Prince’s Greatest Album Contained The Seeds Of His Artistic Downfall

A lot of words were thrown around to describe Prince Rogers Nelson when he passed last year. There was no one way to adequately describe someone who contained as much in his narrow frame as the diminutive funky demigod.

Was he a genius? Absolutely. A star? You know it. Sexy? You’re damn right. But a word that rarely got used — perhaps because of our taboo against speaking ill of the dead — was indulgent. Even though this word describes him just as well as anything else — and he probably wouldn’t mind, considering that he had a music venue for a house and matched his jackets to his motorcycles, But, the descriptor didn’t pop up much, the same way that anything that he released from the mid-’90s onward was sort of ignored. It was a time for celebration and nobody wanted to look like a contrarian by even mentioning a word that could possibly cast a negative air over a once-in-a-lifetime talent who died tragically.

But the thing is, Prince’s sense of the indulgent led to his single greatest work. Sign O The Times — which was released 30 years ago today — was the first sign of Prince the Overdoer, of Prince the Unfiltered. That the record label brought him back from releasing the already titanic album as a triple LP called Crystal Ball is all the sign we need to know that the many different directions Prince’s irrepressible talent were pulling him in would eventually tear him apart, eventually turn him into the sort of man who releases overstuffed and underloved genre experiments to a dwindling base of diehards. But while The Purple One was still beholden to the decisions of his record label and the occasional criticism from The Revolution, he was able to give just enough of his many different sides to make a perfect album.

This album is simply everywhere, containing every mode Prince had explored up to that point and a few new experiments that pointed toward the future. It starts off with the AIDS-crisis-as-end-times rumination of the title track — who knew Mad World Syndrome could be so funky? — before veering into the vibrant piano workout of “Play In The Sunshine.” From the jump it’s abundantly clear that Prince isn’t going to let you get comfortable (unless you’re the paramour on the other end of his early career R&B throwback “Slow Love” that is).

Prince slammed up against the constraints of this major-label album, stuffing it with a little bit of everything he’d picked up during his unf*ckwithable run that began with 1980’s Dirty Mind and lasted through the back-to-back classics of 1999 and Purple Rain, the Daisy Child psychedelia of Around The World In A Day, and the chilly and underrated Parade. Prince’s virtuosity in seemingly any style he touched defied easy categorization, and he finally went all in on that idea and dropped an album that couldn’t neatly slot into any one section of the record store.

The glitched-out dub of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker,” a formative text for this generations vapor-wavers and post-modern electronic weirdos, doesn’t belong on the same album as the Sesame Street outtake “Starfish And Coffee.” But under the voluminous umbrella of Prince, it all seems to make sense. Here was an artist who could vacillate between the ’80s cheese-pop stomp of “U Got The Look” and the tightly wound jam of “Housequake” without breaking a sweat, dropping one of the greatest power-pop songs of the decade in “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” on the same album for good measure.

But for all his later bucking against the label system, which came complete with an infamous name change and a provocatively placed “Slave” on his face, there is definitely something to be said for constraints when you’re dealing with an artist who can play anything he puts his mind to. Warner Brothers talked this album down from something even larger and messier and left us with his greatest work. But freed from those naysayers, Prince was allowed to spin out. Sometimes form and structure helps to focus an endlessly creative brain. Pick up a book of Shakespeare sonnets for proof. Or just play this album back-to-back with say…Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. [Note: Don’t actually do this.]

With rare exception, after Sign ‘O’ The Times we were forced to watch as one of the greatest musicians to ever live suffered through an artistic twist on 500 channels and nothing to watch, pulled in a million different directions by his own constantly reeling head. As much as Prince hated labels (both in the dictionary and the industry sense), one of their last attempts to wrangle him briefly focused his talents into a hot purple laserbeam that cut through the bullsh*t argument that there was anyone on Earth who could musically measure up to him.