Three of Aretha Franklin's most sublime recordings rarely get mentioned anymore when critics compile her finest moments; they get lost in the shuffle of her brilliance. “Baby, Baby, Baby” ('67), “Prove It” ('67) and “My Song” ('68) uncork the heartache that throbs from sunup till sundown and all through the night. They're songs that, if you hear them while in the frame of mind they unerringly capture, can land you doubled over in a chair or curled up on a sofa, head in your hands: the dumped lover's yoga. Everything about the cuts is on point – arrangements, production, musicianship. But it's the union of lyrics (simple, direct, from the heart) and that voice (technically flawless, soaked with pain, lovely) that pushes them to transcend genres, to achieve timelessness. When Aretha cries out, “I'm bewildered, I'm lonely and I'm loveless/without you to hold my hand” on “Baby,” all you can do is throw a hand in the air and wave it slowly back and forth in amen.
'Re single-handedly created the soul diva. It didn't exist before her. In the late '60s, she liberated soul music's ache and joy from stultifying crossover dreams, in the process redefining not only “pop” but what it meant and took to “cross over” in the first place. She recovered the gospel impulse and fiercely underscored the revolutionary thrust in R&B, giving voice and body to both the psychic unease and the defiant hopefulness of the cultural moment.
When the '70s rolled around, Chaka Khan took it to a whole 'nother level.
Chaka, whose own politics were shaped by her early involvement with the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, has never made a secret of the fact that her burning ambition was to be a jazz singer, a “real” singer. To that end, she's fashioned her voice into a horn; while Aretha's influence is undeniable, so is Coltrane's, so is Miles'. At the same time, it was her complete immersion in the sinewy grooves of '70s funk rockers Rufus that taught her how to vamp, how to pocket and how to bottle the sound of a slow screw against the wall. The wonder of her voice is not just how she can effortlessly segue from a gritty, earthy growl to a breathy come-on, from a crystalline wail to a sultry riff, but how those varied qualities play out simultaneously. Throughout her career, but especially since leaving Rufus, Chaka (along with producers such as Aretha's old helmsman, Arif Mardin) has showcased these strengths by layering tracks with countermelodies, duets with herself, and her own backing vocals. What she brought to the game was a jazz musician's discipline, technical finesse and musical ear, as well as the life force that's at the heart of classic soul singing. Like Billie and Aretha, Chaka's influence is so pervasive as to be immeasurable.
On her new album, Come 2 My House (produced by The Artist for his NPG label), Ms. Khan's voice is as astonishing as ever. “Betcha I” shows the 45-year-old singer to be in as fiery and funky form as when she was the halter-topped, feathers-in-the-hair, bell-bottomed front woman for Rufus. The first single, “Spoon,” has a grown woman's playful sultriness; it annihilates the wan female sexuality that now pervades R&B. (Sparkle? Mya?) Likewise, the rock-tinged “I'll Never Be a Fool” (“I'll never open my legs again to a man who's insecure/I'll never open my legs again unless I'm really sure . . .”) is the oath of a woman battle-scarred but undefeated. And on the tropical-flavored title track, Chaka's whispered invitations and heavy breathing are warm-ups to a showstopping blast at song's end, where she goes toe to toe with gleaming horns.
But it's the delicate, autobiographical “This Crazy Life of Mine,” complete with swirling strings, that gives the album its center. “This is the story of mind, soul and heart,” she sings gently, and the burnished tones in her voice are pure tonic. Reminiscent of her hit “Love Me Still,” from the Clockers soundtrack, it stuns with the power of unadorned singing, complete with pitch, musicality, heart – and lyrics that are actually about something.
For all the wonder that is Khan, though, Come 2 My House is only partly satisfying. Truth is, The Artist's creative well settled to a low mark a long time ago. He gets points for clearing away clutter, for showcasing Chaka's voice with due respect, and for hearing and using it as a powerful trombone/sax/ trumpet. Piano and horn licks sprout up and flourish throughout the album, and Chaka has entire conversations with them, sprinkling in some cool scatting. But The Artist's production is embarrassingly dated, epitomized by the grating thwack of an '80s drum machine that runs coldly throughout the album, hamstringing what should be a triumphant comeback. a
The penultimate song on Come 2 My House is a cover of the Larry Graham-penned “Hair”: “People ask me everywhere/Is that really all your hair?/I just tell them, if it ain't/Then it sure don't mean that now I can't.” For Chaka fans, the song works as both inside joke and too-deep social commentary. Chaka was the first to turn her wigs and weaves into an Afrocentric statement, tossing a big, bushy Afro-mane with black-girl prerogative. Nowadays, that prerogative is exercised in the fling of ass-brushing Euro-weaves and blond extensions. Is there anyone left who doesn't want to be a Barbie hip-hop ho?
“It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in/Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans/Fake nails done by Koreans,” raps Lauryn Hill on “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the first single from her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This disc is the hip-hop & song, personal manifesto that Latifah's been trying to birth for three albums now. It's the political tract Souljah couldn't pull off even in a Technicolor dream. It's damn near brilliant.
Miseducation is an album whose beats are hard and funky, that blends girl-group harmonies with ghetto raps, fierce patois with slinky R&B, and whose warm, live instrumentation (including a turn by Carlos Santana) uses samples like condiments, not the entree.It folds political ideology into personal theater (and vice versa), but without the consumerist, adolescent bent that defines the ghetto-fabulous aesthetic and Trump-style politics that rule hip-hop right now. Lauryn's dropping knowledge, unafraid to be pedantic, and using her own missteps and hard-won insights as primary text. There are no “gotta lotta Prada” rhymes, because she knows that Big Willie stylin' ain't what three centuries of Negro blood's been shed for.
With Miseducation, Hill (the soul of the Fugees, no matter how ubiquitous Wyclef becomes) functions in much the same way Franklin did in the late '60s. She reminds us that hip-hop's identity battles are about something deeper and more fragile than pursuit of the benjamins. She connects the dots between bedroom politics, affairs of the heart and the devastating consequences of rampant capitalism. So a line about artists selling out, spoken in the lyrically and thematically dense “Lost Ones,” just as easily works as a warning to a floundering lover: “It's funny how money change a situation/miscommunication leads to complication/My emancipation don't fit your equation . . .” And “Superstar” (which could just as well be titled “Dear Puffy”) contains the withering hook: “Come on baby, light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain't getting no higher?”
Hill's flow is tough but feminine, a contradiction that hip-hop is still wrestling with but that she sidesteps by simply being both; her singing alto is marbled with thick, fat ribbons of sensuality and warmth, street wisdom and compassion. Like Chaka, she doubles her vocals, does her own backgrounds, pulls key phrases out of the verse and repeats them for maximum effect. Others have done it since Chaka, of course, but few have been able to put a signature twist on it like Hill has. While the sum effect is body blows tucked inside political commentary, it also means that Hill's love songs – whether addressed to her young son, Zion, or to a wayward man, or to the object of her growing desire – are old-school in the best sense: There's not a phony moment in them. Her duets (the eroto-spiritual, lovin' till the breakuhdawn “Nothing Even Matters” with D'Angelo, and her homegirls-break-it-down session “I Used To Love Him” with Mary J. Blige) have integrity because the guest artists complement Hill's own vision; they're not used to fill in outrageous gaps, as with most current R&B and hip-hop cameos. Her confessional declarations (“To Zion,” “When It Hurts So Bad,” “Can't Take My Eyes Off of You”) have the power of late-night whispers, pulled from somewhere beyond self-consciousness.
Compare, for instance, Hill's “To Zion” with Will Smith's cornball “Two of Us.” Smith raps, “It's a full-time job to be a good dad/You got so much more stuff than I had,” a couplet that's fucked-up on so many levels, and the first thought it brings to mind is, Hey, Will, why not just book your boy into the Corey Feldman Suite at Betty Ford's right now? By contrast, Hill (currently pregnant with her second child) tells of waiting outside her baby boy's door while he sleeps, and of being spiritually rewired by her maternal role; her repeated, ecstatic shouts of “My joy!” at the song's end roll off her tongue with gospel fervor.
She turns seriously funky on the Stevie Wonder-ish “Every Ghetto, Every City” – two parts “I Wish” (which is actually referenced in the song) for every one part “Living for the City.” It's a potent reminder that the hip-hop autobiography, filled with minute, personal details, is still one of pop culture's most viscerally thrilling joy rides.
Still, nothing on the album is as powerful as “Ex-Factor,” which hurls you back onto Aretha's old sofa, clutching your head, folded in two and gagging on rejection. The hook alone is devastating: “Cry for me, cry for me/You said you'd die for me/Give to me, give to me/Why won't you live for me . . .” There it is, the gap between declaration and deed, the painful grind of being with someone who would literally take a bullet for you – and would rather do so than extend the gifts of ordinary decency and kindness. “Tell me who I have to be,” she implores, “to get some reciprocity.”
If The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (album title of the year) is read as one woman's story, she's someone who comes off as being on surer footing leading a protest, organizing a picket line or rallying the troops than she is in sustaining her love life. That's a tragic way to live, and subtextually speaks volumes about the unchanged, difficult lot of the thinking woman, the political female, the woman-child as artist – particularly a black woman with race consciousness. But it makes for hella-fine art. The cool thing about Miseducation is that, if nothing else, it's the sound of tragedies being shouted down. Sometimes with a whisper. Aretha, whose single “A Rose Is Still a Rose” Lauryn produced earlier this year (the best thing Lady Soul's done in a decade), should be proud.
It'd be a shame if Miseducation were simply categorized as a “female MC's” album, because as this century comes to a close, Hill has dropped a work that ranks as one of hip-hop's all-time best. Like Erykah's Baduizm, it's also a shoo-in for classic R&B status and will earn deserved props for being a stellar pop effort. Hill has unchained contemporary soul music's ache and joy from stultifying crossover dreams. Most importantly, she's giving voice to our psychic unease while she and we search for something more substantial than the Hilfiger-sponsored hopefulness of this particular cultural moment.