Editors’ Notes Read a guide to the 92-track reimagining of Prince’s masterpiece by the man who put it together.

Prince’s 1987 double-LP funk-rock opus Sign O’ the Times was arguably the peak of one of the greatest seven-year runs in pop history; that the released version contained merely a fraction of the songs he’d made for it is almost impossible to comprehend. “I can't think of anybody else who, between the released stuff and the unreleased stuff, had that caliber of quality,” Michael Howe, chief archivist for the Prince estate, tells Apple Music. “The stuff that he put aside or gave to other artists or abandoned entirely is in many cases orders of magnitude better than most artists' best work.” This 92-track collection is a corrective and an exhaustive survey of Prince at the height of his powers, compiling tracks that would have been on Dream Factory (the intended follow-up to 1986’s Parade with The Revolution) and Crystal Ball (the post-breakup triple album that Warner Bros. kicked back to him to whittle down), as well as Camille, a project with sped-up vocals represented on the finished album’s “Housequake.” “This particular period of Prince's life was a blizzard of creativity,” Howe says. “He was essentially nonstop in the studio, on the road, producing records, writing, working with his protégé bands. It was superhuman levels of activity.”

It has been Howe's unique task, since Prince's death in 2016, to reconcile the bounty of the artist's legendary vaults with his equally legendary standards and secrecy. But the chance to close the book on what is widely considered Prince's most fertile and mythologized year is a boon for casual fans and obsessive collectors alike and feels more public service than postmortem curiosity. It's hard to know where to begin with a set this sprawling and storied, so let Howe point you in the direction of a few of the standouts from the aptly named Super Deluxe edition of Sign O’ the Times.

I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (1979 version)
“It's appreciably different from a sonic standpoint and from an emotional-impact standpoint than the Sign O' the Times version, but knowing that he had this for seven years before he decided to revisit it is kind of remarkable. I guess it's appropriate to some degree, because at the time he initially recorded that, he was Prince the solo artist; then he became Prince the bandleader with The Revolution; then, during this very process, he transformed back into Prince the solo artist.”

In a Large Room With No Light
“It has this Latin sort of feel and a very heavy Wendy & Lisa influence and had circulated among collectors and bootleggers. To be able to hear that as a counterpoint to some of the other super funky stuff on the album is a pretty special thing. It was on the final Dream Factory configuration and what became Crystal Ball. Obviously I wasn't in the room at the time, but my guess is that Prince was deliberately moving away from having as much Revolution DNA in some of those songs.”

Power Fantastic (Live in Studio)
“This reveals a side of Prince that I think not a lot of people are particularly aware of, and that is his openness to creative magic in the studio. I think people envision him as a very perfectionist taskmaster, but you can hear him literally guiding the band through and saying there are no mistakes and to just let it happen as it does. Prince was not the kind of guy who sat down and had a chin-wag about his creative process, so I think it's pretty revealing to actually hear that banter on tape in real time.”

Wally
“In December of '86, Prince went into the studio with Susan Rogers, the engineer, and cut a version of 'Wally' that was, by Susan's remembrances, something that was unbelievably great. For whatever reason, Prince instructed Susan to erase that take and decided to rerecord it the next day. And the second version, which is the one on the box set, is the one he ended up finishing. But there's this mythical first version that people in the collectors' circles and bootleggers seemed to think might have existed. My suspicion is that this one was recorded on the exact same two-inch multi-track tape so the first was wiped. That is why 'Wally' has taken on the sort of stature that it has, but I wouldn't put it in the top 30 percent of what I think is great about the vault material.”

Forever in My Life (Early Vocal Run-Through)
“It is a key track on the album, but the acoustic strumming and alternate vocal on the vault version I find particularly compelling. In many cases, his guide vocals are leagues ahead of other artists' comped multi-take vocals. He was able to sit down and bang something out basically in real time. It's master-level quality stuff.”

Colors and Visions
“These are not Prince tracks as such but two which were sort of interstitial pieces on the final configuration of Dream Factory. One is just a minute-and-a-half-long guitar thought by Wendy, and the other is Lisa playing, and it's so nice to hear them unaccompanied and unembellished, no lyrics. It's just a very satisfying look at two of the key members of Prince's live band and his creative confidants at the time. To be able to highlight those two things was particularly special.”

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