Love, Kiki: Can Her Testimony Keep Pace With Her Stardom?

Kierra “KiKi” Sheard’s “This Is Me” is vibrant with very fresh ideas and smartly devised echoes of things past. Of course, carrying the legacy of a Gospel legend (grandmother Mattie Moss Clark) on your back is a heavy responsibility. Perhaps as a result, KiKi can only be but so frank because a lot of careers are intertwined with hers, her own mother’s being not the least of which. To KiKi, I’m sure This Is Me was painful and difficult and risky and edgy. But it’s all shadows and I’ve got to assume a lot about what she’s referring to. There’s not a whole lot of risk here. It’s very planned and well executed. It seems like the future of the Moss dynasty indeed rests with this very young woman. The problem is, This Is Me sounds like she’s all too aware of it.

It’s the eyes.

The beguiling wonder of a woman. Chambers behind locked doors hiding secret wonders and pain so deep most men could never understand. KiKi Sheard has soulful doe eyes that capture and interrogate. It’s difficult to explain, this teenage girl stare: partly defensive, partly curious. It’s a raw sexuality that eclipses anything available at a strip club or adult film—those eyes that convict us, that unmask us. Like she can read our mind. She’s not quite old enough to know how to rein those horses in, to temper that power with wisdom. Teens and young adult women tend to just wander around unleashing hell, like Superman’s Heat Vision, melting us indiscriminately because, although they’ve been handed the keys to their life, they’re still not quite potty trained. So they waddle about, breaking hearts and making a mess. That look. Wondering. Convicting. Inviting. At nineteen, I missed the whole point. Girls were just a game to play and a contest to win. At 45, I recoil like a vampire caught by the dawn, suddenly uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s like she caught me looking at her. And she knows I was looking at her. This look—it isn’t gratitude. It’s introspection. It is, after a fashion, violence. Because pain is a component of this look. Not pain I caused, but surely pain some male, some boy, some man, caused. And, while an 8 year-old will run to us with so many hugs and kisses, at age nineteen, Kierra “KiKi” Sheard is lit with the warmth of promise and the cool of caution.

That’s the look plastered all over her new album, “This Is Me,” a CD I’ve hotly anticipated for months now. The look is appropriate for the content of the album—a neo-soul grab-bag of introspection and confession that succeeds on most levels.

I’m really happy that KiKi is doing much of the writing. I don’t think it’s impossible for third-party writers to get inside an artist’s head, but things are always that much more personal when the artist gets involved herself. Sheard gets personal here—nowhere near the nude self-evisceration of Tonéx’s Oak Park 92150, but this is certainly a work birthed from deep within a famous offspring of a famous family. That fame, which began with her grandmother, the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, is actually the Moss Dynasty, perpetuated by Clark’s children, the legendary Clark Sisters and their respective families. Key to this dynasty is KiKi’s mother, Karen Clark-Sheard, who is herself poised to join Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin in the every small pantheon of Gospel artists whose artistry and fame transcends the music genre.

Yolanda Adams can be racked anywhere in the music store, and Clark-Sheard’s strong offerings with 2nd Chance and The Heavens Are Telling had her nicely positioned to come alongside Adams and Franklin. But Clark-Sheard stumbled with her current release, It’s Not Over, where she feinted right, turning from mega producers PaJam (urban gospel mega producer (and Clark-Sheard cousin) J. Moss and PDA Allen) towards praise and worship flavor of the moment Israel Houghton, who produced an album that sounded much like Israel Houghton and New Breed featuring Karen Clark-Sheard. The album also sports a puzzling and bizarre choice of photos for Clark-Sheard, one of the most beautiful women in Gospel music. She banished far more attractive photos of herself to the CD booklet. The overall result is a fine album that works just fine for the church folk crowd and should surely please Christians everywhere. But it lacked the edge and the vibrancy of Clark-Sheard’s more dynamic work, Houghton having rounded the edges off and submerged Clark-Sheard in a cloud of Houghton.

KiKi nearly makes the same mistake, here, relegating PaJam 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, 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.

The CD is short. This owes, I suppose, to the current trend in urban music to keep songs short—under four minutes, sometimes under three. It’s possible that, in our Xbox and Nintendo 64 world, urban youth suffers from a severely short attention span. Soon as you’re enjoying one song, it starts fading out a la 1965. The disc clocks in at a malnourished 60 minutes. The Special edition disc offers five additional tracks and a live session of the title track, but also accomplishes something I doubt EMI intended: the “special edition” seems designed to insult our intelligence by offering, essentially, a normal, full-length CD at a premium price, while the “normal” CD doesn’t come across as lean and focused (which it actually is) but, because of the cheap “special edition” stunt, the normal CD comes across more as an under-stocked rip-off. This is some heinous marketing on EMI’s part. First they make no apparent effort to reach new fans, then they follow up by insulting the intelligence (and pocket books) of existing ones.

Regardless of whether Tonéx’s “retirement” actually sticks, Kierra Sheard has unparalleled potential to become the dominate voice in urban Gospel. Her youth and magnetism gives new voice to the breezy familiarity of the Clark Sisters music many of us older listeners grew up listening to. More important, there is simply nobody else out there with quite the edge and the bite KiKi Sheard has. Mary Mary and Virtue speak to an older audience than KiKi. Kim Burrell has, for al practical intents, disappeared at the height of her popularity.

Tye Tribbett traded in his own neo soul D’Angelo cool for the broader silliness of Victory, his carnival follow-up to the very promising and riveting Life; Tribbett’s soulful sensuality and sober focus now transformed into an androgynous Tim Burton Corpse Bride freak show which I am certain cost him credibility among music purists even as it has apparently gained him a top Billboard position. Kirk Franklin exists primarily on inertia now, having run out of things to say long ago, and even normally ignorant church folk are tiring of Kirk’s constantly getting in his own way to the extent that it is largely impossible to use Kirk’s music for worship purposes without invoking the obnoxiously self-serving spirit of Kirk himself. And, as I mentioned elsewhere, Karen Clark-Sheard, KiKi’s own mother, seemed destined to dominate the Gospel industry but instead took a right turn just before hitting the winner’s tape. I don’t just think KiKi is about to become the dominate force in urban Gospel just because she’s good, or cute, or the living embodiment of Mattie Moss Clark. I’m sure of it simply because there’s no one else there. It’s a simple numbers game.

Which makes EMI’s choices, here, even more bizarre, that nobody at her record company apparently appreciates how important this young woman is at the moment. My personal nitpicking notwithstanding, this album is quite good. It seems even better by comparison to the stale reheated leftovers we’ve been served up lately by acts like Tribbett who’d demonstrated limitless potential.

When Verity broke Out The Box, Tonéx’s groundbreaking double-disc, they broke the album like a secular album. There was a huge rack of them at Wal-Mart, with pockets from eye level to the floor filled with copies of the fire engine-red CD cover. This was what made me buy the thing. I figured, if the record company is investing that much in this guy, maybe he’s worth a listen. Wal-Mart had the $19.99 2-disc set on sale for about $12.99, which made the CD—which Tonéx literally crammed with nearly two and a half hours of music—well worth the money.

I therefore found it curious that This Is Me, the most hotly anticipated urban Gospel CD of the year, arrived here in local stores with absolutely no fanfare. No point-of-purchase display, no posters. Certainly not the wall-o’-discs Tonéx enjoyed. This Is Me was not on sale, another oddity as most new releases at Wal-Mart arrive at $9.99 before assuming a $12-13 price point. I could buy as much cussing, as much salacious booty shaking as I wanted for $9.99 a pop, but for KiKi I had to pay $13.99. The only real bargain was the Special edition version, which Wal-Mart priced at $15.99, four bucks off it’s $19.99 MSRP. But I had to dig for the disc to find it. Wal-Mart ordered, maybe, a half dozen copies, and nobody—church folk included—seemed to be terribly aware of this album or the implications for this bright young artist.

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All of which suggests EMI Gospel, KiKi’s label, either doesn’t fully appreciate what they have in Sheard or they’re just really bad at marketing. The entire point of Verity’s Tonéx push was to position him for crossover acceptance without crossover compromise, something Oak Park excels at (although, ironically, Tonéx is refusing to allow Verity to release it). This Is Me held the same promise, of inviting young people who’ve never even heard of Kierra Sheard to sample This Is Me based solely on the fact there’s a huge stack of them near the cash register. I’m going to assume Verity made Out The Box returnable and overshipped the CD for this precise purpose: to create buzz by sheer volume. This Is Me is such a good album that it transcends musical genres and cultural barriers. If you like neo-soul and hip-hop, you will like this album—perhaps in spite of the album’s Christian message.

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