All of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' new album, Give the People What They Want, was recorded before Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. None of its 10 songs are explicitly about Jones going through chemo, or going bald, or believing she was going to die, or eventually coming to realize she would survive. All of that has happened since. Give the People is, ostensibly, an album about love — losing it, finding it, treasuring it.
In some sense, though, Jones' career has always been about survival — both her own and that of the tight, funky, 1960s soul for which she proselytizes. This is a 57-year-old woman, once a corrections officer at Rikers Island, whose rise out of obscurity began by occasionally singing backup for Lee Fields. The Motown and Stax geeks of the future Dap-Kings band heard her there. When they wanted a frontwoman for their fledgling label's house band, they chose Jones — an imposing, intense singer with the air-moving capabilities of a tropical storm. Their first album together, 2002's Dap Dappin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, sent Jones on her way to fame, and helped spark a resurgence of interest in classic soul. She, and figures like Fields and Charles Bradley, showed that there could a new life for what is ostensibly old music.
Now, with Jones' cancer bout so recent and so public (“My eyes turned jaundiced, so yellow, and my urine was so dark, like the color of brandy,” she told SPIN), Give the People What They Want can't help but come across as a shout of survival — for herself and her sound. The album's moody first song is called “Retreat!” — and if she isn't talking directly to cancer, she very well could be. Jones and the Dap-Kings show themselves as nimble and seductive as ever on “Stranger to My Happiness,” a marvel of slinky, up-tempo soul. “Long Time, Wrong Time” finds the Dap-Kings pared back, just sketching out a groove, letting Jones veer from brassy bravery to soft vulnerability. And then comes “People Don't Get What They Deserve,” a racing lament about the vicissitudes of fortune that could well be about the vicissitudes of life.
Maybe it's appropriate that Jones hasn't directly addressed her illness on this latest album. Even without it, Give the People feels like a powerful argument — not just for the skills of Jones and the Dap-Kings as performers, but for soul in its classic form, which is so often about romance on its surface and much more beneath. “Soul music did not die in '69 and '70,” Jones told Vice's Noisey music blog. “When I get up at the American [Music] Awards and I see Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake winning R&B and Soul, that makes you like, What? … [Taylor Swift] does a good job with what she's doing, but it's pop.”
I don't know what Jones would consider the defining characteristics of soul versus pop. But even without mentioning her illness, Jones has made a compelling album about the struggle of survival — and the unfairness that's a part of living. “I tried to do right by all of God's children,” she sings toward the end of Give the People What They Want. “I worked mighty hard for what I could afford. But I don't pretend for one single moment/ That what I get is my just reward.”