Solo again, Sign “O” the Times and spiritual rebirth: 1987–91
Prior to the disbanding of The Revolution, Prince was working on two separate projects, The Revolution album Dream Factory and a solo effort, Camille. Unlike the three previous band albums, Dream Factory included significant input from the band members and even featured a number of songs with lead vocals by Wendy & Lisa, while the Camille project saw Prince create a new persona primarily singing in a sped up, female-sounding voice. With the dismissal of The Revolution, Prince consolidated material from both shelved albums, along with some new songs, into a three-LP album to be titled Crystal Ball. However, Warner Bros. forced Prince to trim the triple album to a double album and Sign “O” the Times was released on March 31, 1987.
The album peaked at No.6 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The first single, “Sign o’ the Times”, would chart at No.3 on the Hot 100. The follow-up single, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” charted poorly at No.67 on the Hot 100, but went to No.12 on R&B chart. The third single, a duet with Sheena Easton, “U Got the Look” charted at No.2 on the Hot 100, No.11 on the R&B chart, and the final single “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” finished at No.10 on Hot 100 and No.14 on the R&B chart.
Despite receiving the greatest critical acclaim of any album in Prince’s career, including being named the top album of the year by the Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and eventually selling 3.2 million copies, album sales steadily declined. In Europe, however, it performed well and Prince promoted the album overseas with a lengthy tour. Putting together a new backing band from the remnants of The Revolution, Prince added bassist Levi Seacer, Jr., Boni Boyer on keyboards, and dancer/choreographer Cat Glover to go with new drummer Sheila E. and holdovers Miko Weaver, Doctor Fink, Eric Leeds, Atlanta Bliss, and the Bodyguards (Jerome, Wally Safford, and Greg Brooks) for the Sign o’ the Times Tour.
The tour was a success overseas, with Warner Bros. and Prince’s managers wanting to bring it to the U.S. to resuscitate sagging sales of Sign “O” the Times; however, Prince balked at a full U.S. tour, as he was ready to produce a new album. As a compromise the last two nights of the tour were filmed for release in movie theaters. The film quality was deemed subpar and reshoots were performed at his Paisley Park studios. The film Sign o’ the Times was released on November 20, 1987. Much like the album, the film garnered more critical praise than the previous year’s Under the Cherry Moon; however, its box office receipts were minimal, and it quickly left theaters.
The next album intended for release was to be The Black Album. More instrumental and funk and R&B themed than recent releases, The Black Album also saw Prince experiment with hip hop music on the songs “Bob George” and “Dead on It.” Prince was set to release the album with a monochromatic black cover with only the catalog number printed, but after 500,000 copies had been pressed, Prince had a spiritual epiphany that the album was evil and had it recalled. It would later be released by Warner Bros. as a limited edition album in 1994. Prince went back in the studio for eight weeks and recorded Lovesexy.
Released on May 10, 1988, Lovesexy serves as a spiritual opposite to the dark The Black Album. Every song is a solo effort by Prince, with exception of “Eye No” which was recorded with his backing band at the time, dubbed the “Lovesexy Band” by fans. Lovesexy would reach No.11 on the Billboard 200 and No.5 on the R&B albums chart. The lead single, “Alphabet St.”, peaked at No.8 on the Hot 100 and No.3 on the R&B chart, but finished with only selling 750,000 copies.
Prince again took his post-Revolution backing band (minus the Bodyguards) on a three leg, 84-show Lovesexy World Tour; although the shows were well received by huge crowds, they lost money due to the expensive sets and incorporated props.
Prince performing during his Nude Tour in 1990
In 1989, Prince appeared on Madonna’s studio album Like a Prayer, co-writing and singing the duet “Love Song” and playing electric guitar (uncredited) on the songs “Like a Prayer”, “Keep It Together”, and “Act of Contrition”. He also began work on a number of musical projects, including Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic and early drafts of his Graffiti Bridge film, but both were put on hold when he was asked by Batman director Tim Burton to record several songs for the upcoming live-action adaptation. Prince went into the studio and produced an entire nine-track album that Warner Bros. released on June 20, 1989. Batman peaked at No.1 on the Billboard 200, selling 4.3 million copies. The single “Batdance” topped the Billboard and R&B charts.
Additionally, the single “The Arms of Orion” with Sheena Easton charted at No. 36, and “Partyman” (also featuring the vocals of Prince’s then-girlfriend, nicknamed Anna Fantastic) charted at No.18 on the Hot 100 and at No.5 on the R&B chart, while the love ballad “Scandalous!” went to No.5 on the R&B chart. However, he did have to sign away all publishing rights to the songs on the album to Warner Bros. as part of the deal to do the soundtrack.
In 1990, Prince went back on tour with a revamped band for his stripped down, back-to-basics Nude Tour. With the departures of Boni Boyer, Sheila E., the horns, and Cat, Prince brought in Rosie Gaines on keys, drummer Michael Bland, and dancing trio The Game Boyz (Tony M., Kirky J., and Damon Dickson). The European and Japanese tour was a financial success with its short, greatest hits setlist. As the year progressed, Prince finished production on his fourth film, Graffiti Bridge, and the album of the same name. Initially, Warner Bros. was reluctant to fund the film, but with Prince’s assurances it would be a sequel to Purple Rain as well as the involvement of the original members of The Time, the studio greenlit the project. Released on August 20, 1990, the album reached No.6 on the Billboard 200 and R&B albums chart. The single “Thieves in the Temple” reaching No.6 on the Hot 100 and No.1 on the R&B chart. Also from that album, “Round and Round” placed at number 12 on the U.S. charts and Number 2 on the R&B charts. The song featured the teenage Tevin Campbell (who also had a role in the film) on lead vocals. The film, released on November 20, 1990, was a critical and box office flop, grossing just $4.2 million. After the release of the film and album, the last remaining members of The Revolution, Miko Weaver and Doctor Fink, left Prince’s band.
The New Power Generation, Diamonds and Pearls and name change: 1991–94
Prince’s Yellow Cloud Guitar at the Smithsonian Castle. Prince can be seen playing this guitar in the “Gett Off” video.
1991 marked the debut of Prince’s new band, the New Power Generation. With guitarist Miko Weaver and long-time keyboardist Doctor Fink gone, Prince added bass player Sonny T., Tommy Barbarella on keyboards, and a brass section known as the Hornheads to go along with Levi Seacer (taking over on guitar), Rosie Gaines, Michael Bland, and the Game Boyz. With significant input from his band members, Diamonds and Pearls was released on October 1, 1991. Reaching No.3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, Diamonds and Pearls saw 4 hit singles released in the United States. “Gett Off” peaked at No.21 on the Hot 100 and No.6 on the R&B charts, followed by “Cream” which gave Prince his fifth U.S. number one single. The title track “Diamonds and Pearls” became the album’s third single, reaching No.3 on the Hot 100 and the top spot on the R&B charts. “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” peaked at No.23 and No.14 on the Hot 100 and R&B charts respectively.
1992 saw Prince and The New Power Generation release his twelfth album, ‘Love Symbol Album’, bearing only an unpronounceable symbol on the cover (later copyrighted as Love Symbol #2). The album, generally referred to as the Love Symbol Album, would peak at No.5 on the Billboard 200. While the label wanted “7” to be the first single, Prince fought to have “My Name Is Prince” as he “felt that the song’s more hip-hoppery would appeal to the same audience” that had purchased the previous album. Prince got his way but “My Name Is Prince” only managed to reach No.36 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.23 on the R&B chart. The follow-up single “Sexy MF” fared worse, charting at No.66 on the Hot 100 and No.76 on the R&B chart. The label’s preferred lead single choice “7” would be the album’s lone top ten hit, reaching #7. ‘Love Symbol Album’ would go on to sell 2.8 million copies worldwide.
Logo. Hollow circle above downward arrow crossed with a curlicued horn-shaped symbol and then a short bar
The unpronounceable symbol (later dubbed “Love Symbol #2”)
After two failed attempts in 1990 and 1991, Warner Bros. finally released a greatest hits compilation with the three-disc The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993. The first two discs were also sold separately as The Hits 1 and The Hits 2. In addition to featuring the majority of Prince’s hit singles (with the exception of “Batdance” and other songs that appeared on the Batman soundtrack), The Hits includes an array of previously hard-to-find recordings, notably B-sides spanning the majority of Prince’s career, as well as a handful of previously unreleased tracks such as the Revolution-recorded “Power Fantastic” and a live recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” with Rosie Gaines. Two new songs, “Pink Cashmere” and “Peach”, were chosen as promotional singles to accompany the compilation album.
1993 also marked the year in which Prince changed his stage name to the Love Symbol (see left), which was explained as a combination of the symbols for male (♂) and female (♀). In order to use the symbol in print media, Warner Bros. had to organize a mass mailing of floppy disks with a custom font. Because the symbol had no stated pronunciation, he was often referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, as well as “The Artist”.