Review #388: Young, Gifted and Black, Aretha Franklin

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 18, 2023

#388: Young, Gifted and Black, Aretha Franklin

It’s a little bit sad to encounter some “last” albums on the RS 500 list — we’ve hit our last Radiohead album, our last Lil Wayne album, and now our last Aretha Franklin album. In some ways it’s exciting, because we’re coming up on some real wild cards, like Billie Eilish and The Weeknd. There’s still lots to look forward to — but I’ll miss Miss Aretha.

After all, the lady was a legend — RS points out that she was 29 years old when this, her nineteenth album, was released. For reference, Beyonce had only released nine albums by the time she was thirty.

People have even argued that this is Aretha’s best studio album. She certainly had more experience than she did recording either I Never Loved A Man or Lady Soul. And she had collected quite an ensemble. Dr. John plays percussion, and she has her two sisters singing backup. (Including Erma Franklin, who was the original singer of “Piece Of My Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin.)

I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s certainly the one I enjoyed the most. Franklin clearly has a lot of creative control. She tackles a wide range of styles, from simple love ballads (“Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)”) to cheerful pep tunes (“April Fools”) to Philly soul (“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”). Also she wrote a good portion of it: the psychedelic “Day Dreaming,” the funk-lick-filled “Rock Steady,” and the sweet & slow pair “All the King’s Horses” & “First Snow In Kokomo.”

But the best songs are the covers. The title of the album comes from the Nina Simone song “Young, Gifted and Black,” which was written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin In the Sun. It’s this record’s most moving song, directed at young black children that deserve to be lifted up. Some of the covers are natural fits for her — like, of course she would cover Dusty Springfield (“A Brand New Me”) and Otis Redding (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”). Some of them, though, are ingenius in that we wouldn’t necessarily expect them from Aretha. Her soulful, gospel take on the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” is transformative: she doesn’t just change the rhythm and genre, but the notes themselves.

My favorite unexpected cover? Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses).” I love the original so much — it’s a beautiful, lonely song that is a little gospely even when he does it. But Franklin takes it straight to church. Elton clearly approved, appearing with her to perform it as a duet.

You know, I used to roll my eyes at albums that were mostly covers. But watching that Elton duet has officially changed my mind. Look at how proud he is, that one of the most beautiful singers of the twentieth century thought his song was worthy of covering. That she might have even made it better.

And with that, we’ll leave Aretha behind.

Review #387: In Rainbows, Radiohead

Review #389: The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey