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When Prince got 'Black for real': The radical ambition of 'Sign O' the Times'

By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Prince needed only a few minutes to paint an indelible picture of the moment when he opened his landmark 1987 album, "Sign O' the Times," with a haunting title track about AIDS, crack and Ronald Reagan.

Put another way, the song takes up a deadly disease, a national drug addiction crisis and a president resented by many for prioritizing economic gain over human well-being.

Sound familiar?

Reissued Friday in a lavish deluxe edition packed with 63 previously unreleased tracks from Prince's storied vault as well as a live concert video recorded in 1987 at Paisley Park, "Sign O' the Times" feels startlingly current 33 years later, both in its themes and in the synthed-up funk of tracks like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend," in which you can hear the ground being laid for the likes of Frank Ocean and SZA.

Yet the album also occupies an important position in Prince's historical timeline, amid the breakup of his backing band, the Revolution (with whom he'd made "1999" and the world-conquering "Purple Rain"), the end of his engagement to Susannah Melvoin and the beginning of his epic, yearslong battle with the record industry. Prince, who died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl on April 21, 2016, initially conceived "Sign O' the Times" as a sprawling three-disc set but was forced by his label, Warner Bros., to trim it to 16 songs.

To discuss the album's impact and legacy, I gathered three Prince experts: Daphne Brooks, an author and Yale University professor who wrote liner notes for the reissue; Naima Cochrane, who writes about music and the record industry for Billboard and Vibe; and Michaelangelo Matos, whose book "Can't Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop's Blockbuster Year" is due out in December.

 

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Q: "Sign O' the Times" is routinely described as Prince's masterpiece. Is it?

Naima Cochrane: Even if it's not my favorite Prince album, I think it's the Prince-iest. It's the best illustration of his ability to grow, change and adapt his sound and experiment without ever not sounding like him.

Michaelangelo Matos: Listening to the box, it's fascinating how all the material really does dovetail, even the really old stuff. To find out that "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," with almost exactly the same lyric (as heard in an early recording), was from 1979 and yet fits like a glove on this more mature album - he knew his own strengths so well.

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