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God & Music

Giving Jesus The Business 2005

Live On Arrival

About the same time, we became more aware of a producer calling himself “DOA” Allen, and his friendly rival J Moss. I actually never made the connection between J Moss and the Moss family—a veritable Gospel Camelot of descendants of the legendary Mattie Moss Clark. Allen and Moss collaborated on a number of productions that yielded extraordinary and surprisingly progressive music, taking the baton from Burrell and Warryn Campbell, and bringing the rules of engagement from secular R&B into the Gospel studio. Moss/Allen no longer waited to hear innovative things on the radio or on secular CD’s before emulating them or adapting them to Gospel. Rather, they vaulted out front, becoming the innovators themselves. They certainly had the credentials for the job, having spent years producing huge acts like Destiny's Child, NSYNC and Dru Hill, Patti Labelle and Vanessa Williams. This production team now threatens to usurp giants like Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, and old masters like Jam & Lewis.

The Moss/Allen stamp seems to be on most chart-toping CD's in the market today, with the notable exception of the purposefully odd Tonéx, who has probably out-Princed Prince by now, putting out more meaningful and innovative material that the Purple One himself. It is unlikely that you do not have a CD in your house, right now, that J Moss hasn't had some hand in producing. He's becoming, dare I say, ubiquitous. And I mean that in a good way, breathing new life into an industry that had begun to languish on disengaged acts like Franklin, or less innovative ones like Carr.

Their largest contribution may have been to Karen Clark-Sheard, Mattie’s daughter and a member of the legendary Clark Sisters. Having overcome a life-threatening illness and shed nearly a hundred pounds, Karen Clark-Sheard has emerged as one of the strongest and most definitive voices in Gospel music, eclipsing even her famous siblings like Twinkie Clark. Her edgy, progressive, thunderous R&B is utterly delightful, and her brassy reading of the powerful material honors her take-no-prisoners family tradition. Each successive release pushes Sheard closer to the pinnacle achieved by few Gospel artists—most notably Yolanda Adams who was launched in relative obscurity and now is so huge she is marketed, literally, like a secular artist; her stature and sheer talent having overcome the industry stigma of categorizing her as simply a “Gospel” artist.

Unless she makes some terrible misstep along the way, Karen is poised to join Yolanda as artists who are so huge they transcend the little signs in your record store. They’re simply good and their CD’s are simply so entertaining you don’t even care that they’re singing about Jesus and what have you. Those considerations begin to pale against some of the best and most innovative R&B music being produced today.

I like Tye Tribett a great deal, His debut CD is very cohesive, like a sermon. It takes you on a journey through problems and offers solutions. It has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I agree; I think Tribett and Tonéx are two of the most innovative voices on the scene today—regardless of genre. Tribett’s joyous and multi-faceted Life is just a wonder to listen to, as is J Moss’s own project. The J Moss Project, is so good, in fact, so surprisingly good, that it really took me by surprise. Moss demonstrates a range as an artist that threatens to dwarf his incredible production and songwriting skills. The album is a well-built collection in the old school sense of an album being a complete work and not just a bunch of songs tossed together without much thought. It earns a high rank as an album that truly deserves to be called an “album” rather than what we tend to call albums these days— “a CD.”

Israel and New Breed is another new voice, Neil said. He’s more in the Kurt Carr vein, but there really is a new vision with this guy. He takes us through this worship experience, from end to end of the 2-CD set, without much of a break. It’s really a spiritual work-out.

The Butterball: Kiki bolts out of the nest.

The Fiery Butterball

I’ll admit that picking through CD’s can be a lot like shopping for neckties: after while, they all start to look the same. These days, much of what’s going on in choir music and Gospel music in general, indeed looks and sounds the same. But the handful of hungry pioneers may be about to change all that. Whether the record labels themselves raise the standard or whether we do it for them with our checkbooks, the message may, I hope, go out that we should demand more from Gospel music than just a panacea.

This is a complex and challenging world. A world of questions without answers. We can certainly lock ourselves in a closet and stick iPods in our ears blasting mindless Ain’t God Great-style music. But that’s not our calling or our duty.

When and if Gospel music becomes more than just a way to make a buck off of church folk, when it starts to deal with our social and economic welfare as much as it simply offers God pat praises, I’m sure I’ll get more excited about it and pay more attention to it. But, these days, even the very best—the Karen Clark-Sheards and the J Mosses—are certainly innovating musically (and thank God for that), but their work offers precious little to challenge our social , political or economic condition. Now if they can find a way to speak to my intellect and my social conscious while they’re making me dance and shout—that would really be something.

Karen’s teen daughter, the fiery butterball Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, literally exploded out of the box this year, after having been primed by Mommy with appearances on Karen’s previous two albums. Propelled by both the dynamic Moss/Allen team and uber producer Rodney Jerkins, arguably the biggest producer in the recording industry today, Kiki’s I Owe You delivers and delivers and delivers in spades, not only showcasing Sheard’s developing power as an artist but also tackling teen issues and evangelizing in an unblinking declaration of her principles and faith. Now, either Sheard is the best little actor I’ve seen in a long time, or I have to believe her walk with Christ is real. The anointing on the record is easily as strong as the groove, and the whole project seems designed to penetrate the force fields of youngsters turned off by church.

For my money, the quirky and enigmatic Tonéx may be the best example of a guy who seems wholly unconcerned with most any of the rules. You name a rule in Gospel music, Tonéx has broken it. And he imbues a great deal of his work with—wait for it—social conscious. Not as much as I’d like, but I’m happy to report at least one artist out there is dealing with real-life issues and offering practical applications of God’s word, not just fluffy praise.

Out The Box, Tonéx's vivid and sprawling masterpiece, can aptly and honestly be described as a landmark recording, one that should have penetrated deeper into the black church psyche and wider across her breadth. But, let's face it, Tonéx is... weird. He's a scary little Don Cheadle look-alike whose preaching chops are thunderous and wondrous, but not many church folk know that. His multi-octave vocal range nearly defies description, and his radical Stone Soup approach to musical styles all but forces a kind of musical hegemony on us: we'll need to be patient with Tonéx's hard rock number because we know Lord Make Me Over is just around the corner.

Tonéx's mastery of musical forms, his deeply disturbing lyrics, and his sheer inhibition place him at the top of my list (if I actually made lists). This album—and, yes, it is indeed an album and not just a CD— is way, way, way too long. It taxes even the best and most patient among us. And there are indeed self-indulgent moments here (he builds one song around the theme to the old Family Feud TV game show). But he's only setting you up for the kill. It's the feint before the right cross of Taxi and the knockout punch of Lord Make Me Over.

I think it criminal that our white brothers and white sisters are more into this guy than we are. White churches around the country are singing Alive, Tonéx's ebullient rave/resurrection anthem, replete with horn riffs torn from The Jackson 5's Dancing Machine. Here in Ourtown, of course, most of the people in charge of, well, most anything at all at church have never heard of the guy.

This in spite of the fact the local Wal-Mart broke Out The Box like a secular album, loading racks top to floor with hundreds of copies, which sold briskly at the discounted price of around twelve dollars. But, who was buying them? My instinct tell me more white kids than black, which could be a challenge for Tonéx and Verity, his record label, as well as a call to us to push through all of the sameness, all of the bland music piled up on our CD players and make room for a fresh anointing.

What we need is at least fifteen more acts like Tonéx, perhaps produced by J Moss. And then we'd be getting somewhere.

Christopher J. Priest
19 September 2005


Music Essentials   Levite   The War Dept   God & Music   The Ostracized Negro   Kim Burrell   Church Musicians   MUSIC 2005   The Yabba-Doo   Vickie Winans   Tonéx