Gospel Music vs. The Gospel 2008

Somebody in Gospelmusicland must've heard us because, last year
we were whining about there not being much out there. This year, it's a bit overwhelming. Dave Hollister's vintage turn with the haunting and deeply disturbing "Standing" should earn him a Grammy. Hollister's emotional paralysis here is like an Edgar Alan Poe tome, you can feel the icy flutter of circling ravens. Both Hadden and Hollister channel Bobby Womack by way of Al Green and Anthony Hamilton, which takes nothing away from two outstanding cuts that likely appeal to me disproportionately because they resonate so truly to the city streets I grew up on.


Kirk Franklin remains the 800-pound gorilla of Gospel. Yolanda Adams is actually bigger than Gospel, being racked in most stores along with soul and even pop music. Despite weak material, Tye Tribbett continues to dominate the charts, Regina Belle has gone Gospel, CeCe Winans is back with a solid hit and Martha Munizzi (who?!) has one of the hottest releases out. There’s more new music, more independent music, out there than ever before. New faces like Seven Sons of Soul, Joshua’s Troop, Spensha Baker, 2nd Baptist Mass Choir and Ashmont Hill. Dorinda Clark’s come back strong, with niece Kiki Sheard waiting in the wings. It’s a very, very crowded field of the good, mostly the average, and, occasionally, the outstanding. And, sitting atop that heap, for 58 weeks is—Marvin Sapp? Marvin Sapp, the former lead singer of Commissioned? Marvin Sapp, who’s been a pleasant asset but not a barnstormer since the group’s dissolution in 1995? Marvin Sapp, whom we’ve pretty much taken for granted, who’s nowhere near 19 or 20 years old like the new hotshot kids. Marvin?! Propelled by the blockbuster hit, “Never Would Have Made It,” a song now so ubiquitous that many churches are, frankly, sick of it (that’s how good it is—churches are sick of hearing it now), I’d like “Never…” more if it weren’t built on the basic chord structure of the Boys II Men mega-hot “End Of The Road.” I’m not sure that was even done consciously, so I’m hardly accusing anybody of anything, but it is nonetheless true. The timing is different and stuff’s been moved around but there it is, under the surface, “End Of The Road.” This re-jiggering is fairly common in Gospel, most consistently by Kirk Franklin whose biggest hits resonate of established pop and R&B hits, most notoriously “Hosanna” which was either quietly licensed from or coldly ripped off of the writers and producers of Vanessa Williams’ mega hit “Save The Best For Last.”

“Never Would Have Made It” is hardly that brazen, but I’m quite sure the tonal mirroring of “End Of The Road” is what tends to evoke the homey reception to the song’s overall message of repentance and thanksgiving. Sapp certainly puts in his day’s work, preaching through the luxurious arrangement to minister—truly minister—to his audience. The anointing is palpable, knocking out entire rows of folk, and Sapp’s sincerity breaks through the emotion of the moment to pierce hearts and, I believe, genuinely impact lives. This is an outstanding moment that surely deserves the attention its received. The rest of the CD, however, is, well, a Marvin Sapp project. Laid back California urban Gospel. It’s his thing, his groove. Being a New York grouch, Sapp’s stuff usually lacks enough punch to win me over. Like Marvin Winans' recent Alone But Not Alone, another way-too-laid-back California Gospel album which plummeted off the charts in short order, Sapp’s work is pleasant but not always compelling. It’s a little too polished for me, as I like stuff stripped bare and I want to actually hear the musicians’ sweat dropping on the keys. A little imperfection is a good thing, I think, as too much polish tends to dull the music’s edge. There’s some very good stuff on Thirsty, and your opinion can and should differ from mine. This is by no means a bad album, it’s actually a very good album. But it’s a very good Marvin Sapp album. I’d just love to drag him out of Bel Aire and get some pipe-swinging New Yorkers working with him.

Oh, and I wasn’t thrilled by the fedora and the bright red tie and matching hanky and the bling. The CD art falls short of being one of those terrible I’m The Joint covers, but it kind of dates Sapp, making him look like, well, what he is—somebody’s dad. It’s a Dad Outfit. And it reminds me of the pastors here in Ourtown, who tend to congregate at cheap buffets after church on Sundays. You can always tell who in the restaurant is a pastor because they sit and eat with their hats on. I mean it, they take off their coat and scarf and what have you, but are quite deliberate about leaving their hats on—which, besides being barbaric manners, makes them look stupid. Sapp’s hat is not as gregarious as our pastors’ here, but why a brother needs to wear a hat on the album cover—a cover already too dark (the background is as dark as Sapp’s suit, making this hard to see at a distance)—is beyond me. Actually, now that I mention it, Marvin Winans is also wearing a hat and a Dad Suit on the cover of Alone… Strongly recommended in spite of it not necessarily being my cuppa.

We've been doing this a couple years now, and each time I try and find a new way to say the same thing: the gospel music business needs to promote and exemplify the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The two should not be mutually exclusive. Like Caesar's wife, a Christian in the business world must be above reproach, and selling things that use the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a creative base is an at best questionable practice. The Gospel should be free. Gospel artists should be more vested in preaching the Gospel than they are in selling records. Gospel music websites, especially, tend to give me the creeps because there's all of this idolatry going on there—this fawning over stars and who's hot and when their project is dropping. Which is probably why we only do this once a year because, just sifting through it all, I need to take bath. I was actually going to skip it this year, but I wanted to run a piece on Larry Norman, and our annual look at the Gospel music industry seemed the best place for it. Most of you likely have no idea who Larry Norman was, so I encourage you to skip over there and read the essay about him. Suffice it to say, if there were no Larry Norman, there may not have been a market for Edwin Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day," the first commercial pop hit of a Contemporary Gospel song. And, if it weren't for "Oh Happy Day," we wouldn't be here talking about all of this.

So, here we are, running the issue. And it feels like somebody in Gospelmusicland must've heard us because, last year we were whining about there not being much out there. This year, it's a bit overwhelming. There's so much product out now, and a lot of it is quite good, but, so far, I'm not hearing a lot of albums. I'm hearing lots of song collections by various producers, stuff gathered together in hope that something on it will take off. But, in terms of artistic cohesion, well, maybe that day is done. It's the iPod generation. I just miss the old days when music artists were also storytellers, and where an album was just that: a cohesive, seamless piece that flowed from the first track to the last. Our previous nods for outstanding works—J. Moss' glorious V2... and Adrianne Archie's HTHAELHH were both albums, crafted from start to finish by a creative group of people. At press time, we're not seeing much in that vein. Which isn't to say these are bad records, but that there's not enough cheese in the casserole, not enough of a consistent through-point to bind these collections into albums. They are, in most cases, a bunch of tunes, things thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Many hands on the recording and mixing consoles, and no storyline to follow. With all the noisy, buzzy, clanking digital wizardry we're seeing these days, what seems to be missing is vision. Archie's HTHAELHH (He That Hath An Ear Let Him Hear) was produced for about thirteen bucks and some Carl's Jr. coupons, and it just brings you to your knees. J. Moss' V2... sounds like it cost twice the $30 Million Michael Jackson blew on Invincible, and it works because V2... tells a story, has a specific vision. I think, when I begin seeing more of that old school approach to album-crafting, I'll get more excited about spending seventeen bucks apiece on these things. Between now and then, here's where we are.

The untimely passing of Isaac Hayes seems to be underscored all the more by the increasing trend toward a vintage 1970's sound. What appears to be a natural progression from Neo-Soul—a kindly exploitation of Stax-era southern R&B—is the emergent harder sound no doubt inspired by Anthony Hamilton (whom we've tacked onto our '08 mix just for fun)'s soundtrack for American Gangster. Outstanding Shaft-isms are being delivered this summer by both Deitrick Hadden on his upcoming release Revealed and by Dave Hollister on his freshly-minted and wonderfully-titled Witness Protection. While I could go on about the pitfalls of glorifying a gangster culture (or, for that matter, Hollywood), I'd rather make the observation that, as someone who was actually walking around New York City with a .357 Magnum in my school bag during that time, this stuff sounds like home. Hadden's production quality and attention to detail continues to amaze—he has some of the best-sounding records on the street these days, and Hollister's vintage turn with the haunting and deeply disturbing "Standing" should earn him a Grammy. If you make it past the external '70s affectations and let those lyrics sink in, you'll find Hollister wrestling with temptation, regret, sadness, loneliness, and an abundance of things that must surely challenge a guy who once burned so bright in the Teddy Riley party-drink-sex millhouse whose own Damascus Road conversion has re-set his moral clock. Hollister's emotional paralysis here is like an Edgar Alan Poe tome, you can feel the icy flutter of circling ravens. Both Hadden and Hollister channel Bobby Womack by way of Al Green and Hamilton (hence our inclusion of Hamilton), which takes nothing away from two outstanding cuts that likely appeal to me disproportionately because they resonate so truly to the city streets I grew up on.

A couple of quick mentions: Minster Darryl Cherry is causing a ruckus over on Facebook, with a live concert album (yes, it is an album) that I don't talk about a lot because I co-produced it and pushing the CD here feels like cheating on your math homework. But I encourage everybody to click the CD cover and wander over to MySpace or look Darryl up on iTunes and get yourself a copy. Twins Jas & Jo don't actually have a deal, yet, but Minster Cherry brought them to my attention, and their atypical brand of Christian music holds a great deal of promise. We have a brief chat with them here. Kiki Sheard's new project is due out...um...soon. I was hoping we'd have it before our deadline, but I don't actually have a title or release date. I've heard she's back in the studio with PaJam, but her website hasn't been updated since July of '07. One of the brightest lights on the horizon, Kiki's music, as we said last year, has the potential to explode on the urban gospel charts. What she lacks is real depth, like that of her mother Karen Clark-Sheard, whose forward momentum seems stunted by unwise turns toward Israel Houghton and back to the Clark Sisters. Kiki, I suspect, tends to censor herself a lot. At age 20 or whatever she is now, you can't tell me she doesn't have a whole lot on her mind. And with her younger brother, J. Drew Sheard, producing and writing, I expected more sizzle with the steak. I can all but hear her pumping her brakes, though, with her Bishop daddy and the whole Mattie Moss Clark legacy hung around her neck. I've no doubt she wants to be progressive while also minding her manners, so we get head faints toward biting issues while drowning them in metaphor to the point where you spend way too much time guessing what she's trying to say. I look forward to her emancipation: the music is hot. I'd really like to know what's in her soul. Once she gets that weight balance right—scoring the depth of her mother's work—she'll be unstoppable. I'm sure there's an album on the way...somewhere. Can't wait to hear it.

Another front-loaded mention goes to Sean Simmonds, whose It's Over will hit stores third week in September. I've only heard clips, but this sounds like a major leap forward for Simmonds, whose True Story was quite good. I beat him up a bit for the cover art to Story, which I regret since Sean and I have been exchanging emails and he's really a true brother. I've just got this pet peeve about these guys and their "I'm The Joint" CD covers. I'm sure I could have expressed myself more diplomatically, Sean, but what fun would that be? In any case, It's Over's cover is a great improvement over Story. Simmonds retains his urban street cred while appearing buoyant and sincere rather than angry and arrogant. Church Folk, however, will not like this music. Simmonds grabs the baton from Tonéx, who's been kind of turning circles the past two years (see following). Two years ago I said I wanted to buy 500 copies of Tonéx's masterpiece, Oak Park 91205, and pass them out to these runny-nose gang types hanging out trying to look hard. Well, this year, I'd be buying 500 copies of It's Over. Simmonds' work here is aggressively and unapologetically urban, pushing the limits of what we expect when we rip the cellophane off of a Gospel CD. This is not entertainment for Christians, but rather an issue-oriented collection of probing songs that require a response of the listener. Simmonds demands to know why we live the way we do, why we think he way we do. Rather than sell Church Folk happy melodies, Simmonds puts his word on the street where it belongs, creating an evangelism tool, a teaching tool for youth. While still lacking the lyrical weight of Tonéx, It's Over sounds like a big leap forward for Simmonds. This is the kind of CD churches should be buying in bulk and simply handing out to their kids. Instead, I suspect Simmonds will get criticized for going too far, for being too out there. Or some jackass with a website will get on him about his CD cover of all things.

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After reconciling with his label, Verity/Zomba (subsequent to a management change at the label), Tonéx was set to release what he called "My Thriller," Stereotype:Steel & Velvet, in September of 2007. However, once word leaked of Tonéx's limited-edition underground project, The Naked Truth—whose title track apparently features an expletive-ridden venting about his turbulent relationship with Zomba—the label dropped Tonéx from its roster. He is reported to be currently producing songs for upcoming projects by Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Brandy, Usher and Danity Kane, while promoting his current release Bapostogic. He is currently releasing albums exclusively at his official store. Which brings us to our annual observations of what's what this year:

Legacy 2008   An Innocent Man   Al Green   Zimbabwe   God & Music '08   Jas & Jo   Choice   Rev Stef & Jubilation   Prop 8   Election 2008   The Glass House   Christians & Sex