When Minnie Riperton released her debut album, Come to My Garden, in 1970, she decided to make “Les Fleurs” her grand, sweeping introduction to the LP. A lush masterwork arranged by Charles Stephney, the chamber-soul classic starts off with Riperton’s frolicsome vocals. The song blooms into something else entirely the second it dives headlong into ecstatic psychedelic production that surges with sudden power. But despite the strength of the arrangement and the finesse of Riperton’s voice, “Les Fleurs” failed to chart as a single and has often felt like a forgotten jewel tucked away in her catalogue.
The country-soul singer Yola had been a casual fan of Riperton for years. She knew Riperton’s most famous song — the piercingly high “Lovin’ You,” from 1975, best remembered as a showcase of Riperton’s thrilling whistle register (and partially inspired by Riperton’s daughter, the actress and comedian Maya Rudolph). But one day, Yola came across Nuyorican Soul’s remix of “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun,” the 1971 funk-soul jam by the band Rotary Connection that Riperton joined after getting discovered while working a receptionist job at Chess Records.
Yola was intrigued by the track and decided to delve deeper into Riperton’s discography. Eventually, she came across Come to My Garden. She remembers playing the first track. “I pressed the song, and it jumped out. I was like, ‘This is outrageous,’” she says. To her, “Les Fleurs” represents a musical legacy that just isn’t celebrated enough. “[Minnie Riperton] is so underrated, but that song is so underrated. When you play it, people are like, ‘Oh, I think I do know this song. Where has it been? This is epic! Why don’t I hear this more?’ There’s some kind of criminal thing going on in music where people are sleeping on geniuses, and I don’t know why.”
The song stuck with Yola so much that she listed it as Number One when she cast her ballot on Rolling Stone’s newly updated 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. In the video above, she goes into detail about how each element of the song — the richness of the harmonies, the swelling choruses, the way Riperton forms words “as though she’s kissing them” — builds into a stunning whole. “It’s just like, things are coming in from angles, but nothing is colliding,” Yola explains. “They’re all in concert. It’s pure genius. To be able to hold all of that power and to be able to move around it as an artist, that’s not easy to do.”
Riperton sings from the perspective of a flower: “Will somebody wear me to the fair?” she trills. “Will a lady pin me in her hair?” As a songwriter who just released her second album, Stand for Myself, Yola says she’s struck by the imagery and the poetry embedded in the lyrics. “It’s an anthropomorphized perspective of a flower — she’s making you take on the role of the flower more than the flower becoming human in some way.… That’s probably the trick: being present enough to draw on the beauty of the things around you, to see the poetry in something,” she says. “I’m in Nashville. I’m in a place where people speak on nature in their music, but to somehow make it highbrow and cultured and soulful and of Harlem.… Nothing has been sacrificed for the other aesthetic, and that is reflected in the lyrics. Everything, every aspect of it, is in concert.”
But the most standout quality for Yola might be that even though the song is bursting with so many maximalist details, it never sounds labored. “There’s no way this happened without effort, but it sounds effortless,” Yola says. “It’s a real master class. If you really want to be made to feel like a stone-cold amateur, just dissect this song.”