That Aretha Franklin changed every corner of pop is not a shock, not now. But you can also listen to one album of Franklin’s -- maybe even a single song -- and find all of hip-hop and R&B. Implausible? Goofy? This is the recursive quality of DNA, which is always at once iterated and never fully iterated. In 1972, a Rolling Stone critic wrote that Young, Gifted and Black was erratic, which is true insofar as the wind and the ocean are erratic. We spend a lifetime studying the forces that generate us, and it seems reasonable to say that in 2018, we may have finally caught up with this album.
We work backward to the peak, which, if pop song rules obtained, would come about three-quarters of the way in.
The players on Young, Gifted and Black are the All-Stars of Sampling years before sampling. Flautist Hubert Laws? Sampled by JAY-Z. Guitarist Cornell Dupree? Sampled by MC Eiht and Buckshot. Dr. John? Sampled by dozens of acts including Fatboy Slim, John Legend, Massive Attack and Ice Cube. And the rest of the band wasn't sampled so much as transferred whole into the body of hip-hop: Donny Hathaway, Billy Preston and the three wise drummers: Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T. & The MG’s, Ray Lucas and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.
Aside from the who, the what of this album embodied a sensibility that would take decades to become the basic operating language of pop. “Day Dreaming,” a Franklin composition, could be lifted from the new Kali Uchis album, a dose of easygoing R&B heavy on bass and backing vocals, twisted off at both ends with psychedelic production fillips.
Franklin’s recording of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” summons hip-hop covers not yet recorded, especially Fugees’ version of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Drummer Lucas is strong beneath the surface, part of the pulse that can make pop and hip-hop the same, slow enough to relax but pronounced enough to move heads. If hip-hop took over the world, it’s because the world was always already in hip-hop, a music experienced as a practice of both innovation and excavation. By the end of this brief performance, Franklin and her band have referenced blues and gospel and varietals of funk that don’t yet exist. Franklin’s voice announces and hot-wires everything the band does. She dials up the catharsis of the choir, floats into a vernacular mood and shatters the fringes of her range like Maceo Parker making his saxophone boil over. What Franklin’s voice does is everything, and that’s the first thing all of her recordings tell us.
And then there is “Rock Steady,” the fire over water. The song is just a sketch, one chord for the verse and one for the break. In performance, it blooms into a kaleidoscope. The backup singers, two of them Aretha’s sisters, are full of joy but mixed down quietly enough to sound like they’re encouraging Aretha from across the street. The Memphis Horns are forceful and confident, maybe even a bit loose. And then there is the drummer, Pretty Purdie, the only person on the track who can challenge Franklin.
The song exists as a spiral, working its way backward from its penultimate moment, when Franklin’s sheet music went flying and Purdie -- according to Purdie -- had to improvise for four bars while everyone else laid out.
This is a mirror moment -- break dancing and hip-hop sound like this moment because this moment became hip-hop culture. Purdie uses the ride cymbal, kick and snare to subdivide the whole in a way that reflects how hip-hop would later take songs apart. It isn't just that this break is such a great loop -- it is that Purdie breaks “Rock Steady” into pieces that you didn't know were there.
When you run the song back to the top, high off the break, you hear Franklin light up the runway, building in intensity from her opening levels (already hotter than most) to her wordless whoops, which seem to be crying for Purdie, asking someone to whack the earth in half and let the light bleed out. At the 2:37 mark, it is as if Purdie, intending to or not, airs out the whole room, sending everyone out and bringing them back, all in a few seconds. The first words Franklin sings after Purdie’s break -- “It’s a funky low-down feeling” -- speak to what has just happened and what must happen next.