Because as you know from the intro threads…. That’s what we’re diving into these next few weeks! 🔥
I appear to have given myself a very tough job. But it’ll all be worth it. Are you ready? Oh yeah! Today I take a look at the incredible title track of my favorite Prince album of all time.
Of course, it's "Sign 'O' The Times"!
There’s so much here y’all. I don’t think it’s possible for me to unpack every single take that could exist on this. I FULLY expect many of you to hit me up and say “Hey, what about this….”
So I’m just gonna try and give you this in my own fly style. To even attempt to try and be comprehensive is probably to do an injustice to the song.
So let's begin.
One of the most important pieces of context is that Prince did not write the song AS a title track.
For most of Prince’s previous title tracks, it’s fairly clear that he either wrote the song as a title track or quickly understood after recording that any given song was evocative enough to be a title track.
Songs like Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, and 1999 evoke a wide, dreamy, esoteric atmosphere in their titles.
There are lofty concepts that could have multiple meanings, or in the case of 1999, a hypothetical path the world could be travelling towards in the mid distant future, or more specifically, the 17 years between the song being written and the year it’s about.
17. Interesting number.
This is even more the case with the *intended* title tracks for the project Prince was creating. First Dream Factory (which, despite the excellent points made by @deejayumb can still be considered a title track since it had album artwork) then Crystal Ball.
Again, those are evocative titles where it’s not immediately obvious what they might mean, they are open to interpretation.
I’m sure you all know the history, but briefly: Dream Factory was thought to be the Prince & The Revolution intended follow up to Parade, heavy on Wendy and Lisa input.
Upon disbanding The Revolution, Prince threw himself into making the Camille album, then essentially decided to bulk together chunks of Dream Factory, most of Camille, and some more new songs into the three disc Crystal Ball set.
Warners balked at the idea of a three disc set, and asked him to cut it down to a double album. In making these difficult choices of what to keep and what to remove, Crystal Ball the song was removed, so he now had to find a new title track.
I’ve often tried to understand Prince’s motivations for choosing Sign O The Times to be the new title track. The lowest-common-denominator answer might be that it was the only song title left that would work. After all, you can’t really call an album “It”.
“Adore” sounds like an entire album of ballads. “The Cross” could only work as a title track for a religious album, etc.
But the higher level answer is that Prince may have found himself in a moment where he related to everyone in society. He may have elevated himself beyond the struggles of the common man in terms of being a rich, famous, successful rock star, but therein lies the rub.
Those with a platform to reach millions have a responsibility to address the state of the world.
It’s not like he hadn’t done this before – “America” being one such example.
And whilst we all know that Prince created his own world, the world that he preferred to live and operate in, a world that he could control….
Sometimes things happen that are out of your control and remind you that we are all here on the same planet and subject to these experiences. Kind of like this pandemic we’re in right now.
9th July, 1986. Prince is in Los Angeles when the most powerful earthquake to hit Southern California in 7 years strikes.
5 days later, a powerful aftershock occurred on the 13th July.
Some refer to such natural disasters as an “Act of God” – a phrase Prince would write a song about years later on the 20TEN album.
It’s not a phrase that’s in my personal lexicon, and Prince doesn’t specifically reference the earthquake in the song, but it’s the type of reality-shattering event…
…for those of us who do strive to live in our worlds that we control, that we ultimately still exist on the same landmass as everyone else.
Interestingly, I don’t believe Prince believed in the term “Act of God” in what appears to be the literal sense. But we’ll get back to that later in the thread.
I contend that being confronted with that reality forced Prince out of “Prince World” into a state of reflection on the real world. It brought him crashing down to earth. Like a rocket ship exploding. It's silly, no?
When he surveyed what was going on in the world, he realized just how stark the mid 80s had become for most people.
What you have to remember is this is post Purple Rain success, post living out his neo-classical French Riviera fantasy in “Under The Cherry Moon”, and suddenly several events were causing Prince to be reflective.
The failure of the movie, the falling apart of his engagement to Susannah and relationship with Wendy and Lisa leading to the end of The Revolution. And then an earthquake amidst all of that!
In the official @prince podcast about “Sign O The Times”, Susannah Melvoin @susannahtwin noted – “He did not like this earthquake. It scared the shit out of him. It was too much, and he said we gotta get out of here.”
She goes on to note that Prince’s bodyguard Gilbert came in with the LA Times newspaper, whose headlines that day were about the AIDS epidemic being out of control. She says Prince had a moment where “all of it just clicked” that “something was happening with the world”.
Andrea Swensson @SlingshotAnnie located the paper in question – she notes that it also had mention of an international AIDS conference happening in Paris, France. At the same time, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was running articles about a gang related murder trial.
The name of the gang in question? Indeed – The Disciples.
So you can see how it’s all coming together. Indeed, in a recent BBC article, @Mobeen_Azhar calls it “the audio equivalent of a newspaper front page”. We can establish that that’s literally the case!
The pulses of the song even reminds me of the kind of bed music often used for network news shows.
One thing that hit me from the recent liner notes of the Deluxe Set was Dave Chappelle’s mentioning of legendary radio DJ Casey Kasem reading out the lyrics to the song on air before playing it. Isn’t that such a powerful thing to think about?
Because this song is ALL ABOUT the lyrics. Now, sometimes you have songs where the power is in the music, and the vocals and lyrics are almost simply in service of that. They might still be amazing, but it’s the musical bed that’s the key foundation of the song.
Sign O The Times, however, is the opposite. The music is brilliant of course. But the music is in service of the lyrics, not the other way around.
This explains why it’s such a minimal song. The repeating, echoing, sparsity is such that it leaves enough space for the lyrics to have maximum impact.
Prince of course, as an extremely prolific artist had experimented with minimalism before, but in the wake of Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, and Parade, almost all of which are mostly very lush, thick, layered productions…
…it’s possible to argue that such a minimalist beat was out of the ordinary for Prince at this time.
Years later, Michael Koppelman, who engineered for Prince on “Diamonds & Pearls” and “Love Symbol” amongst others, would make the following remark in an interview with @Housequake:
"“Sign O’ the Times” is the kind of stripped down funk that I love most about Prince. I put that multitrack tape up once for some reason and there is like 6 tracks on that. Many songs on Diamonds & Pearls had 48 or even more tracks. Tons of drums, loops, basses, etc."
Everything about the song, promotion, and presentation was Prince saying “Listen – I have something to say here. It’s not about me, at all. Pay attention to the lyrics”.
I mean, he's not even on the single cover!
It's Cat, with her face hidden behind a giant heart, to represent love.
He's not in the video either. What is the video? The lyrics to the song.
More evidence? The poster. Once again, the focus is solely on the lyrics.
And to go even further – after having decided that this would be the title song and engaging in the photoshoot, he picks the photo where he’s OUT OF FOCUS and barely in it. Because again, he wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t about HIM, but about what he had to SAY.
Think about the cover of Parade, and think about how this is in stark contrast to that just one year later.
I think there’s two things going on here. One was that Prince wanted to signify the change that had happened in his life by this point.
I contend that Prince, although certainly upset at first, began to take the view that the forced paring down of “Crystal Ball” was meant to be, and gave him the opportunity to reflect on how to present his first post-Revolution album.
HIS world had changed – now was the time to reflect also on what was happening in THE world.
The absolute specificity of the lyrics to Sign O The Times, the focus being on the lyrics and this being the title track of the album was new ground for him. No longer a revolution, but an evolution.
Yes, 1999 is socio-political in that it’s about nuclear war. But it’s about what was then the mid-distant future. And, his platform was smaller then, being that 1999 was itself the album that broke him through on a bigger scale.
Sign O The Times is literally about things that were going on in the world RIGHT THERE AND THEN. Aids. Crack. The Challenger Disaster. Gang Warfare.
What’s interesting is that the world was indeed reaching a turning point. The fun, shiny, dancing part of the 80s was over. Or maybe not over, but a collective responsibility to show the other side of the coin was also starting to take shape.
Prince was not the only person to notice and to pick up on these signals. Michael Jackson did, too. There’s a parallel of them both being tuned in to these changes.
Whilst you can certainly argue that there’s nothing quite as “on the nose” in a socio-political sense on the “Bad” album compared to “Sign O The Times”, what I’m actually referring to is a song that didn’t make the cut and remains unreleased. Possibly never finished.
You see, during the “Bad” sessions, Michael Jackson wrote a song called “Crack Kills” intended as a duet with Run DMC. The intended duet there is the interesting part.
You see, there’s this idea that Prince didn’t “get” hip-hop until 1989 or so, when TC Ellis became part of his circle. The theory is based around one line on the song “Dead On It”, you know the one, where Prince appears to speak disdainfully about rappers.
I call bullshit on this theory and I contend that it lacks the nuance of where hip-hop came from.
Here’s why. All that stuff he’s tapping into? That’s the same viewpoint of the streets, the same “street journalism” that would later lead Chuck D @MrChuckD to refer to hip-hop as “The Black CNN”.
It is absolutely not a coincidence IMO that “Sign O The Times” comes out in the same year as Public Enemy’s debut “Yo! Bum Rush The Show!” and NWA’s “Boyz N The Hood”.
The only difference is that Prince was an established superstar already who could speak from a larger, global perspective.
So while Public Enemy could narrow down to the streets of New York, and NWA could narrow down to Compton, what Prince was saying was..
“Hey – this is happening everywhere. It’s happening in France. It’s happening in Minneapolis. It’s happening in LA.” – surfacing a global problem.
Furthermore, while AIDS, crack and gang violence – the specific areas that Prince points out first in the song – are most certainly not issues specific to urban black communities…
… The entire structure of white supremacy, oppressive social structures and systematic institutional racism means they were disproportionately harmful to them. Prince understood this, so did PE, so did NWA.
There’s extreme power in both approaches. There was huge power in NWA saying “Hey, y’all are ignoring us here in Compton, we’re gonna show you what’s happening here” but there’s also huge power in Prince, as a global black superstar pointing out the commonalities.
The intent is the same.
Let’s break it down more. Cool? Cool.
Both Public Enemy and members of NWA LOVED and were extremely influenced by Prince. It’s practically certain that his earlier socio-political commentaries like “America” caught their ears.
BUT. There is one song that is pivotal to Public Enemy. Pivotal to NWA. And, I’m going to go out on a limb here. But I contend that this song was potentially pivotal to Prince and the creation of “Sign O’ The Times” specifically.
And here’s why I call bullshit on the “Prince didn’t get hip-hop” take.
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
The way Melle Mel flows over the music. The push of the funk and the synths. The lyrical content. It’s all there. Try rapping the lyrics to “Sign O’ The Times” in the style of Melle Mel @GrandmasterMel5 on The Message. It fits!
Socio-political commentary in a staccato or staccato-esque rhythm, music dominated by the drum pattern as the constant, the music existing to serve the lyrical content rather than the other way around?
That describes both the nature of hip-hop at that time AND it describes Sign O The Times.
Sign is seriously not far removed from being a hip-hop track, and it’s influence runs deep in the genre. Who was the only rapper to take the stage at the Prince Grammy Tribute? @common. On what song? You guessed it.
And while it appears to have been scrubbed from the internet, I definitely recall the hip-hop duo Dead Prez (who were making socio-political hip-hop in an era when that wasn’t the norm anymore) doing some kind of rapped version of Sign O’ The Times at some point.
Influence goes deeper than direct samples, but there are at least 10 listings on WhoSampled of rappers sampling SOTT. And let’s close the loop.
One of the songs that sampled SOTT? The song “What’s The Matter With Your World?”(yes, a Pop Life reference!) by…… Melle Mel! Boom!
It’s also no coincidence that Nina Simone, one of the most influential black artists of all time, whose position on black nationalism aligned with the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, chose to cover SOTT later in her career.
Chaka too, and Chaka was LITERALLY a Black Panther member! @ChakaKhan
I’ve been slightly frustrated over the years when I’ve occasionally heard aspersions cast on Nina’s cover. If you don’t get it, I contend you don’t get Nina. It is what it is.
But to go EVEN deeper y’all. Listen to Nina’s take. Understand the symbolic link with the vocal delivery (she delivers it straight, without Prince’s vocal melody) and how that links to the hip-hop takes.
How far can we take this back? I contend that the influence goes even further back. I'm talking The Last Poets. I'm talking Gil Scott Heron. The Revolution…… Will Not Be Televised.
And if y’all don’t think Prince was hip to that, go listen to “The War”.
Point is, Sign O The Times is BLACK AS F……!!! A point that should not be forgotten, ever!!!!
Let me talk about the music a lil bit. It’s dominated by the sounds of the Fairlight CMI sampler. I freaking LOVE the Fairlight. I’m a Fairlight junkie!
It’s part of the reason SOTT is my favorite Prince album. The Fairlight’s main rival was another sampler named the Synclavier.
Guess who was using the Synclavier heavily at the same time Prince was loving the Fairlight? Yup, Michael Jackson!
You could almost say that in the same way Prince and Michael’s friendly rivalry pushed them both to new artistic heights, in terms of digital synths and samplers…
…people who had Fairlights were trying to get the most of them almost at odds with the people doing the same thing with the Synclavier.
Basically, the backbeats on much of the SOTT album are what the Fairlight sounds like and the backbeats on virtually all of “Bad” are what the Synclavier sounds like. That’s a reductive take in a way, but just as a soft introduction.
I could probably make a playlist of all my favorite jams that used both. But my Top 4 Fairlight songs would probably be Sign O The Times, Owner Of A Lonely Heart by Yes, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush & Don’t Wanna Fall in Love by Jane Child. JAMS!
And while Prince’s Fairlight usage is not as strongly associated with him as the Linn LM1 or Oberheims used in the 1999 and Purple Rain eras, frankly, it should be, because he did the damn thing with it! (like he always did!).
Game recognize game, too. Jane Child recalled in an interview that Prince told her how much he loved her album. Jane’s another one that was really pushing the Fairlight to different heights. Don’t sleep.
Unlike many Prince songs, as we’ve established, there’s not a great deal of room for interpretation with many of the lyrics. The lyrics directly address that there is an AIDS crisis going on, a drug crisis, people dying, rocket ships exploding, and yet people still want to fly.
But in the midst of all of this, I didn’t stop to think for years about Hurricane Annie!
Plot twist. There was never a Hurricane Annie. No hurricane has ever been called Annie.
There was a Hurricane “Anna” in 1961 that hit Central America, but there’s little to link that to Prince’s creative mind given he would have been 3 years old at the time and it’s impact didn’t reach Minnesota.
So who is Annie? And is she OK? (Sorry…. Couldn’t resist!)
Well, two different theories seem to make sense here. One is quite serious and fits in with Prince “mythology”. The other is completely light and maybe even borderline inappropriate given the context of the song but still possible. And maybe both work?
Theory #1 – Remember when I said earlier that I don’t believe Prince saw natural disasters as an “Act of God”? In fact, he was hip to the fact that the term is actually mostly used by insurance companies to classify what they will and will not cover.
The lyrics to his later song with this name seem to support this.
You see, for Prince = Love is God, God Is Love. He literally told us this. So maybe a natural disaster that potentially kills and displaces thousands or even millions of people is NOT the act of a loving god.
So if not an "Act of God", then maybe the opposite? 🤔
Two words. Annie Christian. Y’all see where I’m going with this?
Yup – maybe Hurricane Annie is Annie Christian is the Antichrist.
And…. and…. Where would Annie Christian hit?
Maybe she’d rip the ceiling off a CHURCH and kill everyone inside.
Damn, that’s some deep shit. But let me get deeper.
If we contend that Hurricane Annie is an act of Satan, how do we counter that? Well if God is Love and God is Love, then we can establish that an act of Satan can only be countered with a gift from God or a gift of Love. Right?
"Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby. We’ll call him Nate."
Nate, of course, is a shortened version of “Nathaniel.” And what’s the etymology of the name Nathaniel? It’s Hebrew. It means a gift from God.
Theory #2 – The only other reference to a “Hurricane Annie” is a character that appears to be a hooker in a track by black comedian Rudy Ray Moore and his character Dolemite. The audio recording seems to have been released in 1970.
Given that Dolemite was clearly an influence on the Morris Day character (which we know was based on one of Prince’s humorous personas) it’s quite possible that Prince remembered the song and either consciously or subconsciously liked the tonal quality of the name on record.
We can even link that back to hip-hop too, given that Dolemite was a huge influence on various styles of hip-hop that would develop, with @SnoopDogg literally saying there would be no Snoop Dogg without Rudy Ray Moore.
In fact – the Prince/Morris pimp persona is pretty much the exact middle ground between Dolemite and the “pimp rap” style common in 90s hip-hop – an era that saw Dolemite return to make cameos on a handful of hip-hop records including albums from 2 Live Crew, Busta Rhymes…
…and of course Snoop!
Regarding the title, it was from @Miss_EThompson's wonderful blog that I learned earlier this year the the song shares (bar one letter) a title with a monthly magazine published by members of the 7th Day Adventists denomination of Protestant Christianity since the 1800s!
That blog post is here:
And, maybe you know, maybe you don’t, but 7th Day Adventists is the sect of Christianity that Prince grew up as a member of.
As Erica says in her blog, you can never assume that Prince was either influenced by anything but you can also never assume he wasn’t – unless he directly stated one way or the other. Which more often than not, he didn’t, of course.
I think that’s the way to look at most of what I’ve written here in this thread. I certainly can’t state for a fact that Sign O The Times was a conjuring based on any, many or all of the things I mentioned, but it’s what everything points towards in my humble opinion.
Of the 14 times I saw Prince, more often than not, if “Sign” was played, it was played as part of the “sampler set”. Some people loved that part of the show, others not so much.
Me? I LOVED it. There are certain songs where hearing it the way it was recorded just fills you with so much joy, and since I’m such a Fairlight junkie, to hear that minimal masterful beat just BOOM OUT and reverberate across arenas…. I’ll never, ever forget those moments.
Just like Prince said, it’s not what you play but what you don’t play that makes it funky. And with Sign in the sampler set, it’s occupying less aural space than anything played with the full band, yet somehow also occupying more.
At that moment, we were hearing everything he meant us to hear and feeling everything he meant us to feel on that day all the way back in July of 1986.
Sign O The Times, Mess With Yo Mind, indeed. I hope I gave you all some food for thought.
Thanks again to @deejayumb and @EdgarKruize for allowing me to participate in another incredible series, thanks to the whole “Purple Avengers” crew, and stay tuned tomorrow for @RhondaNicole_ digging into “Play In The Sunshine”!
If you enjoyed this thread, please subscribe to The Violet Reality on YouTube. We're presently partway through a series digging deep into each one of Prince's albums. U may dig it.
✌🏽 – 💜
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