A veteran soul singer (and Joss Stone’s mentor) hooks up with the Roots for an album deeply mired, in the best possible way, in the R&B of 40 years ago
If you love the classic era of baby-making music — which could mean that you’re just a year or two past the point of having to worry about your music tastes resulting in actual babies – you’ll love “Betty Wright: The Movie,” the new album by the 57-year-old soul singer and her storied backup band, the Roots.
Wright even addresses that particular legacy in a spoken-word introduction to “Tonight Again,” the sexiest of her new songs (and one obviously intended as a sequel to her 1975 single, “Tonight is the Night”).
“OK, grown folks’ music being’ played right now,” she announces. “Put children to bed. This song goes out to all of you that blame every child you ever had on me! I know, because I meet all these little kids named Betty Wright after ‘Tonight is the Night.’”
The Roots are just a little too old to claim their births have any connection to that oldie, although drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was born the same year that Wright had her first and only top 10 hit, “Clean Up Woman,” in 1971.
Now, he’s co-producing her new album as well as enlisting the Roots in a collaborative enough fashion that they’re co-billed with her on the project.
You’d think the Roots would be busy enough with their Jimmy Fallon gig, where the Philly hip-hop crew prove remarkably chameleonic on a nightly basis.
But Questlove can’t help moonlighting on his moonlighting, so he’s also got a great side career going in soul-music reclamation. Three years ago, he proved just what a sharp time traveler he is when he worked on Al Green’s much-loved comeback, “Lay It Down.”
With Green, Questlove was slavish to a tee to the old signature sound. He’s almost as deferential to the urban styles of the 1970s on “Betty Wright: The Movie.”
But since Wright isn’t quite so identified with a specific sonic signature as Reverend Al, Questlove isn’t afraid to add a few subtle modern touches here and there — or not-so-subtle ones, if we’re talking about the guest raps by Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg.
Despite the presence of Weezy, this is an album that’s going to be accused, if anything, of being too much in throw to the throwback aspects of wah-wah guitar, proto-disco strings, and other specific touchstones of the era.
If so, Wright and Questlove certainly wouldn’t be convicted by a jury of their “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” peers.
In fighting off a nostalgia charge, it helps that Wright is returning to the mid-‘70s as if she were a 57-year-old woman in 1974, with themes that reflect whatever wisening she’s been through since then.
In “Real Woman,” where she’s advising men to “stop playing with girls,” it almost sounds like she’s advocating cougar-dom — except for the parts where it’s explicitly clear that she’s telling her nephews to grow up in their dating-and-mating choices, not jealous of the action younger gals are getting.
The presence of Snoop as a guest star on “Real Woman” might seem counterintuitive, with the lyrics arguing for maturity and Snoop practically a poster child for arrested development.
But the rapper adds some nice touches and doesn’t dominate the track — as could be said of Lil Wayne’s minimalist contributions to “Grapes on a Vine.” (Favors are being traded, since the oft-sampled Wright appeared on a “Tha Carter III” number of Wayne's a few years back).
A more perfectly suited guest is found in Joss Stone, whose first two albums were co-produced by Wright. She shows up to duet on the disco ballad “Whisper in the Wind,” and it’s a measure of just how successful Wright’s mentoring was that picking their two voices apart isn’t always an instantaneous matter.
In the opening “Old Songs,” Wright tries to bridge the generation gap by admonishing, “I must admit, your beats got fatter/But add subject matter on subjects that matter.”
She makes good on that herself with “Hollywould,” a lament about a single mother who spends her nights in the clubs, and “Go!,” a live track that adds musical rawness to the tender subject matter of domestic abuse.
But for the most part, even with its added layers of age-appropriate consciousness and sass, “Betty Wright: The Movie” is an album that is going to go down very, very well in the boudoirs of classic R&B fans who don’t find current urban music setting quite the right mood.
And if the presence and co-billing of the Roots helps nudge her demographics down a bit, “Betty” could be re-popularized as a baby name after all.
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