Souled Out

God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on Today’s Pop Gospel

A party ain't a party until somebody starts demanding to know what fool went and invited Puffy anyway. In that case, gospel music must be the party to crash right about now. Sean Combs and Jermaine Dupri were presenters at this year's Stellar Awards in Atlanta, the gospel music industry's big night; afterward the duo sponsored an after-party whose flyers naughtily advertised "All of the Sexy Women Get in Free." Their hosts sighed with relief—finally a reason to disapprove of those interlopers. Quoth Diddy, "Hey, only God can judge my heart."

I know, Jesus was beset by haters himself. But the gospel world's cries of sellout do make hip-hop's petty squabbles over commercial backsliding sound tame—I mean, smoked-out Five Percenters can exhale pseudo-religious crypto-quips conflating r&b loops with Yacub all they want, but nobody actually believes that Jeru or Killah Priest has the power to bestow eternal damnation upon the jiggy infidel. Then again, KRS-One might be developing such powers—his new disc, Spiritual Minded (Koch/In the Paint), apparently aims to chase moneylenders (and Nelly) out of the Temple of Hip Hop. On second listen, though, the Teacher's embrace of Christianity turns out to be just one more excuse for one more aging crank to criticize loose women.

Now, I'm not one to judge anyone's heart. (Well, maybe Jermaine Dupri's.) For all I know, former humanist paragon Kris Parker may now indeed be a religious man. Hell, Sean Combs himself may be a religious man. So let's put the kindest twist on Thank You (Bad Boy), PD's serviceable collaboration with gospel big noise Hezekiah Walker, and say the man knows when the heathen are prepared to shell out a buck for some uplift. 'Cause when it comes to black musical subgenres these days, gospel is the Word.

The apparently limitless Winanses (four of them, anyway)
photo: Danny Clinch/Courtesy Quest/Warner Bros. Records
The apparently limitless Winanses (four of them, anyway)

Everyone from Destiny's Child Michelle Williams to Dru Hill's Woody Rock is currently "going gospel." (Both second-stringers wax pious with results more pleasant than their straight r&b discs would've likely been—Williams's Heart to Yours [Columbia] is far sweeter than her screechy D's C spotlights would suggest.) Suddenly, there's more than mere collection money up for grabs—not so much cash that Beyoncé or Sisqó is following suit just yet, but more than enough to keep, say, Kirk Franklin's ministry afloat.

Always the showboat, manic street preacher Franklin begins his latest, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin (Gospo Centric), with a long skit no less histrionic for being based in reality: Franklin's addict mother deposits the boy at the doorstep of his grandma, who dedicates the boy's life to Christ. Franklin has as florid a taste for melodrama as Puffy himself—a taste that, lucky for us, requires him to inject doubt into his compositions. On "911," Franklin impersonates a skeptical caller who confronts the stately baritone Bishop T.D. Jakes: "I'm sick and tired of all these church folk talkin' about things ain't as bad as they seem." Later, Franklin shouts at his horn players, "You're doin' it too cute." Unfortunately, that's a criticism Rebirth earns far too often. If Kirk could curtail that cuteness, "The Blood Song" might live up to its title instead of arguing that it doesn't matter what color Jesus was. (Shh, don't tell KRS-One.)

If Franklin is best encountered a single at a time, that goes many times over for his pop gospel cohorts. So praise whoever for the compilation WOW Gospel 2002 (EMI Gospel/ Verity/Word). There are no coincidences in a divinely ordered universe. Franklin first scored a crossover hit with "Stomp" in 1997. The following year, WOW Gospel began to collect "The Year's 30 Top Gospel Artists and Songs." (The series had previously focused on CCM—that's Contemporary Christian Music, the home for whitebread bestsellers like Rebecca St. James and Michael W. Smith.) Now in its fifth year, WOW Gospel opens with another Franklin track. Since the Rev moves with the times, "Unconditional" doesn't whomp with a P-Funk bottom. Since he doesn't move quite as swiftly as the times do, though, "Unconditional" lifts off instead from a sprightly "Latin" piano riff. But as with "Stomp," his bites sound fresh, reinvigorated with what he'd likely call the Spirit and I'd call his pop instincts—the ability to perceive musical styles as plastic sonic elements that can be grafted freely onto a gospel template.

And on WOW Gospel, "Unconditional" lays down a groove that continues through Hezekiah Walker's intense Gothic choir declamation "The Battle," Kim Burrell's live "Victory" (which combines a two-step bounce with Caribbean underpinnings), and a ringer, "Jesus Children of America" (Stevie Wonder himself guests with a multitude of Winanses). You get unexpectedly arousing voices—LeJuene Thompson's sexy little burr; you get melodies as inspired as the frenzy that surrounds them—CeCe Winans's "King of Kings (He's a Wonder)." And you get the Bad Boy Family on "You," which combines Diddy associates Faith Evans and 112 with the Reverend Hezekiah for that gospel rarity, a number that achieves power through emotional restraint.

Oh yeah, and you get choirs. "There's strength in numbers," claim Anointed on WOW's first disc. But despite the indeterminate number of digitized voices that harmonize with that sanctified duo, Steve and Da'Dra have got nothing on the choirs that sprawl across disc two. The results aren't as strident or unfunky as you might expect. These are pros, every one, and technology sure has leveled the battlefield. The best tracks depend on a soulfully reasonable lead voice to center the proceedings, as with Donnie McClurkin's "That's What I Believe."

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