When I discovered Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Michaelangelo Matos’s exploration of Prince’s seminal Sign ‘O’ the Times was the first entry I picked up. This is more because of my love of all things Prince, but there was still a fair amount of curiosity about how Matos would approach the album and Prince as an artist. Prince has been unable to shake the stigma that resulted in changing his name to O(+>, and with that have come books like Alex Hahn’s Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince that paint the enigmatic musician as one of pop culture’s freaks (thank God for Michael Jackson, or Prince might have been forced to endure the full brunt of such sentiment). Would Matos do the same?
Luckily, the answer is no. In fact, Matos is a committed Prince fan who revels in the what he perceives as the artist’s successes, like Sign, while admonishing those albums that he thinks fell short, like Diamonds and Pearls. But Matos’s tact in his 33 1/3 book is undeniably that of a Prince appreciator. That might lead some to reject the book and its exploration of the album as some sort of fan-induced mania when, in fact, it’s a well written, well reasoned, and, above all, fair review of the album.
Broken into four sections, Matos’s discussion of Sign begins and ends with a personal discussion of the album, how he purchased it as a teenager in a Minneapolis suburb upon its initial release, how it first disappointed him before rapidly growing on him, and how the album continues to resonate 10 years after its release. These sections, especially the first, “Side One: Sign,” could come straight out of any Prince fan’s notebook. Sign is a difficult album because it doesn’t sound like anything else Prince had recorded up to that point. But what makes it successful, and why listeners continue to return to it, is precisely because it’s difficult. Matos’s exploration of how the album affected him as a Prince fan—disappointment, coming around to it, enjoying it, being awed—is something anyone who listens to music can appreciate, Prince fan or not.
Matos is able to speak on some authority about the history of the album, adding to that appeal. He discusses the placement of Sign in Prince’s oeuvre, how earlier albums built up to it, the debacles of trying to get longer, more ambitious albums like Crystal Ball and Dream Factory together before Sign, and how Sign would never have been the album it was, and is, without the failure of vision that led Warner Bros. to prevent Prince from releasing the three-album sets that were Crystal Ball and Dream Factory.
One particularly noteworthy observation is Matos’s viewpoint on “Sign ‘O’ the Times” the single. The song was originally slated for inclusion on Crystal Ball, but when WB scrapped the album, Prince threw it onto what would become Sign and made it the title track and first single. “With its taut beat and low-slung bassline,” Matos writes, “‘Sign’ on Crystal Ball might have been the kind of deep cut that hardcore fans treasure and adventurous radio programmers play.” It was a decent-sized hit, but as a song it’s underwhelming in comparison to many of the others on the double album, like “Adore”, “U Got the Look”, and “If I was Your Girlfriend.” Such an observation is one that only a Prince fan could make; everyone else would just say “Sign” is a decent single and move on.
Matos also spends some time writing about how Sign, Crystal Ball, and Dream Factory inspired a lot of Prince’s work post-Sign. He does this in a way that compelled me to not only go back and listen to the four-disc NPG-released Crystal Ball, but also Emancipation, which is no small feat, especially given Emancipation‘s heft and self-satisfying nature.
But the book isn’t just about the fandom of Sign. It’s also concerned with dissecting how the album works as a piece of music while breaking down the intricate musicianship and lyricism Prince displays on Sign. When Matos writes about these things, he tends to get a bit tangential, getting caught up long-winded discussions of technical musical terms that cause even the most engaged reader’s eyes to glaze over. That complaint, though, is a small one and it doesn’t rear its head very often.
The genius behind Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is that it allows its writers to tackle albums anyway they see fit, and in many cases this opens the possibility of much more personal writing than other, more academic series, like the British Film Institute’s Classics series. Where Matos sets himself apart is in finding a balance between personal recollections and critical explorations of Sign ‘O’ the Times. Had he only discussed his love of Prince and his music, it might be of some interest to Prince fans but it would have no other draw. OK, he likes this album a lot. He likes Prince, a lot. Great. Next.
Instead, Matos looks at the prismatic album from all its angles, allowing him to flex his knowledge of Sign and Prince. But this forces the reader, even the most committed Prince fan, to listen to the album—and others in Prince’s catalogue—in a new way. That’s what the 33 1/3 series is about, and that’s what marks a standout entry in it.