One of the most intriguing soul reissue tracks of the recent past is the unreleased version of "Rock Steady" by Aretha Franklin. It was unveiled on "What It Is," a recent various-artists anthology of Atlantic-label rarities but it also forms the kingpin of the brand-new 2-CD Aretha rarities collection, "Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul."

The "new" version is looser, and has some interesting echo effects, and lasts longer than the more familiar original, which was released in 1972 on "Young, Gifted, and Black." But it lacks the thing that - for me at least - made the original "Rock Steady" one of the most important recordings in the soul canon.

The original "Rock Steady" is rock steady. And it's about rock-steadiness. It describes itself - it's a recursion, one of Douglas Hofstadter's "strange loops" in the form of a blistering dance-floor-filler. The unreleased version has a little bit of a tempo wobble towards the end, followed by a deliberate slow-down as it spaces out to an echoey ending. It's NOT "what it is" througho ut - it's partly rock steady and partly not.

To my ears, the original version is the most meta song ever. It's exactly "what it is what it is what it is" (which also happens to be the vocal hook sung by backing singers The Sweet Inspirations.) It tells you exactly how it does what it does while it's doing it. It sounds like what rock-steadiness is supposed to sound like.

The unreleased version, by contrast, gives glimpses of rock-steadiness but ultimately runs down. It describes what it is to be rock steady but is ultimately unable to come through with what it promises, to be what it aspires to be. If Aretha were merely The Princess of Soul, maybe that would be good enough, I don't know. But Aretha is not "Carolyn's sister," nor "C.L's daughter" - hers is the uneasy head that wears the crown. And like a ruler, you have to be straight when you say you're being straight - you have to deliver the goods, or else your realm isn't worth a damn. And "Rock Steady" proves that the Realm of Soul is under divine rule.


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