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God & Music

Giving Jesus The Business 2006

Hear No Evil

I don’t listen to a lot of Gospel music. Neil does, and perhaps, sometime well into the year 2009 he'll turn in his notes about the best albums of 2006. So you’re stuck with me stumbling around for a few paragraphs, largely repeating myself from earlier essays.

I'd never heard of rapper Flame before, so it surprised me that so many young people here know him and love his work. I don't love Rewind, his latest release, though I like it quite a bit. It sounds like he's going for a little retro here, which suits me well because, well, I'm old. But, the result is beats that sound a little too familiar to me. And, though his doctrine is spot-on and he does a massive amount of teaching, here (which is terrific), stylistically, I'm much more into the Notorious B.I.G.-sounding BB Jay if I listen to rap at all. Still, if Flame is not in your youth ministry's catalog, it absolutely must be. The teaching is solid, and the young people seem to feel him just fine. I'm excited that rap has finally made a credible dent in Christian music. And not fake rap, but the real thing, as credibly done and well crafted as the commercial potty-mouth stuff.

I really don't get excited about new CD releases, but I eagerly anticipated Kierra KiKi Sheard’s It’s Me, hoping KiKi learned the Smokie Norful lesson without abandoning us a la Tribbett. I was a little worried about “Uncle” Jerkins’ producing instead of Rodney himself, but Mary Mary's Warryn Campbell and KiKi's brother J Drew have both impressed me enough to give this a go (though the absence of J. Moss, KiKi cousin and Urban Gospel 800-pound gorilla gave me great pause).

This was an important release for KiKi who, at only eighteen, is poised to catapult ahead of her mother Karen Clark-Sheard, who stumbled badly with the Israel Haughton-produced It's Not Over; Clark-Sheard was poised to join Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams in the very small pantheon of gospel artists who are accepted in all racks of the record store as Adams' funkier, edgier alternative. Israel's praise-a-thon, while a great record, was inconsistent with Clark-Sheard's previous string of releases, losing enough momentum that she now has to regain ground won by The Heavens Are Telling but lost here. KiKi has the potential to become a Kirk Franklin-type crossover phenomena: an urban music artist who is accepted on both sides of the aisle. If the album is simply that good, nobody will care that she's singing about Jesus— except us, of course.

So, I was excited about KiKi's new project. Hopeful it breaks new ground, destroys some barriers, but mostly that it wins souls to Christ and helps destroy the stigma of being saved in today's world. Above all, I hope fame doesn't go to her head, making her the same kind of arrogant, self-centered man Franklin comes across as. KiKi has, to date, an inherent sweetness I pray is not lost. I pray her testimony will keep pace with her fame.

I Owe You, KiKi's first solo album, was absolutely phenomenal. It's Me can't help but disappoint; I couldn’t imagine how it could be better than I Owe You, but it was and it wasn’t—we’ll get to that in a minute. But the CD is certainly good enough to produce a new superstar. With all the good and bad such a happening portends.

Kirk Franklin’s Hero, which was momentarily dislodged from Billboard’s #1 slot by both Tribbett and Kierra KiKi Sheard, has, at this writing, regained that top slot, where it has resided for the better part of 43 weeks. I’ll further anger some readers by suggesting this phenomena is a testament to the ideological and perhaps spiritual bankruptcy of the black church in America, which continues to enable this man’s serious dysfunction while help to promote a wide range of sneering, self-absorbed Kirk Wannabes striving ruthlessly to make a name for themselves in Gospel music while shaming the Gospel itself.

Mary Mary’s self-titled album curiously bubbles up to second place, even though they’ve been on the charts far longer than Franklin’s Hero. I liked this album a great deal. Warryn Campbell’s writing and production skills have matured along with the vision and message of the sisters themselves. This was some of the most innovative music of last year, which is both good and bad news in that the fact the two top spots are dominated by albums from last year suggests not a whole lot of exciting Gospel music has been released lately.

I haven’t heard Juanita Bynum’s A Piece of My Passion, for largely the same reason I eschew Franklin. I find Bynum fairly off-putting, abrasive and ego-driven, as I said here. Yolanda Adams’ Day By Day, another holdover from last year, is probably a very good album, but, honestly, I’m just not a Yolanda Adams fan. She remind me of Meryl Streep: you just know the work is picture-perfect, so you’re not in such a rush to get to the theater. I will say I liked Adams’ “Victory” far more than I liked Tribbett’s, but the syrupy “This Too Shall Pass,” just put me to sleep. As does Israel And New Breed, which, like Kurt Carr, sounds like black folks trying to sing like white folks; a reverse Pat Boone if you will. Oh, I’m sure it’s great and don’t start emailing me telling me what a moron I am—it’s just not for me.

Which leaves me with the few CD’s I’ve been ranting about this year, music you absolutely must own, no questions asked.

On Her Shoulders: The legacy of Mattie Moss Clark.

This Is Her

Vibrant with very fresh ideas and smartly devised echoes of things past, This Is Me would likely have been the best album I heard all year if I had not heard Oak Park 92150. With This Is Me, KiKi is trying to open up while realizing she can only be but so frank. She hints around about things she shouldn’t do or shouldn’t have done, while Tonéx draws us a far more detailed and (at times overly) graphic picture of his successes and failures.

KiKi relegates PaJam (runaway train J. Moss and PDA Allen) to a single track while leaning heavily on “Uncle Freddie” Jerkins, whom I assume is somehow related to Rodney Jerkins, perhaps the most popular and powerful producer in urban music today. Uncle Freddie doesn’t disappoint, but the overall feeling is vaguely off, like watching Charlie Murphy on Chapelle’s Show: he reminds us of the real thing, but something’s just a bit off, and there’s the stink of coattail-riding.

Which isn’t to say the CD is bad—by no means. Debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Gospel chart (#5 at this writing), This Is Me is certainly the hit we expected it to be. With her mother’s Israel Houghton stumble, KiKi now stands poised to overtake her mom by putting out a CD that is simply good music, and better than most music out there—Gospel or secular.

Her infatuation with the neo-soul of Jill Scott and India.Arie fuels this offering. I found Uncle Freddie’s work to be interesting enough, but I found KiKi’s 16 year-old brother, J Drew’s, tracks to be much fresher and more urgent. His circular calamity, “Have What You Want,” breaks out as something of the future rather than the neo-soul echoes of the past or Uncle Freddie’s “Rodney Lite” productions. PaJam stops by for “The Wrong Things,” a song every pastor should be blaring during Sunday School, teasing us with a re-working of J Moss’s own “Livin’ 4” (which is, itself, heavily borrowed from Janet Jackson’s “I Get So Lonely,” which is a reworked lift from… well, you get the point). It’s not new, but it’s J Moss and PDA Allen, so I’ll take it.

The ballads, “This Is Me” and “Hear This” are both sweet, but neither moved me to worship the way the tortured and riveting Prince wailing of Tonéx’s “When My Words Are Few” from Oak Park did. Her speaking voice, heard on the introduction to the lushly poignant “Hear This,” is a bit jolting as she sounds even younger when she’s just talking. Warryn Campbell (husband/producer of one of the Marys in Mary Mary)’s “You” is the most fun we have here, reminding me of the joyous “Church Nite” from KiKi’s debut. In many places she reaches beyond her gifts, which is actually the bravest moments of the CD—where KiKi just lays it all out there, and opts to leave some imperfection in the final mix rather than homogenize everything to plastic. If I hadn't heard Tonéx's eviscerating confessional Oak Park 92150, “This Is Me” might have sounded a lot more compelling. As is, it's a great CD to listen to, but it's not clearing the bar Tonéx raised months before.

India.Arie, on the other hand, not only clears that bar but raises it again with a CD that nearly nudges Tonéx out of my number one slot. Arie's Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship is not, of course, a Christian work per se—though she indeed invokes the name of Christ in several places—but this is absolutely a spiritual and holistic work about a painful breakup she recently experienced.

Arie's freshness and seeming willingness to expose painful areas of her life makes KiKi's album that much fluffier by comparison. It is, literally, the album KiKi should have made, perhaps the album she'll actually make one day when her depth of character catches up to her ambition (or, alternatively, when she's less concerned about embarrassing her famous parents and less concerned about the legacy of her legendary grandmother, the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark). In order for KiKi to get where she's going, in order for her to be truly used of God, she's got to forget all of that. Throughout This Is Me, I can actually feel her holding back, pulling her punches, protecting everybody.

Which means the work ministers quite a bit less than Arie's Testimony, which never purports to be a ministerial tool in the first place. This Is Me suggests that KiKi lacks depth, which I hardly think could be true. I think she, for the moment, lacks courage. And she's worried about mother and father and legacy when a minister's call is to leave those things behind, pick up our cross and follow Christ.

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Songs In The (Minor) Key of Life: A masterpiece, the double-disc iTunes-only 92105. Brace yourself.

The Finest Urban Gospel Album Ever Recorded

I want some church to give me ten thousand dollars. I want to buy 500 copies of Oak Park: 92150 and pass them out to every kid in church. This is, undoubtedly, the best Prince album Prince never made. This album is so Prince it out-Princes Prince. At least in terms of general creativity it’s hands-down a better album than 5157, the latest Prince release (or The Rainbow Children, Prince’s allegedly “Gospel” album from 2001 which is sampled in this year’s Summer Jam). In fact, Oak Park is the album you wished Prince would make if Prince still made albums that sounded like Prince. It is, hands down, one of the best albums I have ever heard in my life. A seminal work and, yes, I’ll go ahead and use the word—masterpiece. Oak Park: 92150 has, in one or two listening, earned a place among hallowed works like Earth, Wind & Fire’s I Am, Luther Vandross' Never Too Much, Chicago 17, Anita Baker's Rapture, Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, Quincy Jones’ The Dude, and, yes, Prince’s potty-mouthed and shocking Dirty Mind as a preeminent and profound artistic statement. An album you never need to hit the track-skip button. You just put it on, kick back and let the man work. It's a throwback to the days when artists created art: when an album was more than just a collection of songs thrown at a wall in an attempt to land a hit. These days of multiple-producer patchwork yield usually a grab-bag of songs but make no coherent or cohesive statement. Oak Park is a canvas that Tonéx paints on from track one to track twenty-four, telling tales of joy, sadness, pain, shame, redemption and most of all, hope.

As I said in a recent essay, I think Tonéx is, likely, one of the most brilliant innovators in Christian music today. In fact, I'd be willing to take out the word “Christian” and suggest Tonéx is, simply, The Man—a brilliant musical innovator for our time. I really hope he hasn't actually quit the business, I'm sure a guy like Tonéx has a closet full of unreleased stuff so it's conceivable his CD's could continue to come out (meeting his remaining 2-album commitment to Verity) for some time to come.

Even though Oak Park was recorded before 2004’s phenomenal Out The Box, Park sounds like a logical extension of that latter work. Except, perhaps, that Out The Box speaks mainly to Christians, while Oak Park speaks mainly to the unchurched, the lost, the backslidden. It is an album Church Folk will absolutely hate and ban, if they knew about it at all. Due to contractual problems with his record label, Park is, at this writing, available only on iTunes. Thus, most black Christians aren’t even aware of the CD, and it hasn’t charted at all.

But it is, hands-down, the best urban Gospel album of the year, and one of the most profound musical statements of our time. Arie’s Testimony comes in a close second by providing the depth and the risk missing from KiKi’s technically brilliant but artistically lean This Is Me.

Everything else is way back in the pack somewhere, stumbling around with re-hashed clichéd lyrics and