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God & Music

Giving Jesus The Business 2008

Quiet, Please,

The big news, of course, was Tye Tribbett's Stand Out! This thing was a brick hurled through a stained glass window, as Church Folk lost they mind, ran out and bought this thing. Associate Editor Neil Brown saw it in the Christian bookstore and didn't want to even wait to grab it from a discount store or off iTunes (where it's $9.99). Neil paid $16.99 for the thing and ripped the shrink wrap off in his car. He then drove around for an hour looking for a track he actually liked.

Stand Out isn't a bad album, it's just not a good album. But it did confirm my suspicions that Tribbett's groundbreaking Life was more a creature of keyboardist/producer James Poysner than it was of Tribbett's. I wasn't thee, I don't know, but Poysner, now a huge, major producer and keyboardist who, yes, helped D'Angelo on Brown Sugar and, more recently, Al Green on Lay It Down, played on Life, but not on Victory and not here on Stand Out. Both Victory and Stand Out sound like Hez Updated For '08. I don't know why every Gospel star who makes it, starts spending all this cash and over-producing everything. What made Life work was its quiet. It's eclectic unpretentious manner. Once Tribbett became a hit, he ran out and hired a horn section. Why, oh why, does every Gospel artist now have this loud, annoying horn section? And, while you're out hiring the horn section, can't you please hire an arranger? A lot of these artists, choirs most especially, have no idea what to do with a horn section. In fact, I can't think of a single reason why a choir would even want a horn section, considering brass and woodwinds tend to invade the same audio frequencies vocals do, and they end up competing for space inside the listener's brain. I've only got so much RAM available in my head. I'm trying to hear the choir, and they've got this bad horn arrangements blaring all over the place.

Gospel artists, especially you, Tye: SSSSSSHHHHHHHHH!!! Quiet down, already. It's not 1972. We don't need the Love Unlimited Orchestra just because you've got a bigger budget. Spend the money on a songwriter who can write compelling tunes that challenge us, that reassure us and empower us. The writing on Stand Out was weak. The horns couldn't save it. The key modulations and other tricks couldn't save it. if your song isn't strong enough to move a crowd when played, flat-footed, on an acoustic piano—if your song needs all the noise and gimmicks and Honey Bunches Of Folks hollering to make it work—then your song isn't any good. Vanity usually keeps stars from stepping aside, getting out of their own way. I must write my own songs! But the lame songs is revelatory of a weak testimony. See, R&B songs require heart, soul, a beat. Gospel songs require anointing. If the anointing isn't there, there's usually a problem with the artist. I mean, I'd shelve a project that lacked anointing before I'd put it out there an risk my testimony on lame stuff.

I don't claim to know what the scoop is with Tribbett, and why should he care—his album was the hottest thing out until Marvin Sapp just clobbered him. Tribbett's selling records by the truckload while I don't even have air conditioning. Speaking for myself, the main thing missing from Stand Out is anointing. There's just no anointing on this work. It is the work of a talented musician working very hard to put out an album. But it's all surface. It does not pierce my heart or even make me stop typing while I'm playing it in the background. Taken as a Gospel album, I'm looking for God's hand on this work. Taken as simply art—it's ok. It's really quite good in many ways. But it's not an album in that it does not add up to a cohesive whole. It's a jumble of various tracks, lacking the cohesion and discipline of Life, which, I defy you to listen to and type at the same time.

It's not that Stand Out is so bad, it's that my expectations for it were so high—perhaps too high. I kept hoping for Tribbett to stop all that jumping around and hollering, and get back to the quiet cool of Life, a style that made him famous, and that he now seems to have abandoned. Meanwhile, we're still buying Tribbett on momentum—or, who knows, maybe you folks really are feeling this stuff. Also, the goofy bling-bling Androgynous Beaver preppie thing— Tye, enough already. I can't help it: whenever I see a CD cover from a gospel artist, I ask myself, Would Jesus have posed like that? Would Jesus have worn that? Every Gospel artist I can think of, soon as they get a little success, they start blinging it up on the CD cover. Bling is antichrist. It's just about self. It's a fair indicator that the artist is really into themselves, which is fine for Lil' Wayne, but I have a hard time receiving spiritual inspiration and teaching from someone so obviously lost.

I'm The Joint: Would Jesus pose for these CD covers?

Still The Joint

Kirk Franklin's The Fight Of My Life continues to maintain Franklin's accustomed spot near the top of the charts. While not being quite as well received as 2006's Hero, Fight is certainly not a bad album, just a bit uneven and not up to par with Hero. Which pretty much sums it up for the big guns—Fred Hammond, Yolanda Adams, Smokie Norful, John P. Kee. None are charting at press time, which, along with Tribbett's misstep with Stand Out and mixed reviews of Franklin's Fight, may have created the perfect storm for Marvin Sapp, who usually charts somewhere below the radar. Damita Hadden's No Looking Back has major buzz behind it and for good reason. Her husband Deitrick Hadden's production has always been first rate and aggressively urban. Damita's solo work holds up that standard while broadening the Hadden palette somewhat and warming up Hadden's at times brittle machismo (standouts: Damita's re-working of the boy-am-I-tired-of-Church Folk-singing-this-song I Won't Complain and Pray). Meanwhile, Deitrick comes out swinging with his own Revealed. Delayed from August, Revealed will hit stores September 2nd (Haden's terrific '70's flashback Soul Survivor is included in our Essentials Mix). And I've gotta give it up to these folks: they've got one heck of a graphic designer, somebody who sure knows how to work those CS plugins. Takes this designer and webmaster clean out. I say again, clean. So, of course, I'm going to whine and complain for a couple sentences, pointing out that, as gorgeous eye candy as this is, taken on the merits, there is nothing whatsoever about this imagery that says anything at all about Christ. It's all I'm The Joint. All focused on self. It's all vanity, which is a shame considering how good this music is. These are CD's I'd probably have passed on the rack without listening to them. I realize I'm wasting my time and folks will just buy this stuff without giving much thought to these kinds of considerations, but I feel it fair to consider an artist's personal spiritual walk when deciding whether or not to put down my hard-earned money for their project. How an artist presents him or herself, what they sign off on in terms of the packaging, is fair game in terms of making that assessment. Before I'd sign off on any album art, I'd ask myself: Would Jesus ever pose like that? What does this imagery say about Christ, about my walk with Him? The Haddens' designer is terrific and going for broke, but I'd question whether or not the designer knows Christ, because I, as a designer, would have tried to steer them a little back into their lane. As is, both these CD covers are terribly vain and, for this music enthusiast, a turn-off that prevents me from paying money for this music as I now instinctively question the sincerity of the work inside.

Still, you gotta admire the effort (and money) spent on the Haddens' MySpace pages. Way past what this webmaster is capable of, these are major-league obliterations of the lame MySpace code performed, my guess, by serious, expensive crews who do film and recording industry (and, possibly porno) sites. My one small whine about it is, in all of the flash-bang of this work, with all of the time and effort invested, there's not one place where a visitor can be introduced to Christ. Maybe, when you're building your big, expensive promo site that makes you look like an action hero, allow for some conspicuous area of the site to be devoted to telling people not who Deitrick Hadden is, but Who Jesus is. Beyond that, this is really hard work, a real investment, and certainly worth a visit. MySpace, however, needs to do something about their ad-matching. They've loaded some kind of dating service for interracial couples atop Damita's MS page, with an image of a couple apparently engaging in sex. Which may make my point for me.

Spensha Baker

Teen sensation Spensha Baker's major asset is her youth, the unexpected and perhaps unfathomable sound coming out of her. I'm not wild about the CD cover where she's a bit too tarted-up for me, reminding me of those awful kid beauty pageants), but her chops are unmistakable. The down side is: it remains to be seen whether this young talent will grow into a young artist, if her gifts are more than skin deep (remember Stacy Lattisaw? Actually, she owns the Maryland studio where Deitrick Haddon recorded and she's prepping her first Gospel release, so *smack-down* take that). A lot of kids sound great as kids, but take away the fact she's only fifteen years old, and you have a fabulous singer in a field jammed full of fabulous singers. Her age, right now, is her gimmick, and the clock is running. Spensha's cover of The Clark Sister's Hallelujah is certainly interesting, but I really, really, really, really, really, no kidding, now, really hate the tacked-on horn section. Gospel artists and A&R folk: please, enough already with the horn sections. I have no idea what our fascination with horn sections is, but, please. Beyond that, I really wish she hadn't covered Sounds Of Blackness' seminal work Optimistic. It's one of those third-rail songs because, unless you completely blow my mind, you fail. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' Optimistic is a vaulted classic, one Spensha may not have even known about, so we have to beat up Warryn Campbell for that one. Beyond that, a grab-bag of tunes that don't quite add up, artistically, to an "album," but most people don't make albums anymore—they slap a bunch of tunes together in seemingly arbitrary ways and call it an album. It's not. An album tells a story, from the first cut to the final track. Outloud! is a pleasant enough distraction, not in any sense a bad CD, but take away the fact the singer is a young teen and it's all boilerplate: a great singer with a mixed bag of contemporary Gospel music. Oh, and the horn section.

Martha Munizzi

Martha Munizzi, meanwhile, uses The Dreaded Horn Section to her advantage, a white sister doing the black thing and doing it better than a lot of black groups. The praise and worship in Munizzi's Change The World is palpable, resonating warmth and sincerity and compassion—things frequently missing from a lot of these releases. But Munizzi has the opposite problem to Spensha: her gimmick is she's a white sister doing black music. Which can ratchet up resentment among the family, as many of us feel this music is one of the few things we have that is uniquely ours. Munizzi does not come across as an opportunist, she's no Pat Boone ripping off Little Richard: she's writing most of this stuff, and writing it well in the Fred Hammond-Paul Morton vein. World sounds an awful lot like Morton—Chicago Mass, etc., only, instead of sounding churned out from the donut factory, Change sounds fresh and vibrant. Even The Dreaded Horn Section is made to behave. Change sounds like the record most of these black choirs have been trying to make.

The Rule: Cece's albums are usually better than BeBe's. At least I know who she's singing to.

Who Is You

While we continue our vigil outside Kim Burrell's house waiting for whatever contract battles she may be suffering to be resolved, perennial Clark Sisters bridesmaid Dorinda Clark-Cole has learned her Karen lessons (focus, stay in your lane), and, on her fabulous Take It Back, sounds vocally more like Burrell than I recall her sounding. This is music for grown-ups: it won't be keeping PaJam up at night, but for this grown-up, this is an exquisite treat of solid Contemporary Gospel. Yes, she has The Dreaded Horn Section, but she doesn't let it get in the way. I'd have preferred the CD tell more of a story, be more cohesive and have a better flow, but maybe I'm the only one who cares about such things. In the scheme of things, a minor complaint. You go, girl, uh, lady.

Dorinda Clark-Cole, J.Moss

Meanwhile, nephew (cousin?) J.Moss continues to recycle castoffs from his own projects into his band project 21:03, whose Total Attention sports I'm The Joint cover art and what sounds like a collection of tracks that didn't quite make the cut for last year's stellar V2... This is fun stuff for the kids, but I want to be moved, no, dropped off a roof by Gospel music, and Total Attention is a bit too lightweight for me.

Regina Belle

Perennial R&B favorite Regina Belle crosses over to the light in Love Forever Shines, her freshman Contemporary Gospel effort. Front-loaded with veteran wingers Alvin Darling and Shawn McLemore among others, Love is a solid grown-up Gospel collection. It is not, however, an album. It's kind of something for everybody but, my ongoing whine, there's no beginning, no middle, o end. No flow. Like so much of what's out there, it's designed for the iPod crowd, skip around to tracks you like, with music styles in abundance but no coherent through-point to make you want to consider the project as a whole. Anita Baker's Rapture, way, way back in the 80's, may have been the last time somebody actually made an album. One producer, one band, a cohesive and consistent sound throughout, and you never wanted to turn it off. As a survivor of that era of music, when music was actually music, Belle ought to understand this. Which doesn't make it a bad CD, I mean, sure, I'll load her on my iPod. But I used to listen to Anita.

Here's a universal rule (well, mine, anyway): Cece's albums are usually better than BeBe's. At least I know who she's singing to, as BeBe has frequently pressed CD's singing about his love for "you," whoever "you" is. Mind you, I'm not mad at the guy if he's singing to his wife or his Boo or whomever, but it's really jarring to hear BeBe crooning along about love and then him interject "him" or "Father," which gives me a kind of musical whiplash. No such ambiguity exists, however, with sister CeCe, who has keen instincts about her music, and who consistently assembles solid releases that usually make her an automatic purchase. Thy Kingdom Come is not her best work. Here CeCe seems to be stretching creatively into Martha Munizzi territory, but the evolution feels awkward, CeCe finding her way. Your mileage may vary on this one: it's really about where your personal taste is. I love CeCe's work. Kingdom is a little too much Lawrence Welk String Section for me.

Rev Stef & Jubilation

This is music for grown-ups. Exquisitely crafted with a real appreciation for both history and spirituality, The Launch Out Project transcends the increasingly lightweight fare of CDs That Sound Like Hez, immersing the listener in, well, history. Clocking in at sixteen songs and almost 80 minutes, there’s a great wealth of texture to lose oneself in, with each tapestry thread authoritatively sewn. This isn’t a traditional choir embarrassing themselves doing contemporary music or a hip-hop group doing lifeless, empty-calorie attempts at standards. This is Sounds of Blackness meets Brooklyn Tabernacle, more of a theatrical event performed by seasoned veterans who love both God and music in equal parts. As manager Nicole A. Davis says in the linear notes, “In faith we launch out with a CD that, as the hymn writer says, ministers to ‘masses, men of every birth, for an answer Jesus gave the key.’” Listening to the pitch-perfect Juke Joint blues of I’m Determined To Walk With Jesus and the one-two punch of In My Father’s House and I’ll Take A Lifetime, the listener could half expect Quincy Jones to step out of the orchestra pit for a bow. In many places this reminds me a great deal of Jones’ inimitable soundtrack to The Color Purple and his classic production of Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music. This is not fast food but a full, gourmet meal, a table meticulously set for an audience used to drive-through burgers. We’ve sampled a little of it, here, but this is a work that really needs to be appreciated at scale, in its full width and breadth, to glean the edges of the canvas. It is, at the end of the day, music; something I wasn’t sure people made anymore.

Witness Protection: A wholly ironic title considering Dave's 2014 defection to soft-core porn..

Witness Protection

I think I passed on Dave Hollister's Book of David Vol. 1—The Transition for two reasons: (1) I'm not 19 anymore and it was a bit too hippity-hoppity for me, and, (2) I wasn't yet convinced Hollister's conversion was sincere. I mean, this was the guy singing some fairly salacious things with Blackstreet, a group whose musical chops I greatly admired while not being able to actually listen to their work because they were, at times, fairly childish in their unbridled hedonism. Those of us who make excuses for listening to tracks filled with misogyny, sexual imagery and foul language really need to check on our testimony. What amazes me is how many of us listen to this garbage as we drive to church. On our way to lift up holy hands we're bumping Usher and Lil' Wayne and what have you, and the music is all about getting laid and shooting somebody. This is a major reason for our spiritual osteoporosis (brittle bones), we undermine everything that's good in our lives by taking in all of this garbage, by letting our children drink in these counterfeit values, and then calling ourselves the sons of God. Following Jesus implies sacrifice, but freeing yourself from filth on your radio is no sacrifice, brothers, it's liberation. Blackstreet was hardly the worst crew out there, but Teddy Riley's values were mostly about Teddy Riley, and his band were no boy scouts. Part of me remains suspect of Hollister's conversion, and part of me continues to harbor resentment toward him—and brothers much worse than Blackstreet—for the great harm they've done to African Americans and society as a whole by exploiting us, by exploiting our children, for financial gain. I don't think Frank Lucas is a hero. I'm not the one cheering Hollister on outside his huge house and luxury cars bought on the souls of black children. We all carry regrets with us for things we've done, for things we've failed to do, for opportunities wasted. I'm gratified to see Hollister still singing his testimony. I won't be mad at him if he cuts an R&B album—this isn't an either-or thing. But some part of me is mad at him. Mad at Teddy and his crew, some of whom, like Aaron Hall, were acquaintances of mine once upon a day. Furious with Lil' Wayne and T.I. and David Banner and Rick Ross and Keyshia Cole and so many other young black people who are not only squandering their God-given gifts on illegitimate and bankrupt values, but who continue the sad legacy of corrupting and exploiting our youth and, ultimately, each of us.

And we, myself included, continue to fund much of this exploitation by paying our cable bill every month (well, I cancelled cable a year ago, mainly because I was paying for stuff I did not want, did not approve of, and resented being forced to finance). Verity, the 800-pound gorilla of Gospel music, is owned by the Zomba Recording Group, who, in turn, owns several of the labels that are regularly putting out the very cancer that eats away at us. To Zomba, Verity and its sister Gospel labels are not much more than a tax write-off, as even major Gospel hits are dwarfed by even lame secular hits: the sales are on vastly different levels. But it remains true: every time you buy a major label CD—Gospel or otherwise—you are financing this assault on our families, on our values So, my knee-jerk reaction is to not like these people, to not even wish them well when they find the Lord, but to wish them the due diligence and full weight of their conscience the re-setting of their moral clock has earned them. Dave Hollister is hardly Luke, but I was predisposed to not like his Christian work, and, certainly, to not trust his conversion as Gospel continues to be the refuge for R&B singers who can't get a deal. With even a weak Indy deal, Hollister could make ten times the money in the secular world. I have no idea what he's doing here, working so hard for a tithe of what he could be making.

I'm not sure if it's simply name recognition or a Neilson rating on his first Christian release, but Dave Hollister's aptly-titled Witness Protection debuted at number two on Billboard's Gospel chart, threatening Marvin Sapp's storybook success at number one. Which is not to suggest Witness is a bad album, in fact, it sounds terrific. Still too hippity for me, but this is urban music produced by, well, an actual urban music artist, as opposed to a lot of Urban Gospel which can often sound, like, a year or two out of date because gospel artists listen to what's hot then emulate it, and by the time their project streets, the "real" urban music has moved on. No such worries here. Witness, powered by premier gospel guitarist Jonathan DuBose—whom Hollister lets off the leash in wonderful wah-wah ways—and monster, no, beast drummer/producer Jevon Hill who also supplies the main track keys, sounds as fresh as you would expect a Dave Hollister (or Blackstreet) album to sound—fully competitive with any secular CD on the racks (and, I pray they rack Hollister with them). I am terribly impressed by this work, by this vision. By the sheer fact Hollister chose to make an album instead of just a collection of songs, that he and Hill kept a firm grip on the wheel, crafting a brilliant, cohesive, uplifting, passionate and deeply moving work. Standing speaks directly to the crossroads in Hollister's life, as though he'd read this article in advance and understands the mixed bag of anger and resentment and hope and potential his life now represents. Calm Da Seas, Secret Place, and Bless Me find Hollister on his knees praying for respite from what must be an ongoing struggle for a former limo-riding R&B star to find peace. I dare you to sit through the certain-to-become-a-classic You Are without going into worship. The quartet of worship songs, exquisitely arranged (with real strings!!! And the Dreaded Horn Section either reined in or exquisitely emulated by Hill, major love to Dave and Devon for that) wells tears within the eyes and shames me for not wishing this brother well: this conversion is either legitimate or Hollister is spending an awful lot of time and energy and money trying to convince us it is. I can't imagine any motive for his going to such extreme if his faith isn't legit.

Dave Hollister beat out Kelly Price and SWV's Coko to become the most successful urban B-lister to go gospel in 2006. His debut in the genre, The Book of David, Vol. 1: The Transition, shot to the top of Billboard's gospel tally and cemented him as a new force in sanctified urban music, but it did more than that: it proved that you can do gospel and still keep it real. Witness Protection picks up right where Transition left off, but only stylistically: Hollister is no longer interested in bringing to light the demons of his past, but to leave them behind and get his praise on. The levity doesn't mean the album is rife with empty hallelujahs or silly praise workouts. Instead, the crooner lets listeners in on his new lot in life — Hollister grew up in church, but Witness Protection shows a man worshiping not because he has to, but because he wants to. An émigré of contemporary R&B, Hollister doesn't skimp on slickness because he's found God; on the contrary, Witness Protection offers some of the most true to form R&B confections gospel has seen in 2008. Hollister keeps things unabashedly grown and sexy here: his loverman tendencies haven't gone anywhere, with a mature vibe that recalls former colleagues Ginuwine, Avant, and Jaheim. The big difference, though, is that Hollister is now crooning for the Lord, nailing the vocals with more soul and self-assurance than he ever did during his post-Blackstreet days. As Witness Protection testifies, the brother is doing all right: just two albums in and almost without trying, Hollister has climbed the ranks of urban gospel to become one of its strongest, most effortless proponents.
—Andree Farias/All Music Guide

This is an exquisite work. And, dare I say it— it's an album. stop skipping around and just let this thing talk to you. Breathe it in and feel this man's pain and redemption while listening to tracks so pristine and so progressive, only J. Moss's V2... and, possibly, Deitrick Hadden's Revealed could be played next in sequence without sounding shrill. And, unlike V2... which tends to preach so hard to the choir Moss often forgets non-Christians might be wondering Who he is singing about, with Hollister there is no doubt. This is a breathtaking, simply outstanding work. Don't walk— run out and buy this CD.

Of course, this isn't everything released over the past twelve months. In fact, it's just a random sampling from someone not terribly invested in or impressed by the Gospel music industry. My apologies to the many, many projects that aren't profiled or mentioned here, we wish we had the time and space to tackle them all, but we recommend our friends over at NuthinButGospel.Com and GospelFlava.Com who do this sort of thing as their ministry and know a lot more of what they're talking about than we do. I suppose when I start seeing the industry behave more like ministry and less like the world, I'll ratchet up a bit more enthusiasm for our annual look. Or, maybe Neil, who's way more into this than I am, will wake from his coma and take this over, giving it an overall more positive spin. Between now and then, though, this is where we are: not as lean as last year, but still hungry for vision and substance.

And that's 2008 so far.

Christopher J. Priest
24 August 2008

Editor's Note: sadly, Hollister badly tarnished his Christian credentials with the soft-porn video to "Spend The Night," a Warryn Campbell (Mary Mary) produced lead single from his 2014 secular comeback album, Chicago Winds...The Saga Continues. Which isn't to say Hollister is not a Christian or that Christians can't make secular albums, but the fleshfest in the video severely disappoints and undermines his credibility as a Christian artist. Not sure who's advising the brother, but the song in and of itself isn't terribly lascivious, and the video need not have been quite so pornographic. I presume he, like most all secular (and many Gospel) artists these days, is all about the money, and the money is in kids' pockets. The video is titillating mostly to young teens and younger as it clearly promotes premarital sex (an engagement ring is produced late in the story). Absent any broader context or foundation for this story, the video seems needlessly puerile and intended to exploit rather than enlighten. The song itself is fairly lame and pedestrian, only the writhing, impatient model with her buttocks exposed captures the attention, and not in a Christian way. Thanks, Dave: you made me look like a monkey for celebrating your brilliant Christian work. Thanks for helping sell out our youth; enjoy your money. So much for (2).


Music Essentials   Vickie Winans   Tonex   Music 2006   Love, Kiki   GMWA   Music 2007   Adrianne Archie   MUSIC 2008   Larry Norman   Darryl Cherry   Jubilation   Jas & Jo