This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
It begins as a great book would, with the setting. “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” In 1987, when Prince’s double-album masterpiece Sign ‘O’ the Times was released, no one had to be told he was talking about AIDS. The title track syrups on, mentioning crack and nuclear bombs — painting the Eighties as if Revelations had arrived and no one had realized. The direct political address recalls Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but where Gaye was pleading for change, Prince is mournful, desolate and sadly accepting.
But then he’s upbeat and dancing, prancing with “Play in the Sunshine,” washing away the doomsday reportage with childish glee. If 1999 showed off Prince’s funk potential and Purple Rain made him a rock star, then Sign ‘O’ the Times is his soul assault, with ballads (“Forever in My Life”), midtempos (“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”) and dance anthems (“Housequake”). After Purple Rain, Prince was moving toward guitar-god status, but here the bass is the star, so sweet it’s giving up melodies, so expressive you know it’s talking to you in another language, so funky that if you ain’t groovin’ you might be dead. On “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” he ponders aloud, “Would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?” — but, like a true philosopher of love, he never finds the answer and leaves the question for you to run with.
Both discs are heavy with songs about hot sex (“Slow Love,” “Hot Thing”), but those songs are outweighed by the towering ballads about love and commitment. “Adore” remains one of the greatest love songs of all time and continues to make women weak and wet with its opening promise: “Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you.” Even in a world so hopeless, Prince seems to say, love can conquer all.