On “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” her new single, Aretha Franklin dispenses advice to an unsuspecting young woman who’s had her first round of rotten love, having tangoed with a lying guy who wages, as Franklin sings, a “sticky game.” Written and produced by the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill, the song floats atop an incessant beat that makes a bracing virtue of its choppiness; violins swing in conversationally, and piano syncopations soothe transitions during Franklin’s consoling sermon. The fiery title hook of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am,” belted out by Hill above the groove, totally fits. The song offers Franklin as the world’s foremost expert on heartbreak, which is, of course, one of the keys to her three decades of embodying the innovation and virtuosity of U.S. soul. An extraordinary piece of work, “A Rose Is Still a Rose” immediately establishes Hill as one of R&B’s most gifted writer/producers. But what it does for Aretha Franklin is something trickier to bring off: It renders her legendary and contemporary all at once.
Doing her least restricted and most comfortable singing since 1981’s Love All the Hurt Away, Franklin sounds like she knows it, too, on the rest of A Rose Is Still a Rose. She achieves a stunning continuity with hip-hop-sired producers Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin on songs like “Never Leave You Again,” “Every Lil’ Bit Hurts” and the show stopper “I’ll Dip.” She reasons and rages through “In Case You Forgot” and “In the Morning” with Daryl Simmons, a superb Aretha producer who is like a more atmospheric Babyface. And then, after two songs with eighties holdover Narada Michael Walden, the album climaxes with a couple of beautifully eccentric tunes — including “The Woman,” a freestyle gem Aretha wrote — that were recorded near her native Detroit with Michael J. Powell. After all these fusions, she’s home, singing about driving to work, bursting out with admonitions like “Listen to this.”
With the limited exception of Walden’s songs, A Rose Is Still a Rose leaves behind Franklin’s overly dogmatic eighties work. It’s subtle and sexy, a miraculous immersion in hip-hop gravity, flow and humor by one of pop music’s greatest living singers. It never forgets that, yes, Aretha can rock the house, but what she really excels at is mood. This is what becomes a legend most.