In 1987, Prince, though still undoubtedly a mega-superstar, was coming off a pair of albums that didn’t quite recapture the magic of 1999 and Purple Rain. (1985’s Around The World In A Day is actually quite underrated, but 1986’s Parade is pretty forgettable besides “Kiss.”) Considering how fickle pop music fans can be, it wasn’t inconceivable that he would never again reach those dizzy previous heights.
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The first single and title track from his next album would answer any of those doubts in decisive fashion. “Sign O’ The Times” is a jaw-dropping song, one in which Prince created an unstoppably funky groove mainly by fiddling around with a Fairlight synthesizer’s presets. Yet funkiness was a given with him; what really made the track a departure for him was its unsparing look at societal ills.
In 2012, Susan Rogers, the album’s engineer, told SoulTrain.com that Prince made a conscious effort to write a song that took an honest look at the world’s major issues. “Sign O’ The Times represented a departure for him lyrically; he was growing and trying new things lyrically,” Rogers remembered. “He had some new textures and new sounds there as well, but definitely the single ‘Sign O’ The Times’ was social commentary, and it was a serious social commentary…”
With the twitchy rhythm and Prince’s anguished cry of “Oh Yeah!” opening the track, it’s clear just a few seconds into “Sign O’ The Times” that it wouldn’t be a celebration. His first lines immediately set the somber tone: “In France, a skinny man/Died of a disease with a little name.” By starting off with the reference to AIDS, he acknowledged the flip side to the hedonistic lifestyle so many other R&B songs propagated.
Throughout the song, Prince leaves no societal ill unturned in his monotone rap, referring to drugs, guns, war, and poverty, and he suggests that it all boils down to a kind of restless spirit within every human that can only lead to one place: “Is it silly, no when a rocket ship explodes/And everybody still wants to fly?/But some say a man ain’t happy/Until he truly dies, oh, why?”
He also takes a none-too-subtle dig at the priorities of our nation: “A sister killed her baby/’Cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it/Yet we’re sending people to the moon.” It’s a pretty harrowing state of the union delivered by His Purpleness, and the music surrounding it is so commanding that the message comes through loud and clear. “Sign O’ The Times” is Prince showing that he could make listeners think as well as he could make them groove.