She was, by all accounts, a complicated woman. No one could or would argue with that. Bearing a temper and contempt for those that unfittingly crossed her path, she was often branded as a volatile and dangerous member of our society. She also fought for a better society, and happened to be one of the most profoundly influential artists of our time, with a voice that could collapse the heart of the most hardened man, and a soul that could sweep the earth with its willful vibrations. Nina Simone was a woman of music, a woman proud of her black skin, built to the core with seductive strings and melodies that can only be met with wonder. And now that she’s been gone for over a decade now, it’s time we reconsidered her world of tumultuous melancholy and vibrancy with the wholly necessary tribute album Nina Revisited.
First, we must acknowledge, however obvious, that it is simply impossible to recreate the sound, and the feeling you get when you listen to that sound, of Simone herself. Her voice is one that informs your state of being—unshakeable and thankfully so.
Consequently, when we look at a compilation album like Nina Revisited featuring contemporary artists honoring her legacy with surely good intentions, it is a rather understandable reaction to scoff and brush off whatever it has in store. But that would also be a mistake.
If there were one artist of this generation that could be minutely compared to Simone, both in her influential music and her controversial personality, it would be Ms. Lauryn Hill. You may know her from her time in The Fugees, for her own illustrious solo career, or for her more recent live appearances that have caused a bit of outrage amongst fans, but regardless of your associations, Ms. Hill could really be the only choice to helm some of Simone’s beloved hits on Nina Revisited.
From the woefully somber “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” to Simone’s boisterous and unfaltering “Feeling Good,” Ms. Hill brings her own guttural soul with no intention of imitating, but rather to praise Simone’s unmatchable quality. Probably her most ambitious take is the second track “I’ve Got Life,” a seven-minute celebration of contemporary and nostalgic influences. Ms. Hill makes sure to embody the afro-jazz, R&B, and classical pulses that permeate throughout Simone’s discography and made her the unpredictable musical force that she was.
And Ms. Hill is not the only one paying tribute on Nina Revisited. We are also graced with recordings from Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone who makes her mom proud with the lovely opening track “My Mama Could Sing,” as well as “I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” proving talent surely can flow down the bloodline.
There are, however, a couple of missteps along the tour of Simone. Mary J. Blige with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” comes off as a lazy jazz recreation, leaving the punch that made the original song a hit behind in the dust.
And then there’s Usher, who brings a rendition of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” that, by the end of the album, becomes completely lost in the mix. Quite simply, he doesn’t seem to celebrate Simone’s spirit in the full-hearted way the rest of the artists do.
In the end, there is really only one stand out, and that’s Alice Smith’s take on one of the most covered songs in our musical culture, “I Put a Spell on You.” Smith, known for her slick and soulful take on contemporary R&B, creates a tenderly reminiscent embodiment of Simone’s interpretation, without attempting to trump or replicate it. It’s as if Smith is standing on the shore of an indeterminably vast sea, crying a mournful and haunting plea for Simone to come back to us, if only for a short while. And this is precisely why she tops the rest, by encapsulating not only the triumphs, but also the heartbreaks that Simone faced as she battled demons from both within and without.
It all boils down to the fact that Nina Revisited is worth your time, if not for the simple pleasure of witnessing talented musicians pay tribute, then for its encapsulation of a woman that overcame too much to be forgotten. Long live Nina Simone.
NINA REVISITED available on iTunes and in stores on July 10th.