‘Nina Revisited’ is a Rarity – A Legitimately Exceptional Tribute Album
Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone • RCA • US Release Date: July 10, 2015
Tribute albums can be a music critic’s worst nightmare. Why? Because often, the artists paying tribute just don’t have that same “oomph” or don’t match the sensibilities of the artist they are celebrating. Also, a tribute album can expose the weaknesses of artist paying tribute – if it’s not their lane or doesn’t match their abilities, it can be a hot mess. None of the aforementioned is the case of Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone. This, my friends, bucks the pitfalls of the tribute album by exceeding expectations and doing justice to the late, great visionary, Nina Simone.
Following Lisa Simone’s intro (“My Mama Could Sing”), Lauryn Hill gives one of Simone’s most famous songs, “Feeling Good” a traditional cover. Hill’s voice sounds older and coarser than it did back in 1998. This is to be expected – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill happened nearly 20 years ago and Hill is 40 years old. Still, she delivers the similar passion and grit that Simone incorporated.
On the seven-and-a-half minute “I’ve Got Life,” the opposite can be said; it’s a stark contrast to Simone’s “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life,” but channels the spirit of the selection from Hair. A sample of the original is incorporated, while Hill raps compellingly. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” concedes no momentum, with Hill showing off her gruffer contralto, still rich and captivating. Like “Feeling Good,” the emotional investment of Hill upon her delivery of the Simone classic is breathtaking – you feel she wants to ‘do her best by’ this music.
Another contralto takes the rains on a reggae-tinged take of “Baltimore” – Jazmine Sullivan. Interestingly, the usually dramatic Sullivan sounds a bit more restrained and poised than usual. She performs it well (when has Sullivan ever sounded substandard?), but infusing more of the bite we’ve become accustomed to wouldn’t have been turned away.
Australian singer/songwriter Grace takes over the reins “Love Me Or Leave Me,” delivering another complete and pleasing performance. Her voice sounds beautiful and nuanced to say the least. Usher becomes the first male to tackle Simone’s music on Nina Revisited. In his hands, “My Baby Just Cares For Me” receives an urban contemporary makeover, but still retains the jazzy sensibility. Vocally, Usher sounds polished with this particular arrangement playing to his “lane” you might say.
The ‘Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’ aka Mary J. Blige knocks an adult contemporary R&B version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” out of the park. Much like Usher’s performance, it’s amazing how attuned producers were to the respective artists sensibilities, as well as maintaining the spirit of Nina Simone alive and well. ‘Course, Gregory Porter never seems to miss, and “Sinnerman” is another prime example. Porter holds his own, in his lane, flexing those buff biceps. He’s at his best when he lets loose towards the end.
“To Be Young, Gifted & Black” is transformed into “We Are Young Gifted & Black” in the hands of Midwest intellectual rap king Common and oft-underrated adult R&B musician Lalah Hathaway. Hathaway tackles the hook with beautiful control, while Common spits in a similar vein to Simone’s activist-driven performances. Two particular moments stand out: (1) Common’s extension of the “Mississippi Goddam” sentiment and (2) Hathaway’s scatting at the end.
Alice Smith tackles “I Put A Spell On You.” Those expecting a traditional take will be stunned, as Smith’s interpretation is an out of the box, alt-rock, alt-soul version. It works, even if purist may be off put by it. Lisa Simone returns on a rock solid take of “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl.”
Lauryn Hill’s return on “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” is nothing short of epic. As stunning as her pipes sound (particularly those signature runs), the production behind her is among the crème de la crème of Nina Revisited. There’s a psychedelic edge that’s amplified by the synths, while the groove hearkens back to classic soul. Hill doesn’t stop there, delivering a dramatic, artistic performance on “Wild Is The Wind” and concluding her contributions with instrumental track “African Mailman.”
Most editions of Nina Revisited closes with the late, great artist herself, performing the Dick Dallas/Billy Taylor-penned 1960s freedom song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Those who partake of Nina Revisited from Google get an extra treat – two bonus tracks! Those two extra goodies are “Stars” (Lisa Simone) and fittingly, “Mississippi Goddam” (Andra Day).
Often times, compilations end up being only so-so at best. That isn’t the case in the least with Nina Revisited, which is one of the better tribute albums you’ll hear. Sure, the artists paying ode to Simone don’t supersede her classic performances or her immense artistry, but all of them do a fine job of embodying her spirit through their respective approaches. No question that Ms. Lauryn Hill takes top honors here – she continues to make us hunger for a comeback.
Favorites: “Feeling Good,” “I’ve Got Life,” “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Are Young Gifted & Black,” “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair”