In 1998 Aretha Franklin had far from anything to prove, but that didn’t stop her from proving a lot. After a seven-year gap, Aretha released one of her strongest and most cohesive albums to date: A Rose Is Still A Rose. The album pairs Aretha with contemporary powerhouses like Lauryn Hill, Sean “Puffy”/”Diddy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri, and Dallas Austin. They brought to the table fresh R&B akin to the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Erykah Badu.
Throughout the 90’s, Aretha laid low. She toured, made occasional recordings for soundtracks, and released one album, 1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat. That all changed in 1998. The times and musical landscaped continued to change. There was only one thing for Aretha to do, what she does best: Adapt.
The Rose Blooms
On this masterwork, Aretha pairs up with a who’s who of 90’s hitmakers. Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the title track. Diddy (then Puff Daddy [aka Sean Combs]), Kelly Price, and Corey Rooney contributed a track. Jermaine Dupri contributed two, one with Trina Broussard and Trey Lorenz, and another with Manuel Seal. Dallas Austin and Babyface also contributed, as well as iconic songwriter David Foster and jazz legend Nancy Wilson. And of course, Aretha brought her own composition to the table too.
Above all else, A Rose Is Still A Rose showcases Aretha’s renewed vocal strength. She sounds vocally empowered. Aretha hits high notes with a clarity and power she hasn’t possessed arguably since the late 1970’s. Years of chain smoking took their toll on Aretha’s upper register in the 80’s. Thankfully, she kicked the habit in the late 80’s/early 90’s. As a result, her upper register’s clarity returned by the time she hit the studio in 1997.
Rose opens with the Lauryn Hill-helmed title track. It’s a song of wisdom, from an older woman (the rose) to a young, heartbroken girl (a flower). Aretha starts off as an observer, almost speaking to the man who wronged the girl. She shifts to sharing her own experiences that mirror the girl’s. It speaks to Lauryn’s genius that her 22-year old self perfectly penned a track speaking from the perspective of fifty-five year old Aretha. Lauryn can even be heard asserting “what I am, is what I am” behind Aretha throughout the song. Even further, Lauryn got behind the camera and directed the song’s music video. Elise Neal stars as the protagonist with Q-Tip as the antagonist. Lauryn and Faith Evans make appearances around a radiant and regal Aretha.
A Rose Is Still A Rose: The Album
Beyond the title track, the who’s who of contributors all bring their best contemporary flavor to compliment Aretha’s newly revitalized voice. Jermaine Dupri brought two standout cuts, including second single “Here We Go Again”. The song marries two classic samples: “The Glow Of Love” and “Genius Of Love”. For reference, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson also sampled “Glow” around this same time period (on “Honey” in 1997 and “All For You” in 2001, respectively). Meanwhile, “Genius” was the foundation for Mariah Carey’s revelatory pop-rap collaboration “Fantasy”. It’s a powerful moment to hear these two iconic samples married with Aretha’s legendary voice over it, all while she chastises a man for stringing her along.
Jermaine Dupri’s other contribution “Every Lil’ Bit Hurts” is one of the many vocal showcase moments throughout A Rose Is Still A Rose. Over a drum pattern that resembles a simplified version of Mariah Carey’s “Breakdown,” Aretha laments over heartbreak, and the pain of every slight little bit of losing the man.
A testament to Aretha’s power as an artist: there’s no evidence that any of these powerhouse producers contributed to the album aside from their names in the liner notes. Jermaine Dupri and Puff Daddy are well known (even notorious) for playing hype man on their own productions. However, aside from a few inconspicuous “yeah”’s from Puff on “Never Leave You Again,” they’re vocally absent.
Synths, Bass, and Beats
A Rose Is Still A Rose is musically differently from other Aretha albums. Much of the album relies on synth-driven music, and drum programming. The programmed instrumentation is a far cry from the arrangement charts Aretha created in the 60’s while recording at Atlantic, in a studio full of musicians. However, this change doesn’t negatively affect the impact of each recording. Plus there are live instruments throughout: James Poyser of The Roots contributes piano to the title track and Aretha’s son Teddy mans the guitar on “The Woman”, to name just a few.
Much of the album is slower, lending itself to the tone of the lyrics (both love and heartbreak). There are two exceptions to this rule. First is the bass-slapping “I’ll Dip”. It’s a standout cut with a funky edge, produced by Dallas Austin. The bass makes this recording singular amongst the bunch. The same can be said for the aggressive drum loop and muddy synths on “Watch My Back”. Though it’s tweaked to fit Aretha’s style, the drum loop easily be used as a hip hop beat. It’s truly a “phat” track, as Aretha says both in the song’s lyrics, and in the album’s liner notes.
Aretha’s contribution “The Woman” closes A Rose Is Still A Rose. It’s easily her greatest composition of the last 20 years. It’s also the second longest song of her career to date, clocking in at 7:43 (2 seconds short of 1973’s “Just Right Tonight”). She applies her now-typical technique of delaying her vocal delivery after the intended moment. The chorus holds a stellar descending melody as she’s applied to “You Can’t Take Me For Granted” and “He’s The Boy”.
For the first two thirds of the song, she follows a verse-chorus structure. She sings about “wanting to be the woman at your side” while paraphrasing a line from “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”. Then, suddenly the instrumentation opens up into a free form jam. Aretha proceeds to freestyle and scat her way to the end of the song. It’s one of Aretha’s most liberated vocal recordings.
Ree: Mix Queen
As if this moment in Aretha’s career wasn’t unique enough, she took it a step further. One more thing that makes A Rose Is Still A Rose unique from all other Aretha albums is the remix treatment it received. Unlike any other album, Aretha recorded new vocals to grace the dance remixes of “A Rose Is Still A Rose” and “Here We Go Again”. Major remixers David Morales, Hex Hector, and Johnny Vicious all lent their talents to give Aretha a true club backing. She encapsulates the persona of a true dance diva and holds nothing back vocally. On the “Rose” remixes, she gives absolute sass in her ab libs. A few gems:
“What is this thing called love?”- A Rose Is Still A Rose (Johnny Vicious Club Mix)
“Do-ya, do-ya wanna go there? We’ll tell ya what it’s like.” – A Rose Is Still A Rose (Love To Infinity Club Mix)
“I am pissed”- Here We Go Again (Morales Classic Mix)
Stream A Rose Is Still A Rose: