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Gift Guide: Prince

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

By Alejandra Ramirez, December 4, 2020, Music

"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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