Kirk Franklin’s Hero and Mary Mary’s Mary Mary continue at the top of the charts because, frankly, there’s just not much out there. And what is out there is, in large measure, dull, recycled cliché. When you package a CD, you line up a bunch of beats and hope you have a hit. By contrast, when you make an album, you bleed. You bleed all over yourself. Which might explain why the best urban Gospel albums of the year are a spiritual album by a secular artist (India.Arie), and a secular album by a Christian artist (Tonéx). My, how I long for the old days when God actually inspired art. My, how I hope the next twelve months are more inspiring than the past twelve.

The best Gospel album of the year

isn’t a Gospel album at all. The luminous India.Arie’s Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship is a poignant and joyful affirmation of our humanity, our responsibility to God and ourselves and each other. It gently condemns selfishness and materialism and sexism and classism while being both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Arie takes real risks here, revealing much of herself and her private life in her preaching. She inspires and enlightens us without judging, without condemnation. She makes us want to change the way we think. Change the way we live. That, by definition, is what Gospel music should do. That, by definition, is what 90% of Gospel albums produced these days fail to do.

The other great album of the year is an album that’s more than two years old. 2004’s Life, perhaps the defining work of Tye Tribbett’s career is also one of the defining works of urban Gospel music itself. While somewhat derivative of D’Angelo’s groundbreaking Brown Sugar, Tribbett’s absolute ice cool and steely resolve was melded with an off-kilter set of human dreadlocks called Greater Anointing whose animated tribal antics were set at a dissonant counterpoint to Tye’s unabashed urban romanticizing, yielding a milestone industry recording, a shot heard, quite literally, around the world. From the stone cool of “Superstar” to the incendiary hypnotism of “I Can Make It,” Tribbett made perhaps the most overtly sexual R&B album in Gospel music history. It was actually something that was and remains sorely needed for the Christian community, a Gospel album for the bedroom. Christian couples (ideally, married Christian couples) are routinely forced to put on secular music when the candles get lit. Christians routinely separate romance and intimacy from spirituality, which is like having a huge security hole in your Internet connection or leaving for vacation with all of your windows open. Many couples are saved and sanctified until bedtime, when out comes all manner of ungodly messages in worldly music. But, seriously, who wants to make love while Dorothy Norwood is hollering in the background?

Tribbett’s Life, I guarantee you, remains in high rotation in Christian bedrooms across the country. And there’s a good reason for it. First and foremost, it’s a fabulously written and produced work. It has God’s anointing on it. And it never compromises the Gospel itself. Rather, Life presents the Gospel in such an unusual and unexpected fashion, the listener literally doesn’t know what to expect one track to the next. And Tribbett never got in the way of the message itself. The stripped-down minimalist arrangements and funky flourishes only sharpened his focus on that which is most important—sharing Christ with others.

This year, Tribbett suffers from the sophomore jinx, wherein artists struggle to follow up a popular album. That this year’s Victory debuted at number one on Billboard’s Gospel charts is more a testament to the raw power of Life, and to our hopes and expectations for its follow-up, than it is to Victory itself. Here Tribbett trades in his incendiary and daring bedroom crooning for a loud, preppy, sexually confused look.

I think I know what Tye Tribbett was going for with his CD cover, but the image misses the mark badly. First, brown is never a good idea for a cover of anything except, maybe, Hershey bars. It tends to vanish into the racks, and the indistinguishable photo montage inside the “V” for “victory” doesn't help since the “V” is cropped at top and bottom such that it take a minute to realize, “Oh, I get it. It's the letter “V.”

Then there's Tye himself. I'm struggling for words here, wondering who on earth approved this ghastly photo. He looks positively freakish (and seriously gay, sorry. Which is ironic considering he jolts us out of the title track by tossing in a little gay bashing for no apparent reason. Well, not apparent other than that gay bashing is so en vogue these days). Maybe he was going for whimsical, I don't know. And maybe, with his new CD sitting atop Billboard's Gospel charts and finally dislodging Kirk Franklin, Tribbett might be seeing the beginning stages of Big Head Disease, where people around him start telling him only things he wants to hear. Somebody should have loved him enough to tell him how inexplicably ugly this album cover is. Gone is the D'Angelo cool of his breakout hit Life. With Victory, Tribbett moves swiftly towards the center lane, heading for the big bucks DMZ currently occupied by Kurt (Angry Moose) Carr. Fun, aerobic praise and worship stuff dominates the disc, with fairly little of the mystery and edginess of Life.

Victory disappoints mainly in that it doesn't break new ground or reveal new levels of craft, which is what we'd come to expect of Tribbett. The live stuff seems to suffer from the same brassy overcompression as Tonéx's Out The Box, which makes it a little hard to listen to after awhile.

I'm real sure Tribbett's #1 success owes as much to momentum as to the quality of this offering. We were wowed by Life, so many of us just bought the thing on spec. To give Tribbett credit, he did not fall prey to the same sophomore trap that mortally wounded Smokie Norful (whose second album was a failed attempt to clone the first). Here Tribbett veers far and away from Life rather than attempting to duplicate it. Unfortunately, he's veered into the cash lane, perhaps winning more fans, but losing this one. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, I suppose somebody told him he needs to reinvent himself with every album, but many people rushed to buy Victory expecting Life Part 2. What they got instead was a perfectly good album that was not particularly unique or groundbreaking.

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Which probably won’t matter. Most people buy things simply on inertia. Once you’ve made a positive impression with an audience, you’re in the club, which means people will just buy your albums. Kirk Franklin hasn’t put out a good (or original or anointed) album in years, but his stuff goes immediately to number one. People just buy his stuff. Why? Because he’s Kirk Franklin, that’s why. I’ve been told Hero, Franklin’s latest, is a very good album. I couldn’t tell you because I find Franklin himself so reprehensible a human being that, for me, he is the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong about the Gospel music industry and the black church: the ego, the arrogance, the unoriginality; qualities Jesus Himself never manifested. When I see people who call themselves Christians acting exactly like the world—in temperament, in competitiveness, in ego—to me, it says these people are lost. The anointing and genuineness that electrified his earlier work is for the most part replaced by lame commerciality.

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