With her recent series of albums, Mavis Staples has successfully completed the transition from her earlier status as a soul and gospel icon to an artist who remains as contemplative, contemporary and vital today as she was when she was while part of her family band, The Staple Singers, five decades prior. She still expresses many of the same sentiments — the need for equality, justice and simple human decency and dignity in a world torn under by distrust, discord and divisiveness. Yet, while the title reflects that deeper divide, If All I Was Was Black is more than simply a cursory attempt to denounce injustice. It’s a statement of purpose to be sure, but equally importantly, it’s an inspiring set of songs that get in a groove and invite listeners to share the spirit. “I’ve got love to give,” she insists on the title track, and given its upbeat enthusiasm, that’s consistently true throughout.
Staples fuels the funk throughout with songs like “Build a Bridge,” “Who Told You That” and “Little Bit,” allowing didactic rhythms to underscore her exhortation and intent. However, the best song on the album is the one where she lets down her guard entirely. “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” a breezy duet with producer Jeff Tweedy. It’s as affable as one would hope from a woman who helped define the crossover concept in the mid ‘60s. An invitation to share friendship and fellowship, it’s a message that’s echoed repeatedly in the songs that follow.
Ultimately then, If All I Was Was Black is an album that touts harmony and conciliation, two badly needed additives in today’s tumultuous times. “We’ve got work to do,” she implores in “No Time For Crying,” an insistent call to action. Inspiration never sounded so resolute and succinct.