God & Music
Giving Jesus The Business 2005
I have no idea at all what EMI Gospel’s game plan is, here. But if
they’re making choices based on Karen Clark-Sheard’s preaching to the
choir in It’s Not Over, or Nothing Without You, Smokie Norful’s
disappointing sophomore effort, those people all need to be fired.
Kierra Sheard has absolutely nothing to do with those projects. Her
audience is a completely different audience, an audience that portends
to spill over into pop and R&B venues as This Is Me is, in craft and
inspiration, absolutely as good as if not better than any urban music
(Gospel or otherwise) currently in release.
Overships and co-ops (paying stores like Circuit City and Sam Goody for prime floor space) is expensive. But, the way I see it, Gospel music labels can either expand their audience or die. I don’t much see the point of having the entire world of urban Gospel on the edge of its seat for months, waiting for this disc to drop, and then bury it in the stacks at Wal-Mart.
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. There is, of course, big differences between the two, gender being the most obvious.
Women are a veritable well of secrets. 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. She is, first and foremost, a woman. And women aren’t real big about giving up painful secrets. And she 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. You’ll likely never hear KiKi sing a song about being molested at a city pool or smoking dope in the park—although both may have happened to her (Lord forbid), we’ll never hear about it. I suppose, therefore, that this confession would have seemed much more vital and urgent had Tonéx’s Oak Park not played a thousand times in my deck.
Beyond that, I have the same problem with This Is Me that I have with most urban albums today. This is probably a problem only because I’m old. And a musician. But I can’t stand this mish-mash of producers—this guy did one track, this guy did three, this guy did two. The CD becomes just that, a CD. A collection of songs KiKi paired down from the larger number of songs done for the album. Oak Park, by contrast, had one producer—the artist himself. It was a terribly personal statement and, even in its eclectic whiplash, it has an internal consistency to it that took us on a journey from beginning to end. This Is Me doesn’t really flow so much as it’s just a bunch of songs. Well-written and slickly produced songs, sure, but they’re just a bunch of songs. Oak Park, on the other hand, is an album.
But, this quilt-making approach probably works better for you young folk. After all, few people even know about Oak Park, while This Is Me is #1. This Is Me sounds as good if not better than any urban music out there, and, don’t get me wrong, this is indeed a deeply personal work. But perhaps KiKi is simply too young and certainly too protective of her family dynasty to give us much depth. I really liked what I’ve heard, and This Is Me certainly avoids the typical sophomore curse that wreaks havoc with many artists. But the album is slick and calculated. It is designed precisely to propel KiKi out of the Gospel racks and into the forefront of the Moss Dynasty.
Which brings up an even more pressing questions: is she ready?
On Her Shoulders: A Family Legacy.
KiKi has been making guest appearances on her mother’s records for
years, but it seemed like either she or her family were holding her back
until she was a bit more seasoned and more ready. Carrying the legacy of
a Gospel legend on your back is a heavy responsibility, and much of This
Is Me makes oblique references to the temptations someone as young and
now as suddenly famous as KiKi is likely facing.
“I am silly all day, loud and ghetto when I wanna be,” KiKi said in a recent interview on GospelFlava.Com. “But, initially, I’m a shy type of girl. I am very loyal and if you have my trust, I will give you anything, even the shirt off my back. I don’t know why I do that, I just like to give. I am not stuck up! If some of y’all have come in contact with me on a bad day, trust me, don’t take it personal.”
As her fame grows, KiKi may be in for a great many bad days. Everybody wants to talk to her. Everybody wants something from her. Everybody wants to offer her something. She is, at the moment, the hottest artist in Gospel music—eclipsing her own mother. And she’s carrying the legacy of the Grand Dame of Gospel Music (and, virtually, the careers of her aunts and cousins) on her back.
That’s a lot for any teenager. I’d hate to see her ruined, becoming an arrogant moron like Alicia Keys, or a tragic burnout like Whitney Houston On her sites, she comes across like, well, a normal kid. Busy, funny, she’s got jokes. I pray she keeps them.
Her infatuation with neo-soul and Jill Scott-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, work 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 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 nether moved me to worship the way the tortured and riveting Prince wailing of Tonéx’s When My Words Are Few from Oak Park. 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 al out there, and opts to leave some imperfection in the final mix rather than homogenize everything to plastic.
It sounds like I’m complaining, and maybe I am. Maybe it’s just her eyes. Maybe those eyes are promising more than her years, maturity and experience can deliver. Maybe she’s giving us what she’s got right now. This is a great album, certainly one of the best of the year. It is, every inch, what we hoped it would be.
I suppose I’m just chagrined that these great and wonderful songs don’t quite add up to a great album, a cohesive statement. And I was hoping for more risk. There’s not a whole lot of risk here. It’s very planned and well executed. Oak Park, by contrast, is a mess. A puzzle you’ve got to assemble without the benefit of the photo on the box.
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. And, the album title notwithstanding, I don’t feel much closer to her than I did before I got caught up in that gaze.