Divadom can often be a competitive sport. That’s one reason covers have always been an essential part of Mariah, Celine and company’s catalogs — what better way to showcase your voice than to conquer someone else’s hit song? And few have done that better than Aretha Franklin, arguably the greatest diva of them all, whose covers frequently make the source material an afterthought. (Some are still unaware, for example, that her signature hit, “Respect,” was originally recorded by Otis Redding.)
With Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, her 38th studio album, the 72-year-old soul legend tips her hat to her power-voiced peers, and often beats them at their own game. Not a note goes to waste on the LP, which features stylized covers of hits popularized by Dinah Washington, Alicia Keys and others. Yes, Franklin can still bring it, although she isn’t nearly as mint as she was in her glory years — there are hints of Auto-Tune, a diva no-no, on her take of Adele’s biggest hit, confidently retitled “Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version).”
But Franklin’s bravado stretches some of these songs to new territories, with help from bold production choices (the album reunites her with Clive Davis, who co-produces many tracks with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, among others). André 3000 helms the jazzed, nearly unrecognizable “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Keys’ “No One” is flipped into light reggae, and a mashup between Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” spans generations with an 808-filled trap-rap bridge.
There are moments where Franklin’s voice wobbles on the tightrope — especially when the arrangements aren’t as robust, like on Barbra Streisand’s “People.” But when the instrumentation matches her fervor, she’s home. On “I’m Every Woman/Respect,” Franklin segues from Chaka Khan into a ’90s-house version of her own 1967 single without a blink. If, as Beyoncé says, a diva is a female version of a hustler, Franklin still knows how to run the game.