Release Date: Oct 21, 2014
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): R&B, Adult Contemporary R&B
It’s good to be the queen: You can do whatever you want. But does that mean you ought to? On Aretha Franklin’s new album, the soul diva land-grabs territory claimed by some of her ladies-in-waiting. It features her takes on the hits most associated with the competition — including Chaka Khan.
Aretha Franklin needs no introduction. The gospel, R&B, soul and sometimes-jazz singer has won 18 Grammy awards and worldwide recognition over the course of a storied career spanning six decades. At 72 years old, she doesn’t need to reinvent herself or prove herself; her legend and her legacy have been established. She’s the original queen (Beyoncé can bow) and an artist to whom society as we know it is indebted.
Royalties aside, one can imagine Adele's thrill at soul's grande dame covering her "Rolling in the Deep." Aretha Franklin kills it, with such awesomely casual fireworks you forgive the distracting detour into "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Still, it serves the point of this delightful covers set: to show Aretha can still step into the pop world at whim with total authority. (Ditto the dubstep breakdown in "I Will Survive.") Solid producers help: André 3000's arrangement of Prince's and Sinéad's "Nothing Compares 2 U" has Aretha scatting giddily and quoting her doctor: "He said, 'Aretha, girl, you've got to have fun!'" She is. It's contagious.
Clive Davis signed Aretha Franklin to Arista in 1980 and helped pull the queen of soul out of a commercial slump. Through timely collaborations with the likes of Arif Mardin, Luther Vandross, and Narada Michael Walden, Aretha scored six consecutive Top Ten R&B albums, all as part of Davis' roster. Davis left Arista in 2000. Aretha followed shortly thereafter, released a Christmas album, and had difficulty finding a distributor for her self-released A Woman Falling Out of Love, most likely her least popular studio album.
Divas are everywhere these days, but there’s still only one Aretha. At age 72, Franklin can still shut down the competition with a breathtaking, gospel-trained grace and power. Here, she tackles tunes by her peers, adding royal luster to Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” But she saves extra energy for songs by younger neo-soul stars.
Is it the singer or the song? Trick question, of course: It’s both, especially in the canon of diva anthems. “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” — the title is the concept — is first and foremost an exercise in the obvious: a beloved voice applied to proven hits. Clive Davis, Ms. Franklin’s co-producer, has used the same strategy with Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow.