Most of Prince's double albums (and the triples and the quadruples) make even his staunchest fans occasionally want to shriek, “Shut up, already! Damn!” The extended bouts of foreplay that made perfect sense during Prince's heyday of sexual conquests clearly lapsed into a more tiresome form of purgatorial pilgrimage as he cocooned himself into the Artist. And it's not even like we needed hours upon hours of thrust and grind to grasp his tantric endurance. He used to make it so much easier to take him at his lascivious word. After all, didn't his first major critical breakthrough come, contrary to his boasts that he wanted to “Do It All Night,” via Dirty Mind's 30 scant minutes?
So while Emancipation made one nostalgic for slavery, and Crystal Ball's gleaming high points had to fight their way through the cloudy haze of the Carmen Electra years, Sign 'O' the Times is an almost too-convenient double-disc blowout of sweat, funk, and raw, concentrated talent. I say too convenient because of how easy it has apparently proven for so many to use the album as some sort of last chapter on Prince: the good years (or, more to the point, the Prince and the Revolution years, since the album's penultimate jam “It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” was the band's last), absolving themselves from tackling the landmine-strewn but still rewarding aftermath. Anyone who refuses the playful self-awareness of the Love Symbol album, the expulsively dark majesty of Come, or the gorgeous (self-)loathing of “I Hate U”—or, for that matter, refuses to dance to his pre-rock pre-history including “Just As Long As We're Together,” an atmospheric disco odyssey worthy of the Loft's heyday—has probably never contemplated a strange relationship, much less ventured beyond the missionary position.
For an 80-minute album that sounds, paradoxically, as tight and focused as anything Prince has released, Sign 'O' the Times was born from a number of stalled projects and should have, by all rights, sounded like a bloated set of B-sides. (Not that a collection of his unreleased material from this project wouldn't still be a monster classic. Had he managed to find a platform for the technoid funk of “Data Bank” and “The Line,” that alone would've presaged the electronica boom of the 1990s.) In fact, when the project went by the temp title Crystal Ball (a title he would later reuse in the 1990s to collect, among other things, some of the tracks that didn't make Sign 'O' the Times), it actually did stretch to as many as six LP sides. A number of tracks were culled from prospective releases Dream Factory (itself a multi-disc) and Camille, an entire album featuring Prince singing with that pitched-up voice made famous in “Erotic City”; think Parliament's Sir Nose wearing a white lace garter belt. While nearly every track involved in the creation of Sign 'O' the Times has seen the light of day (or at least the darker corners of file-sharing hideouts), and some would've been highlights in any context (“Joy In Repetition” springs to mind—repeatedly), Prince managed to whittle his mountains of material into something like a statement.
The album's through line can be found in the juxtaposition of two songs and the resolution to be found in a third.
Better than that even. If the album's title track-cum-opening salvo reduces Prince's mission down to a few headlines that apparently happened to catch his eye the day he went in to record, the remainder finds him writing the Encyclopedia Shockedelica. It's a manifesto that would require an entire monograph to unpack (Michaelangelo Matos's monograph for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, to be exact). Among the bullet points are the leftover rah-rah of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (written as early as 1982), the itchy funk inferno of “Housequake,” the club afterglow of “U Got the Look” (I've been dodging ugly lights ever since), and the indescribable oddity that is “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” which, to the best of my understanding, is about how men seldom make passes at girls with loose asses.
But the album's through line can be found in the juxtaposition of two songs and the resolution to be found in a third. 1999 fired a warning shot that made the refrain from “Let's Go Crazy” (“I'm excited and I don't know why/Maybe it's 'cause we're all going to die”) inevitable, but Sign 'O' the Times practically opens the seventh seal, bringing down upon Prince's signature Minneapolis sound an apocalyptic housequake. In retrospect, it's easy to see why the critics cottoned so enthusiastically to the album—it reversed his slip into the no-traction psychedelia of Around the World In a Day and Parade. No song makes that more painfully clear than “It.” “I think about it baby all the time,” howls Prince in the song's rigid opening moments. Although he's not talking about Pennywise the Clown, the intensity in his vocals and the spare, horror-show synth stabs that rip into an otherwise unadorned, snare-heavy rhythm track suggest something worse. In “It,” Prince confronts the possibility that his sex life that has been so good to him previously is now in danger of becoming his worst, most all-consuming enemy. Somewhere, Trent Reznor's drawing board was receiving the first drafts of a pretty hate machine.
In the wake of this career-altering discovery, Prince emerges with a newfound clarity. As a result, the gender-neutrality that was at the start of his career played for cheek gets a total overhaul, resulting in what is likely the best and most provocative single in Prince's entire career. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is familiar in that it's a sex opus told in the second person, but many of the gender reference points for the song's narrator are missing or contradicted. Is this the song of a hetero male wishing he were a woman so that he could achieve intimacy with another woman while her guard is down? Would that make him a lesbian? Is it instead the song of a homo male pining for an unavailable hetero male? Is that why so much of this fantasy involves otherwise pedestrian domestic chores like cooking and dressing up, mundane indulgences just out of reach? Complicating matters is the fact that “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is one of the songs on Sign 'O' the Times in which Prince sings as Camille, ostensibly a woman. The androgynous vertigo of the lyrics are complemented by half-speed clap samples, steamy, growling synthesizer chords somewhere in the next room and a bassline so filtered it's practically treble. Musically speaking, the track is buck nekkid.
These two poles—the tormented, out-of-control heterosexuality of “It” and the delirious, woozy every-other-sexuality of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”—are settled in the album's enraptured (emphatically heterosexual) coda “Adore,” a slow jam that radiates the confidence of a man who dared to question his sexuality. A man who pondered and solved the romantic equation and also showed his work. Who is man enough to admit he would rather you don't smash up his ride but, that said, will beg for love in as high a falsetto as he can muster? No chorus, no verse, “Adore” is no more and no less than an escalating testament to a newfound understanding of romantic bliss. Sign 'O' the Times begins a fragmented mess, sifting through the wreckage of a shuttle explosion and the AIDS crisis, but it ends with a singular baptismal flourish.