ARETHA FRANKLIN: A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE (1998)
1) A Rose Is Still A Rose; 2) Never Leave You Again; 3) In Case You Forgot; 4) Here We Go Again; 5) Every Little Bit Hurts; 6) In The Morning; 7) I'll Dip; 8) How Many Times; 9) Watch My Back; 10) Love Pang; 11) The Woman.
Give the Queen some credit: it took her but seven years of layoff to firmly re-upgrade the music from «thoroughly awful» to «competently dead boring». No more inadequate, contrived attempts to rock out on the level of the young ones: A Rose is a demonstrative return to a slow, stately, soulful sound that, decades ago, provided her with some of her greatest hits. Miriads of people are found on the credits list, all charged with the task of making Aretha Franklin sound once again like Aretha Franklin, rather than Whitney Houston's jealous old aunt.
Now if only they'd written some good songs for the lady, we could honestly call it a comeback. They didn't. And there is nothing surprising about that: the record strictly adheres to the format of «Contemporary R&B» (whose main difference from «classic R&B» is in that it is ruled by people who figured out that record buyers will still buy R&B records even if you cut down on such superfluous budget articles as «complex / intelligent songwriting» and «skilful playing»). All of the grooves are constructed so that they fit Aretha's vocal style, but none of them really help the singer out — everything is stiff, plastic, and utterly hookless.
For the lead single, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees (still months away from her solo breakthrough with Miseducation) was recruited, and she did a modestly better job on the track than everyone else — it has a bit more lyrical bite, the chorus lingers a bit more in your head, and the quiet wah-wah guitars and orchestration are arguably the finest arrangement touches on the album. Only enjoyable if you have a high tolerance level for the varnished gloss of modernized R&B, and ready to accept a song on which Aretha's vocals are almost buried, at times, under the backing ones.
The only other track of minor note is 'The Woman', Aretha's only songwriting contribution, on which she succumbs both to self-referencing (the lyrics keep sending us back to 'I Never Loved A Man') and retroish jazz vocalizing — the latter almost a pleasant surprise that almost justifies the 7:41 running length of the song, but then you start remembering that this hardly adds anything of note to the legacy that extends all the way from 1965's Yeah! to 1973's Hey Now Hey, except for being able to say «Hey, this girl's 56 years old and she still has it!»
It should, of course, be understood that none of this is strictly Aretha's fault. After all, the world of R&B is generally very conservative: the performer isn't supposed to fight the times in order to maintain his/her individuality, the performer is expected to move on with the times. All of these albums are as good or bad as the times were, and in that respect, Aretha Franklin isn't that much different from, say, Aaliyah. (And by 1998, the vocal capacities of the «old queen» and the «new princess» were quite comparable, except for the unmatchable advantage of Aretha's experience — no matter how pointless a song may be, she still slides and glides across its smoothly unremarkable surface with admirable professionalism). And considering that nothing on here qualifies as a stupid personal embarrassment, the inevitable thumbs down are not so much for the lady as for the deterioration of mainstream values as such (used copies of the record go for as high as $0.01 on Amazon, despite its being out of print - a good indication of what it's really worth). But Aretha — she really tried her best on this one.
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