one through four were combined as tracks 1–16 on CD, and divided by 2 discs with disc 1 containing 9 tracks and disc 2 containing 7 tracks (based on the track listing).

Personnel[edit]

The live audience on "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" is credited for backing vocals under the name of "6,000 wonderful Parisians".

Singles[edit]

  1. "Sign o' the Times"
  2. "La, La, La, He, He, Hee" lyrics jointly written by Sheena Easton
  1. "If I Was Your Girlfriend"
  2. "Shockadelica"
  1. "U Got the Look"
  2. "Housequake"
  1. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"
  2. "Hot Thing" (#63 US, #14 US R&B)
  • Hot Thing (promo)

Note: Except for the title track, all the singles' music videos are the scenes depicted in the concert film; however, the music video for "U Got the Look" was filmed separately. With that being said, Sign O The Times was soon performed live at the VMA and this video made it to VH1 soul, meaning all singles have videos depicted at a club and/or concert.

Charts[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[70] Gold 35,000^
France (SNEP)[71] 2× Gold 280,500[71]
Germany (BVMI)[72] Gold 250,000^
Netherlands (NVPI)[73] Platinum 100,000^
New Zealand (RMNZ)[74] Gold 7,500^
United Kingdom (BPI)[75] Platinum 300,000^
United States (RIAA)[76] Platinum 1,000,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

References[edit]

  1. ^ Draper 2008, p. 135.
  2. ^ Faust, Edwin C. (September 3, 2003). "Playing God: Prince's "Sign O' The Times"". Stylus Magazine. Archived from the original on November 2, 2003. Retrieved August 22, 2011.
  3. ^ a b "Prince Chart History". Billboard. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  4. ^ "Gold & Platinum". RIAA. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Matos, Michaelangelo (2004). "Prince". In Brackett, Nathan; Hoard, Christian (eds.). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 654–657. ISBN 0-7432-0169-8. Retrieved May 12, 2012.
  6. ^ a b "Prince". GRAMMY.com. November 19, 2019. Retrieved November 24, 2019.
  7. ^ a b Draper 2008, pp. 76–78.
  8. ^ Draper 2008, p. 80.
  9. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Sign 'O' the Times". Billboard. Archived from the original on May 9, 2013. Retrieved March 3, 2009.
  10. ^ Ferguson, Randy (March 30, 2017). "A Look At Sign O' The Times: 30 Years Later". BandedBox. Retrieved February 5, 2020.
  11. ^ Reynolds, Simon (April 22, 2016). "How Prince's Androgynous Genius Changed the Way We Think About Music and Gender". Pitchfork. Retrieved February 5, 2020.
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  13. ^ a b Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Sign 'O' the Times – Prince". AllMusic. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  14. ^ Greenman, Ben (2017). Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince. Henry Holt and Company. p. 43. ISBN 1250128374.
  15. ^ a b Touré (October 8, 2002). "Prince: Sign O' The Times". Rolling Stone. New York. ISSN 0035-791X. Retrieved September 15, 2011.
  16. ^ a b Grimstad, Paul (September 4, 2007). "What is Avant-Pop?". Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  17. ^ "How Prince Unleashed a Cultural Revolution on 'Sign 'O' The Times'". Observer. March 31, 2017. Retrieved January 30, 2020.
  18. ^ Bream, Jon (April 30, 2016). "Prince's albums: A complete critical guide to all 37 official releases". Star Tribune. Retrieved January 30, 2020.
  19. ^ Willis-Abdurraqib, Hanif. "Prince's Sign 'O' The Times And Surviving The End". MTV News. Retrieved January 2, 2020.
  20. ^ Dobuzinskis, Alex; Serjeant, Jill (April 22, 2016). "'Purple Rain' superstar Prince, 57, dies at US studio complex". Reuters. MSN.com. Scroll down to the slide show and reach 10/21 slides. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
  21. ^ Dobuzinskis, Alex; Serjeant, Jill (April 22, 2016). "'Purple Rain' superstar Prince, 57, dies at US studio complex". Reuters. MSN.com. Scroll down to the slide show and reach 10/21 slides. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
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  39. ^ Pyszczyk, Kristen (September 4, 2017). "What's your Prince horoscope?". Medium. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
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  73. ^ "Dutch album certifications – Prince – Sign o' the Times" (in Dutch). Nederlandse Vereniging van Producenten en Importeurs van beeld- en geluidsdragers. Retrieved May 2, 2011. Enter Sign o' the Times in the "Artiest of titel" box.
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  75. ^ "British album certifications – Prince – Sign o' the Times". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved April 2, 2014. Select albums in the Format field. Select Platinum in the Certification field. Type Sign o' the Times in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
  76. ^ "American album certifications – Prince – The Times". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved May 2, 2013. If necessary, click Advanced, then click Format, then select Album, then click SEARCH. 

Bibliography

  • Draper, Jason (2008). Prince: Life & Times. Jawbone Press. ISBN 1906002185.

External links[edit]