A Rose Is Still A Rose

“There was something about Lauryn Hill that I just liked… it just works,” Aretha Franklin, EPK for A Rose Is Still A Rose

The lead-in to Aretha Franklin’s second and final album of the 1990’s would also prove to be her biggest hit of the decade. “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” which was also the title of her 1998 album, gave the Queen of Soul a fresh edge. It also connected Aretha with an artist on the verge of ubiquity: Ms. Lauryn Hill.

By the time Aretha converged with Lauryn, Ms. Hill was already a name in many households. Appearances on the soap opera ‘As The World Turns’ and in the film ‘Sister Act II’ introduced her to the world on small and big screens, while Her skills as an emcee and singer in the trio The Fugees were becoming inescapable. That was thanks in-part to their breakout hit from 1996’s The Score: a Lauryn-centric cover of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” The cover took home a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The Score also took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album, making Lauryn the first woman to win the award.

In 1997, The Fugees embarked on solo projects. Lauryn’s project, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, and remains the third and last album by a Black woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. All of that was on Lauryn’s horizon though. She was working on Miseducation when she forged “Rose” for Aretha. 

Though “A Rose Is Still A Rose” was written by Lauryn, she was inspired to write the song for Aretha based on another rose in music: “Spanish Harlem.” The song was a Ben E. King hit that Aretha made her own, bigger hit in 1971 (Aretha’s version reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Best Selling Soul Singles Chart). 

“Spanish Harlem” personifies a rose in, wait for it, Spanish Harlem. The lyrics of “Spanish Harlem” focus on the beauty of the rose. She’s blossomed into beauty despite the concrete jungle surrounding her, and only shows herself at night. The narrator is enamored by the rose, and wants to not just love her, but also protect and encourage her to keep growing. Aretha, as per usual, took the song and transformed it, from groove to lyrics. She most notably adding “Black n’” in front of “Spanish Harlem,” but also shifted the lyrics from first-person to third person, and effectively became a narrator.

Lauryn saw something in the song and subject that warranted an update. She took the personification of the rose in “Spanish Harlem” a step further expanding on its delicacy and fragility. From there, “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” was born.

Aretha speaks directly to the rose in the song’s introduction, acknowledging the pain before reminding her that “we’re all precious, in His eyes.” It’s yet another reminder that God was with Aretha through every musical venture she embarked on.

During the first verse, she connects to “Spanish Harlem,” singing about a rose she knew and she’d “met her once or twice before.” Then she shifts her attention and talks to the man who’s done the rose wrong. Aretha lays out the tale of the pretty, confident young rose. And then here comes a man, who “steals her honey” and leaves her “scorned.” And now, “she wears her thorns, trying to forget about (him).” 

In the chorus, she shifts her focus back to the rose, reminding her that she’s still a flower. Curiously, in a digipak promo single, an additional lyric appears in the chorus which was excluded from the recording, but is crucial to the message. Aretha sings, “But a rose is still a rose.” Then the omitted lyric reads “no matter what you do,” before “baby girl, you’re still a flower.” It’s an important connector that further reassures, as Aretha returns to remind her that he isn’t the one with the upper hand: the rose holds the power.

The second verse is where things get particularly notable. Aretha has sung of love and heartbreak literally hundreds of times. She sings of these situations and experiences time and time again. Instead of singing about her own heartbreak, she simply testifies that she’s had her own experiences. “Believe me when I tell you, I’ve been hurt myself,” she sings. It’s a blunt lyric for Aretha, and it hits hard. We all know fragments of the hurt Aretha’s endured, through stories and through the way she sings these songs. But this is a rare moment where she simply acknowledges it. 

It’s moments like this that realize the gravity of this record. It’s a significant topical progression for the Queen of Soul. It repositioned her beyond epitomizing soulfulness, love, and heartbreak. Here she assumes the role of the wise elder, imposing her knowledge and experience on the young rose who is full of beauty, but marred by scorn, just as she herself has been. And this record about an experienced woman trying to uplift a younger woman going through it… was written by a younger woman. 

This is where a tremendous parallel between Aretha and Lauryn can also be observed: they are both women who were wise beyond their years. Lauryn wrote this song when she was in her early 20’s, demonstrating a clarity and understanding many of her peers were decades from. While it’s nearly a decade older than when barely-teenage Aretha Franklin was singing with the soul, sorrow, and conviction like a woman in her 50’s, but in both cases their wisdom exceeded their years. 

The entire record is an empowerment record. It serves as a reminder that the man doesn’t make the woman, and the absence of a man doesn’t diminish a woman’s power. As the lyrics say, she holds the power. It’s also about self-realization. Throughout the record, Lauryn repeats “what I am is what I am,” a sample from Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.”

The bridge further hones in on that empowering tone. “Let your light be in the sunshine, not in the darkness of your sorrow,” Aretha urges. “Don’t believe your that life is over, just because your man is gone,” she reassures before reminding her that “without him your life goes on.” 

The song and album also marked a musical evolution for Aretha. After embracing new jack swing on 1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat, Aretha was largely occupied with adult-contemporary R&B throughout the rest of the 90’s. Lauryn’s foresight and youth brought Aretha to hip hop. The mid tempo beat is hard enough to fit along other contemporary rap & R&B records of the time, but smooth enough to cross over to pop radio (which it did). The flourishes of sweetness from the string arrangement and brilliant piano-playing of The Roots’ James Poyser give it a regal touch, fit for the Queen.

From Lauryn’s Mind to Our Ears

“Rose” didn’t come together without some serious labor. Drew Dixon, who was VP of A&R at Arista Records at the time, was the crucial connector that helped the song and video become a reality. To this day, Dixon calls “A Rose Is Still A Rose” one of the records she’s most proud of working on. It was Dixon who ended up on the phone with Lauryn and got the ball rolling. Lauryn described the concept of the song to Dixon and sang her a piece of it. That was enough for Dixon to convince Clive Davis, head of Arista, to allocate a budget for a demo of the song. 

Upon hearing the demo, Clive felt that the song needed a bridge, which Lauryn wrote and incorporated. With Aretha’s approval, it was off to the studio. That’s where Dixon’s talents shined even brighter. Clive Davis wanted Dixon to recruit a notable producer for the record like fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean or Stevie J. But Dixon insisted on letting Hill (who had co-production credits on all but one cut on The Fugees’ The Score LP) produce the song. 

“A Rose Is Still A Rose,” was Lauryn Hill’s first solo production credit. As Dixon told Craig Seymour at Spin Magazine in late 1998, it was a “hard sell getting people to believe that this 23-year-old African-American woman best known for singing the hell out of [the Fugees’] ‘Killing Me Softly’ cover (was) also a really talented writer and producer.” But Dixon has a special talent for seeing what others couldn’t. And this was very clearly one of those moments. Exactly 6 months after “Rose” was released, Lauryn released the lead single off Miseducation, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” She produced it, and the majority of the album by herself. 

In the fall of 1997, Lauryn flew to Detroit with her mother and infant son Zion to cut “A Rose Is Still A Rose” with Aretha. As Lauryn told Rolling Stone in 1998, it was “amazing to have Aretha singing words that you wrote.” She also noted the heavenly aura of Aretha in the studio. She told RS that she went into the vocal both after Aretha recorded and “it smelled like church, like paper fans with wooden sticks… like it came out of her pores.” 

Indeed, Lauryn captured something truly special from Aretha on “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” One of my favorite things to point out is how powerful Aretha’s voice was in the mid-late 1990’s. Starting in the mid-1980’s, Aretha lost a significant portion of her upper register and vocal clarity thanks to years of chain-smoking. Quitting revived those elements of her incredible voice, making space for her to reach the highs and sing with smooth clarity once again. That restored voice is on full display on “Rose” and the subsequent remixes and album that followed.

The song may have been complete, but Drew Dixon wasn’t done working her magic yet. She’d already convinced Clive Davis to hear the record, approve it, and let Lauryn produce it. Then she went a step further. “I even convinced Clive to let her direct the video,” she told Lior Phillips on the podcast This Must Be The Gig. It was Lauryn’s second turn at directing. She’d recently directed the 1997 music video for Common’s “Retrospect For Life.” 

There’s something beautiful about knowing that Lauryn Hill not only got to write, arrange, and produce “Rose” exactly as she heard it, but then brought it to our eyes as she saw it in her mind.  Lauryn naturally set the video in Harlem, with Elise Neal and Q-Tip playing the main characters. As the song’s story unfolds on the screen, Aretha is seen singing at a piano, on a throne, and around a garden. From the outside it appears to be an empty lot between two buildings. It alludes to the garden mentioned in “Spanish Harlem” that that song’s protagonist wants to watch the rose grow in, and perhaps shield her from the harshness of the outside world. Throughout the video Aretha is joined by Lauryn, as well as Changing Faces, Amel Larrieux, and Faith Evans. 

As the video climaxes, Elise Neal’s character discovers Aretha and her secret garden, and Aretha welcomes her with open, comforting arms. The video notably uses a different ending for the song, which features a few extra, glorious runs from Aretha. 

The design team at Arista Records also showed their best when the label began pushing the song. Some critics and dj’s received a promotional copy of the song in a bag full of white and pink rose petals. Others received a rose-shaped disc in a cd tray full of red rose petals. It’s still one of the most clever promotional items I’ve come across. 

“Hold Up The Rose, For The Universe (and Clubs) To See”

The remix treatment “A Rose Is Still A Rose” received is extremely important. Aretha was paired up with some of the hottest names in remixing to create club-ready versions of the hip-hop-driven track. Producers/remixers Love To Infinity, Johnny Vicious, and Hex Hector all lent their talents to bring Aretha and “Rose” to the clubs, which was common practice at the time. What wasn’t common: Aretha went back into the studio to cut an entirely new set of vocals for these remixes. 

Love To Infinity, composed of brothers Peter, Andy, and David Lee, were the producers tasked with reimagining “Rose” for the clubs, and for Aretha to re-sing. Via email, Peter recalled to me how the group’s manager informed them that Arista was interested in having Love To Infinity develop a version of “Rose” for Aretha re-sing her vocals at a faster tempo for the clubs. It was “pretty mind-blowing” to get that call, he said. They were over the moon that “someone with THAT much history and respect,” wanted to collaborate with the three brothers who worked out of a small studio in south Manchester, United Kingdom. 

The brothers worked in two rooms in their studio to create their suite of remixes. Dave was in studio 2 working on the dub version of the record (in this case, the “Kick Mix”) while Peter and Andy were in studio 1 working on the main version. Peter handled most of the compositional aspects of the remixes: the keyboards and computer programming. Andy mainly handled the engineering. 

After getting the drums together, Peter sat down at the keyboard and developed chords to fit the melody. The pulsing keyboards on Love To Infinity mixes are a signature (see their work on Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” Gloria Estefan’s “Everlasting Love,” and Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”). They’re also a hallmark of 90’s house music. 

“I’m not a huge fan of finding the chords by moving notes around in the computer,” Peter explained me. “Piano parts never sound real to me like that. I want to find the chords by playing for real, instantly reacting to a vibe or a change in mood in the vocals. For me, that’s where you get the track under your fingers. You work out what compliments, what to keep, what to discard.” 

From there they built additional instrumentation into the remix, including an organ part, “to give an added gospel feel.” Once the brothers completed their compositions, they sent the tracks to the U.S. to be recorded. Aretha cut her vocals in the U.S., and then they got the chance to work their magic. “To be producers of Aretha Franklin is still a pinch yourself moment,” he said. 

Peter explained that Aretha cut her vocals specifically for the Love To Infinity remixes. Once he received and produced the vocals, the other remixers were given the vocals to build their own remixes. “There was a wealth of incredible performances to choose from,” Peter recalled of Aretha’s vocals. 

Listening through to all the remixes, which were A&R’d by Hosh Gurelli, Aretha is in rare form. She’s not only operating with a fully restored voice, she’s got space to flex her range and doesn’t hold back. Aretha delivers the lyrics at an accelerated tempo with such casual agility it’s flooring. She unapologetically belts, delivers dizzying runs, and scats her way through, showcasing just how much the clubs could have benefitted from a full dance album from Aretha. They’ve never been released digitally or to streaming services, robbing the contemporary world of some of Aretha’s finest vocal work in her later years.

She also drops some gloriously campy spoken word statements (largely in the Love To Infinity mixes) including, “get up and par-tay!” “tell ya lady, thank ya baby,” “kickin’ it!”, “do ya, do ya, wanna go there? We’ll tell ya what it’s like,” “what is this thing called love?”, and “hold up the rose, for the universe to see,” “it’s a dynamite contribution, that we, make to it. I can just imagine, what it would be, if we couldn’t, do it to it.” 

U.K. producers London Connection also remixed “Rose,” but retained the vocals from the album version of the song. The same goes for the song’s two hip-hop mixes, created by Desert Eagle and Yogi. The latter remix even sampled Aretha’s own classic, “Respect.” 

What happened next was nothing short of watching Aretha bloom. “A Rose Is Still A Rose” was released on February 10, 1998, just 15 days before Aretha would shock the world with a last-minute performance of aria “Nessun dorma” at the Grammy Awards. “Rose” peaked at number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 5 on the R&B chart. They were the last times Aretha would reach that high on either chart. Meanwhile, remixes shot to number 1 on Billboard’s Dance chart. 

Rolling Stone complimented Hill’s approach when the “Rose” was released, noting that the song “renders (Aretha) legendary and contemporary all at once.” The song was soon certified Gold by the RIAA. It was Aretha’s first Gold single certification since “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” in 1974. It would also become her final Gold single. 

Aretha also performed the song a number of times as she promoted the album. First, she performed it on The Late Show with David Letterman in February 1998, then on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee.

She also performed “Rose” and then-album cut “Here We Go Again” on VH1 Divas Live in April 1998. Curiously, they were the only two performances from the show to beomitted from the album and video release. In the immediate years that followed, “Rose” also became a regular part of Aretha’s live shows.

Years later in 2011, Lauryn performed a medley of “Spanish Harlem” and “A Rose Is Still A Rose” during the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame’s Music Masters honoring Aretha in 2011. It further highlights the connections between the two records, lyrically and musically. 

A quarter of a century later, “A Rose Is Still A Rose” remains a crucial moment of intersection for Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill. It’s an important precursor to Lauryn’s explosion as a solo artist, and a solidification of Aretha’s legacy. A rose is still and always will be, a rose.

Stream “A Rose Is Still A Rose:

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