Gift Guide: Prince

Sign o’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (Warner Bros.)

"Just trip," instructs Prince, live in studio on "Power Fantastic," one of 63 previously unreleased tracks on this 8-CD goliath. "There are no mistakes this time."

As a maelstrom of hi-hat crashes, flute-fluttered dissonance, and trumpet squawks simmer to near silence, cue the melancholic piano. Bottling the manic, magic synergy of Prince & the Revolution, the song's slow downcast also foretells the group's oncoming breakup. Even in their dissolution, Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016) walked on clouds in Sign o' the Times.

Ninth studio album and the most expansive release of his primetime, the 1987 double-length disc now becomes a new millennial X-ray into the Purple One's free-fall creative process. Like an oracle, the Minneapolis dynamo rips the shroud off Reagan disillusionment and nuclear terror in the opening title track to 16 asteroids of surrealist pop. Robo-synth "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" teases a P-funked "Housequake" into the drum-machine zigzag of "It." The bandleader's six-string-saturated "U Got the Look" then blows hair back to Indian psychedelia "The Cross" and morning-sexed closer "Adore."

That only leaves new 45 studio grabs, a live recording from the album tour stop in the Netherlands, a DVD with an unreleased 1987 New Year's Eve benefit concert at Paisley Park featuring his only onstage collaboration with Davis, and a 120-page hardcover book.

Tale of the tape: "Can I Play With U?" showcases Prince's mastery over nearly every instrument under the sun, making Davis' inclusion seem more like an afterthought. On a 14-minute alternate take of "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," its author hollers commands like "confusion" and "on the one" in total musical omnipresence. That maximalist range traverses 12-minute opus "Soul Psychodelicide," slinky bass strut "Crystal Ball," and free-form big-band jazz twofer "In a Large Room With No Light" and the James Brownian "Blanche."

As a posthumous, super deluxe deepest dive, Sign o' the Times spans the scope of Prince's transcendence.

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Prince, Gift Guide 2020

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