What You See Is What You Sweat isn’t at the forefront of the Aretha Franklin canon. In fact, the 1991 album helps bring up the rear, and there’s been very little written on it since its release. It’s just not a solid representation of the tenacity of Aretha Franklin musically or vocally.
After a notable resurgence in the 80’s at the hands of Narada Michael Walden, it was time for a change. A slew of new producers assembled to lace Aretha with a fresh sound, along with a few veterans like Walden and Luther Vandross. The resulting What You See Is What You Sweat is one of the most diversely produced LPs of her career. Of the album’s 9 songs, 11 producers contribute.
For it’s faults, What You See Is What You Sweat is undeniably and ironically cohesive. It largely shifts between new jack swing and adult contemporary R&B ballads of the time. While the new jack sound isn’t necessarily for Aretha, she could sing the phone book and be convincing. The ballads are mostly well-suited for her voice at the time. She’s reflective on these records, not outright heartbroken and down like her early Atlantic hits. There’s a sense of greater wisdom and experience in these songs.
Aretha opened the album, and the era with a new jack swing take on Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” It’s zesty, spirited, and fits the moment. The track was also fueled by a colorful, star-studded video with appearances from Naomi Campbell, Flavor Flav, Bryant Gumbel, Beverly Johnson, Donnie Simpson, and more.
A bigger draw for the album was Aretha’s collaboration with Michael McDonald. Though the two never collaborated before, Aretha cut an immensely underrated cover of “What A Fool Believes” on 1980’s Aretha. They may be together, but McDonald plays second fiddle to Aretha on this Siedah Garrett cover from 1987’s soundtrack to Baby Boom. It has all the hallmarks of an early 90’s R&B ballad. A video accompanied the song, as did a performance at the Grammy Awards.
Aretha keeps the new jack energy going on the album’s title track and “Mary Goes Round.” “What You See Is What You Sweat” is all about a man who’s never satisfied with what he has. The grass is always greener for him. Then there’s “Mary Goes Round,” which sounds like a musical cousin to Aretha’s take on A Different World’s theme song, recorded in 1988. Mary, the song’s focus, likes her men attached. She claws her way in, chews them up and spits them out, all for sport. They’re both solid tracks with strong replay value.
The cover of “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Misérables is a tragic misstep, despite all the incredible things she does to transform it. This gut-wrenching song that emphasizes a moment of mournful inflection almost becomes an anthem for perseverance. She purposely changes the lyric to “I had a dream,” clearly referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of following the idea that the dream is dead, she declares that “life will not kill the dreams that I dream.”
For all the good of the lyrical changes, the arrangement of “I Dreamed A Dream” is overwrought with effects and production. Not to mention that Aretha’s voice was hitting rock bottom after decades of smoking. She delivers far from a definitive vocal on this immense song. Instead, it crumbles at the hands of producers and Aretha’s deteriorating voice. However, her 1993 performance of the song at Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Gala is one of Aretha’s definitive live performances. What a difference a year (or two) makes.
“Someone Else’s Eyes,” is a much stronger ballad. Written by Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Bruce Roberts, it’s a record about coming to terms with losing yourself in a relationship and recognizing the importance of self-love. This is Aretha with experience. She sings about taking control of what is inside of her, finding who she wants to be, and acknowledging the value of seeing herself as whole, even without a man. This is no “you’re a no-good heartbreaker.” Instead, it’s “I never realized, I can’t love you, I can’t love me, through someone else’s eyes.” It’s a palatable demonstration of growth.
Her reunion with Luther Vandross is another misfire. “Doctor’s Orders” is just annoying. There’s even a mid-song rap, for no apparent reason aside from to elicit the question “is that Luther rapping?.” It’s disappointing that this is the only formal duet between these two musical titans and neither one is at their best. For all it lacks, it did earn the pair a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Aretha sneaks in two of her own compositions at the end of the album, which had become something of a tradition by that time. The album closes with two songs written by Aretha, both refreshing in their own right. Aretha recruited Academy Award winner Michel Legrand to produce the closer, “What Did You Give.” She self-produced “You Can’t Take Me For Granted,” with a glittery harp-driven intro, and punctuating staccato-piano pre-chorus. The ballad directed towards the man she calls “the great love of my life” has a strong, catchy hook and makes a notable nod to her early Columbia recording “Sweet Bitter Love.”
The album ends with an edited version of Shep Pettibone’s “Everyday Remix” of “Everyday People.” It’s an underwhelming inclusion because this edit is so close to the album version. Except for some slight percussion changes and one or two new lines from Aretha near the song’s conclusion, it’s basically the same, instrumentation and all. Also, be mindful that this is even more glaring because these versions open and close the album, playing back to back when the CD or stream is left on repeat. Pettibone’s other mix, the “People Remix,” or it’s edit the “Hot Radio Remix” would have been a better selection because they shed all the original instrumentation to incorporate new percussion and piano parts that give it a fresh house-driven sound to distinguish it from the album version.
Despite the cohesive nature of the album, it didn’t connect with listeners. Aretha’s first album in the SoundScan era performed underwhelmingly, peaking at 153 on the Billboard 200. Though she appeared on a slew of soundtracks and other albums, Aretha wouldn’t release another album of her own until 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose.
Listen to Aretha Franklin’s What You See Is What You Sweat: