This past week, musical album “Young, Gifted and Black” by music icon Aretha Franklin celebrated its 50th anniversary. Released on January 24th, 1972, “Young, Gifted and Black” was Franklin’s 18th studio album, receiving acclaim from critics and fans alike, winning the Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance. Created during the peak of the Black Power Movement and political tensions surrounding the Vietnam War, the album has been regarded as a representation of the profound social and political change that the United States experienced in that era. Also in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, the album was released during a shift in Black art and style. Looking back, “Young, Gifted and Black” was Franklin’s response to a new era, celebrating the re-invention and empowerment of Black women with jazz and soul.
At the album’s core is the titular song, “Young, Gifted and Black.” A cover of Nina Simone’s 1969 hit, Franklin’s gospel interpretation of the song is near transcendent, rejoicing in its ebullient lyrics and vocals. Its powerful and uplifting message is only enhanced by her dominating voice, vocal riffs, and piano skills. Reinforced throughout the song is a message of pride and empowerment, specifically geared towards Black youth. Frequently throughout, Franklin sings, “You got the future, don’t you know that’s a fact? / Young, gifted, and Black.” The song played a significant role in broadening dominant narratives of Black experiences, affirming Franklin’s musically intimate relationship with the Civil Rights Movement.
Other hit songs off the album include “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady.” “Day Dreaming” is rooted in soul music influences, characterized by Franklin’s smooth vocals, the electric piano, and the flute. Immediately after its release, the song sold over a million copies, dominating both the soul and pop charts during the spring of 1972. Rumored to be about her lover at the time, The Temptations singer Dennis Edwards (which she later confirmed in a 1999 interview with Oprah) Franklin croons, “Day dreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you / Look at my heart floating away.” In contrast, “Rock Steady,” a funk song accompanied by percussion, guitar, and bass, demands its listeners to groove along with its beat, ending with a drum bridge considered one of the most iconic of all time. With a strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe, “Rock Steady” was one of the songs that ultimately helped establish the “United Funk” music era during the 1970s.
Many of the songs off “Young, Gifted and Black” are covers reimagined by Franklin to express uniquely feminist ideologies. While such messages were already inherent to songs like “RESPECT,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Think,” Franklin takes a feminist twist on songs like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” a song originally sung by seminal soul musician Otis Redding. “A Brand New Me” also emphasizes an empowering message as well as one of healing, potentially in response to the breaking off of her first marriage. In the song, Franklin sings, “I tell the same old jokes / And I get the same old grins
But now the joke is on you / It happened somehow with you / Everyday of my life / I’m as fresh as morning dew.”
Overall, “Young, Gifted and Black” represents Franklin’s maturity as an artist expanding into different styles, which are unified under her dominating and powerful voice. Covering songs from “The Delfonics” to Elton John to “The Beatles,” Franklin demonstrated her unrivaled versatility, uniquely approaching each cover to form an empowered Black narrative. While it did not produce many of her most memorable hits, the album drew on themes of Black empowerment, and critically, left an indelible mark on musical history.