A Rose Is Still A Rose

Aretha Franklin

Arista, 1998

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aretha_Franklin

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/30/2021

When an artist of giant stature attempts to adapt to trendy pop movements, the results can be awkward, uncomfortable, and corny. Aretha Franklin was a groundbreaking artist during the 1960s and early ‘70s, making brilliant soul records like “Respect,” “Think,” or “Spanish Harlem.” But by the late 1970s and onto the early 1980s, Franklin, like many veteran artists, started looking to current pop and radio trends to lengthen her career. Unlike many of her peers, Franklin was able to often apply her specific genius to then-cutting edge pop sounds, occasionally being able to breath fire and passion into the icy synth-laden soundtrack of the 1980s.

By 1998, Franklin was lauded as a legend, and though she was still able to produce some very good music from time to time, her draw was her iconic work from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her 1998 album A Rose Is Still A Rose was only her second studio LP from the 1990s (her first, 1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat, failed to generate interest). Clive Davis assembled a consortium of hot R&B producers of the late 1990s: Sean J. Combs, Daryl Simmons, Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, and Lauryn Hill, among others, who build a strong, solid set of songs for Franklin. Instead of sounding stiff and uncomfortable, the singer sounds vitalized and energized by the hip-hop and neo-soul inflected R&B.

The title track and the album’s lead single is a regal, funky song that benefits Franklin’s queenly presence. The lyrics, penned by Hill, cast Ree as a wise elder stateswoman, counseling a young errant friend who is bruised by lost love. Hill creates a sumptuous space for Franklin to flex her still-considerable vocals. The shuffling beat and Hill’s sampled voice (chanting Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians’ “What I Am”) is warm and sympathetic to Franklin. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Combs helms the midtempo number “Never Leave You Again,” which recalls some of Franklin’s ‘70s work. Combs was known for producing pop hits that were noted for their samples of ‘80s hits. But “Never Leave You Again” was far more laidback and relaxed, even allowing for the Queen to improvise and scat. He doesn’t ask for her to do many vocal cartwheels or leaps, instead listeners are allowed to luxuriate with the singer’s more tranquil performance.

Those familiar with Aretha Franklin lore will know her oversized influence on Luther Vandross, which is why “Here We Go Again” feels especially affectionate, given it samples the tell-tale piano hook from the disco classic “Here We Go Again” from dance collective Change that featured early vocals from a young Vandross. The song isn’t a dance number, but it’s sprightly, and Franklin croons with her patented smart sass.

Though the album doesn’t have any club tunes (the copious remixes took care of that), “I’ll Dip” is pretty close. It’s a swinging, funky number that reads as post New Jack Swing with an engaging bass lick and a fantastic group of background singers.

Though A Rose Is Still A Rose is a showcase for then-current R&B songwriters/producers, Franklin does reunited with a long-time collaborator, Narada Michael Walden. The result is a lush, pop ballad that feels a bit out of place on the record (and truthfully, it also sounds a bit dated, even for 1998) given its somewhat stilted and saccharine sound – not totally surprising as schlockmaster David Foster had a hand in writing the tune. As usual, Franklin manages to add some spirit, but it’s weirdly listless.

Fellow music legend Nancy Wilson pens “Love Pang” and it gets a smooth-R&B production by Anita Baker’s frequent producer, Michael J. Powell, and it sounds like an Anita Baker song: opulent, tasteful, classy, with jazzy pianos, and a slightly meandering arrangement, in which Franklin indulges in some extravagant melisma.   

What makes A Rose Is Still A Rose such a solid success is that instead of inserting Franklin’s voice in what could feel like ready-made, prefab urban-pop productions, the diverse group of writers and producers seem to listen to Franklin. This isn’t merely an attempt at making the diva relevant, but instead an organic and amiable partnership. It helps that Franklin isn’t treating the more tech-heavy music as slumming; she’s approaching the songs in much the same way she did when singing her soul classics of the 1970s.

Is the album perfect? Of course not – it doesn’t reach the heights of her work of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it does rank high amongst her stronger work of the ‘80s. And it proved that even though she was a legend, she wasn’t content to rest on her considerable laurels, but still had space to be a vital and urgent recording artist.  

Rating: B+

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