Published Jul 10, 2015Cover songs inevitably invite comparison: play it straight, you'd better represent; switch it up, you'd better make it your own. Serving as the companion to the much-lauded documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, this 16-track affair sees big-name artists deliver their takes on Nina Simone standards, to varying degrees of success. It's key to note that a fair chunk of Simone's own material was itself a reinterpretation of others' material, so modern standards like "Feeling Good" and "Sinnerman" have always been very much open to interpretation.
Lauryn Hill steps into the spotlight to tackle "Feeling Good," and while she does an admirable job, it ultimately has you yearning for Simone's more emotionally immediate version. Mary J. Blige steps up to the plate with an update on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and hits a triple; while it's smooth as all get out, it's lacking enough power to bring it home. The always reliable Gregory Porter moulds "Sinnerman" into a hypnotic concoction of jazz-funk, while the always underrated Alice Smith rocks up "I Put A Spell On You," toning down the mysticism and amping up the more plaintive aspects. One of the fresher efforts is a number like "Baltimore," on which Jazmine Sullivan proves again that she has yet to meet material she can't conquer. Hill returns with a solid reworking of folk song "Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)," which manages of nail the point of this exercise: recontextualizing Simone's own reworkings.
As a whole, the 16-track project is reverent, and pays respect to the musical icon. Whether this is an essential album is up for debate, but it's worth checking out for the heavy hitters that are on board. (Sony)