Aretha Franklin:A Rose is Still a Rose

Aretha Franklin
A Rose is Still a Rose

SHE'S MORE THAN a great singer. Give or take Sam Cooke, she's merely the best vocalist in the history of American recorded music. But a great singer still needs good songs and the (only) problem with this highly anticipated comeback is that there aren't enough of them. Between the Lauryn Hill-penned and -produced lead single that opens the record and Aretha's own closing epic, there are six different big-name producers spread across nine tracks, yet these often sound the same. Franklin's last record to draw this much exposure, 1985's Who's Zoomin' Who, was a pop triumph in the middle of a Top 40 revival, and the equally chart-worthy A Rose is Still a Rose is a straight-up soul record released in the midst of another Top 40 revival--this one dominated by hip-hop/R&B crossovers.

"Something is wrong baby/Is the feeling gone baby? Maybe I need to refresh your mind," she sings on "In Case You Forgot," and it sounds like Sunday morning. She's pining for an old lover, of course, but she's also courting R&B fans. A Rose is Still a Rose is standard issue for the genre, and that music's limitations have never been clearer. Lyrically, these songs are almost devoid of detail or color. They don't feel lived-in; what we're listening to are productions--prepackaged tracks with metronomic beats. Part of what makes Franklin's Muscle Shoals sides so endlessly exciting is the interaction between her and a (great) live band; think of the way Tommy Cogbill's bass lines seem to complete her thoughts. By contrast, this slab of product can only go as far as Franklin's big voice takes it.

Which, fortunately, turns out to be pretty damn far. She's singing hard here, compensating for the ordinariness of the material, and even at this late date a focused Aretha still inspires awe and reverence. The record's most reserved singing is, tellingly, on Lauryn Hill's lead single, "Rose"--the only song and production commensurate with Franklin's vocal abilities. There's nothing to compensate for here, as Hill steeps the legend in a well-constructed mix of violin, piano, hip-hop beats, vocal loops, and grifted Edie Brickell lyrics(!); and she's the only producer on the album to come up with a track that complements Franklin like the Muscle Shoals bands. A wise and sassy treatise on self-worth, "Rose" gives Franklin something worth singing about, and certifies Hill (who cements her Culture Hero status with each public performance) as a song-writer/producer of the first order.

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