“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…”
That’s how one of the greatest albums in history opened.
The title track to Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times’” was greeted by critics and fans alike: pure excitement.
Thirty-three years ago, with hit singles like “You Got the Look, “Adore” and “Housequake,” Prince did the unthinkable.
His “Sign o’ the Times” outperformed on every level, “Purple Rain” and “1999.”
In short, “Sign o’ the Times” served as a certifiable masterpiece. It was Prince’s “Thriller,” his “Sgt. Pepper,” or “Mona Lisa.”
But what sets Prince apart – no one thought Michael Jackson could top “Thriller.” Even the King of Pop knew he could never exceed his best. No one expected the Beatles to beat “Sgt. Pepper” and they never did.
And, indeed, Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t replicate the artistic genius of the “Mona Lisa.”
Prince twice topped what many believed represented his artistic crescendo. Many thought the Minneapolis-born superstar would never top the “1999” album which he released in 1982. Yet, less than two years later with the release of “Purple Rain” which topped the charts worldwide.
With hits like “When Does Cry,” “Baby I’m a Star” and “Take Me with You,” “Purple Rain” became the first to win both Best Album Grammy and Best Original Score Oscar.
A groundbreaking tour and blockbuster film followed the album’s release.
After releasing “Around the World in a Day” in 1985 and “Parade” in 1986, to little excitement (compared to “Purple Rain”), some critics and fans opined that Prince had reached his creative peak.
Then came “Sign o’ The Times.”
The opening song and title track begin with a convincing bass and synthesizer and approval from Prince, “Oh Yeah,” he screeches before launching into a tour de force of artistry. The entire album counts as ear candy.
On “U Got the Look,” Prince, with guest Sheena Easton, sings: “Here we are folks. The dream we all dream of/ Boy versus girl in the World Series of love/ Tell me, have you got the look?”
On “Housequake,” he rocks: “We’re gonna shake, we’re gonna quake/’Cause we got the baddest groove that we could a make.”
Turning to his sexual side on “If I Were Your Girlfriend,” Prince pleads: “If I was your girlfriend, would you let me dress you/I mean, help you pick out your clothes before we go out? Not that you’re helpless But, sometimes, sometimes those are the things that bein’ in love’s about.”
Then, on “Hot Thing,” he demands: “Hot thing, maybe you should give your folks a call/Hot thing, tell them you’re going to the Crystal Ball/Hot thing, tell them you’re coming home late if you’re coming home at all.”
And on one of the most memorable love songs ever written, Prince introduces “Adore.”
“Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you/ You own my heart, and mind/I truly adore you/ If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I’ll still see/ Love is too weak to define, just what you mean to me.”
“Boys are cocky. ‘Sign O’ the Times’ was an album made by a grown man,” Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer from 1983 to 1987, told the BBC.
“The charts had moved on, and hip-hop was taking over. There was a world outside his door; there was restlessness; there was curiosity; there was the AIDS epidemic,” Rogers recalled.
BBC wondered whether “Sign o’ The Times” should be considered the greatest album ever made.
Michaelangelo Matos wrote for Rolling Stone in 2004 that the album represented “the most complete example of Prince’s artistry’s breadth and arguably the finest album of the 1980s.”
Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “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.”
Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed Prince’s performance on “Sign o’ the Times” as “a one-man show, a tour de force and a combination that pop’s former prodigy has come of age.”
And Robert Christgau of the acclaimed Village Voice in New York heaped this praise on “Sign o’ the Times,” saying: “The most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a [man] he is for two discs start to finish. Prince’s one-man-band tricks and multi-tracked vocals make Stevie Wonder sound like a struggling ventriloquist. The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection and respect.”
Writer’s note: Take a break from the pandemic and do yourself a favor and revisit “Sign o’ the Times.” You’ll be glad you did.