What's good, good people! I’m Rhonda Nicole, a singer, songwriter, music journo, and lifelong lover of @prince’s music. For my very first #PrinceTwitterThread, I’ll be exploring the 2nd track on the ‘Sign “☮” the Times’ album, “Play in the Sunshine.”
Props & pounds to @EdgarKruize, @deejayumb, and @CaseyRain for their insightful deep dives into the #SOTTDELUXE experience thus far! Follow #PrinceTwitterThread to read their mind-blowing entries and to keep up with the rest of the series. Let’s get into it.
‘Sign “☮” the Times’ dropped on 30 March 1987, 1 day after my 12th birthday. I don’t recall exactly when I got my cassette–probably that summer, but I know for sure that the album made a tremendous impact on me and my tweenage brain.
By 1987, I already had plenty of Prince in my personal collection. Like many other Gen Xers, I was lucky enough to grow up in the ‘80s and to have experienced the advent of @MTV, @BET, and later, @VH1.
I hadn’t been able to convince my parents to let me see ‘Purple Rain’ in movie theatres in the summer of ‘84 (even though I had the album and @theoriginal7ven’s ‘Ice Cream Castle’ and @Apollonia’s ‘Apollonia 6’) but I watched it on HBO.
Although I’d already been exposed to Prince’s music, it wasn’t until ‘Purple Rain’ that I went full purple, abandoning the not-yet-known-as-King of Pop almost completely and leaving behind my ‘Annie’ and ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ records for something more…adventurous.
I bought as many Prince and Prince-related artists’ albums and cassettes as I could from local #wreckastows, somewhat to my parents’ chagrin. But the music spoke to me as a blossoming musician who had recently begun writing my own original songs. Every listen was a lesson.💜
To say that #SOTT still holds up 33 years later is an understatement. During @polishedsolid’s Peach + Black virtual celebration over the wkend, @anildash blessed us with this gem: “[Sign “☮” the Times] is a Black man’s Black album.”
There is so much to unpack about this album and how it serves as one of the most definitive statements Prince ever made about Blackness, through both its political commentary and its sonic exploration.
After all, the very first visual for the album was Cat Glover posing on the cover of the “Sign “☮” the Times” single. This image of a Black woman (whom some assumed at the time was actually Prince) was in stark contrast to the nearly all-white aesthetic of the previous eras.
Situating #SOTT in the continuum of African American artistic expression an important point of reference for the rest of this conversation about “Play in the Sunshine.” Y’all ready? Let’s play!
In a 1986 interview with @EBONYMag, Prince mused that what he had in store was going to be “strict and wild and pretty.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the instantly ear-catching “Play in the Sunshine.”
Recorded at LA’s famed Sunset Sound studios in November 1986 (per @PrinceVault), “Play in the Sunshine” opens with a Doppler effect siren and car horns followed by a cacophony of voices chanting “Play!,” before erupting into an uptempo rock n soul workout.
The infectious opening piano chords are bright and, well, sunshine-y, a stark contrast to the album opener and title track. In their epic 365 Prince Songs in a Year series, @Diffuser called the song a “joyful noise.”
Where “Sign ‘☮’ the Times” broods over Reagan-era social and political crises–AIDS, crack flooding Black and Latinx communities, the Challenger disaster–“Play in the Sunshine” bursts through the speakers like an invitation to forget the world’s troubles for a bit.
But is it? In episode 5 of The Current’s Prince: The Story of Sign O’ the Times podcast, Prince’s longtime engineer Susan Rogers reflects on the seeming incongruity of the song and the moment during which it was recorded. (Listen at the 13:40 mark)
Susan Rogers: “So musically and artistically around this time, the tension was there in the room, but the music is generally pretty upbeat…things like ‘Play in the Sunshine…’ just manic, untethered joy–like being really joyful, but without a reason to be.”
It’s well-known at this point that the ‘Sign “☮” the Times’ album evolved out of a series of overlapping pivotal events for Prince:
He’d disbanded @therevolution, broken up with his fiancée @susannahmelvointwin, and was in the midst of a fertile creative period that would push his sound and image even further away from what the world had come to know in 1984.
But Prince was not only in the midst of his own creative (r)evolution; he was orchestrating a musical takeover with his stable of Paisley Park artists throughout 1987:
His jazz fusion project, Madhouse, a collaboration with @EricLeeds (and credited to @drfink, @leviseacer, and John Lewis) dropped its first album, ‘8,’ in January, and the long-awaited debut from @jilldjones premiered in May;
Worth noting, too, is that @wendyandlisa’s first post-Revolution/post-Prince project was released in August of the same year.
Rogers’ suggestion that “Play in the Sunshine” was “joyful without a reason to be” gave me pause, and led me down a path of contemplation about another musical genre that often seems to envelop pain and suffering in jubilant sounds: Gospel.
For all of the accolades afforded Prince for his dexterity with musical styles and genres–from punk to funk to jazz to rock to blues to pop–it’s always useful to remember that every form of popular American music is rooted in the African American cultural experience.
And that Prince is Black. A global rock star, yes. But very unapologetically Black.
“Play in the Sunshine” reflects both a cultural and musical lineage, drawing from the earliest known music of the first Africans brought to America in the 1600s as it morphed into the sounds of resistance and survival for our enslaved ancestors.
For more on the history of Black music in America, visit @theNMAAM.
Prince infusing a song w/joy in the midst of turmoil and upheaval in his personal and professional lives may not have been intentional (only he knows for sure and were he still here physically he probably wouldn’t tell us), but it’s certainly no accident either. It’s heritage.
With lyrics like “I wanna play in the sunshine, I wanna be free,” “we’re gonna dance the dance like it’s gonna be the last time,” and “before my life is done, some way, somehow I’m gonna have fun,” “Play in the Sunshine” could almost be part deux of “1999.”
Sonically, “Play in the Sunshine” is catchy and cheerful, almost deceptively so. But digging deeper beneath the song’s shiny happy people surface, Prince returns to a theme he visited repeatedly in his music: The promise of a new, better day. A yellow day, to be exact.
If that ain’t gospel, I don’t know what is.
Earlier songs like “Delirious” and “Baby I’m a Star” hit the ear with a similar rock energy, and when broken down structurally reveal their blues roots. We hear this again with ‘The Black Album’’s “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton.”
Ask any church musician who’s also a Prince head and they’ll probably admit slipping any one of these tunes into praise and worship; the chords and tempo come straight from the African American Sunday morning religious experience.
It makes sense that Prince would record a song where he imagines the future he’s creating from the P.O.V. of what he was experiencing in that present moment. And it makes even more sense that he would drape his hopes and dreams in light despite the presumed darkness.
The live version incorporates call and response before launching into an orgasmic jam and then resolving to an ending evocative of the altar call, after the kinetic playing and singing have brought the congregation to its feet…
…and the lights in the sanctuary dim, signaling a time for reflection and private meditation.
Prince wove God, faith, and religious radical ecstasy into his music throughout his career and experimented with his own interpretation of gospel (and the Gospels) on future albums like ‘Lovesexy’ and ‘The Rainbow Children.’ And of course, there’s “The Cross” from #SOTT.
I submit that there’s a place in heaven where “Play in the Sunshine” sits at the right hand of Prince’s more overt God-centered songs.
And like the spirituals that came generations before, “Play in the Sunshine” is a song that explores the weeping of the night cloaked in the dawn of a new day.
Thank you so much for hanging with me! Tomorrow, @scottwoodssays brings the noise, the funk, and the shockalockaboom with this thread about the seismic jam that is “Housequake.” #PrinceTwitterThread #SOTTDeluxe