Bursting into the 1980s as the immaculately conceived hybrid of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, and a horny toy poodle who won't stop humping your leg, Prince made radio-friendly mincemeat out of his influences and emerged as both the most accomplished musician and most versatile hit-maker of his generation. Any career-spanning Prince compilation is packed with classics—"I Wanna Be Your Lover," "When You Were Mine," "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "Erotic City," "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," so many more—and restricting things to any single studio release requires the loss of many eternal Prince hits.
Lucky for all, there's Sign o' the Times, Prince's double LP from 1987, which captures the primary thrills of all his runner-up best records—the deeply idiosyncratic perversity of Dirty Mind, the guitar-rock thrills and R&B ravishments of Purple Rain, the promiscuous musical experimentation of Parade—in an unprecedentedly cohesive setting. Musically, Prince revealed himself as a genius at the start of his career, but lyrically, he's forever vacillated between brilliant pop constructs and mush-brained dreck. On Sign o' the Times, the brilliance-to-dreck ratio is at an all-time high, with the cartoonish, pseudo-spiritual sexuality that's long been Prince's weak spot replaced by the richest, most humane love and sex of his career. After years of darling Nikkis and lady cabdrivers, what a joy it is to find Prince dealing with the flesh-and-blood woman—a divorcée with emotional baggage, no less—of Sign's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," or making the adult profession of love in "Forever in My Life."
In a fitting bit of perversity, Sign o' the Times is the rare great work of art made as a commercial compromise. Prince originally intended to release Sign's 16 songs among a dozen or so others on Crystal Ball, a three-CD collection Warner Bros. declined to release. And so Prince was forced into making what history will remember as his artistic masterwork, an album consisting almost entirely of peaks. "If I Was Your Girlfriend" twists up sex and gender like nothing since Dirty Mind; "U Got the Look" grants a Tarantino-esque rebirth to fussy pop Aussie Sheena Easton, here reborn as a believably horny freak; "It" is Prince's life mission in a four-minute nutshell; "Adore" is, according to my colleague Charles Mudede, "the greatest bedroom song of all time." Then there's "Housequake," "Starfish and Coffee," "Slow Love," "Strange Relationship," the title track... it's sheer perfection. (Thank you.)