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.

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 Rebirthearns 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 Gospelopens 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."

But nobody's got strength in numbers like the apparently limitless Winans Family. Rhino's The Very Best ofallows us to catch up with '80s output from "the first family of gospel," who turn out to be lacking in both Christian charity and prophetic acumen—"The Real Meaning of Christmas" singles out Frosty for opprobrium, while 1981's "The Question Is" insists that "the crisis in Iran" is proof the Second Coming is nigh. (Woody Rock's cover of the latter song on Soul Music[Gospo Centric] wisely omits that assertion.) Tasteful, slick, and consistent, the Winanses' comp offers nothing to make anyone who fucks nuns later join the church. It does erase any doubt, though, that today's pop gospel is a livelier breed. Set the Winanses alongside Mary Mary's upcoming Incredible(Columbia, with a release date pushed back more often than the Jehovah's Witnesses' apocalypse), and you'll hear the difference between smug religious complacency and an active ministry. Even Shirley Murdock's Home(EMI Gospel/Dexterity), whose tracks, like her secular '80s r&b hits, bristle with mere adequacy, sounds more engaging than the Winans.

But r&b's ranks are already swollen with competence. Once, gospel had something to offer up, not just to Jesus but to nonbelievers—a sensibility, a set of styles, even a rhythmic pulse. Today's songs simply translate religious sentiments into contemporary settings —creating an alternate r&b world that nonetheless sounds almost exactly the same as the one on your radio. What's lacking is weirdos with pop pretensions like Thomas Dorsey or the Mighty Clouds of Joy, idiosyncratic performers who deliberately bent the music out of shape. As their followers attempted to bend it back, they inadvertently propelled the music forward.

Promising, if less familiar, rhythmic turf remains for gospel to explore. Junior Vasquez remixed Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers' "Testify" into an unexpected 2001 club hit. Lawrence was on the P-Funk tip alongside Franklin back in the early '90s; his latest release, Go Get Your Life Back (EMI Gospel), is conventional pop gospel, leading off with the rousing "The Best Is Yet to Come," which unfortunately doesn't refer to the rest of the album. But "Testify" sounds at home on the dancefloor, and gospel-house seems like a natural. House has always been a secular religion anyway, one whose disciples adore impassioned wailing. EMI Gospel's Gospel Remixes, which looses producers like Vasquez and Farley Jackmaster Funk upon spiritual source material, indicates that, Moby be damned, there's a less folkloric dance/gospel synthesis waiting to be fulfilled.

The sacred crate-digging of Play, however, did not go unheard by gospel practitioners. On Spirit of the Century(Realworld), the venerable Blind Boys of Alabama dig into "Run On for a Long Time," one of the trad arr's that Moby rode off with into the future. The Blind Boys also reclaim two Tom Waits imitations of traditional spirituals, plus whiteboy faves like "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and "Motherless Child." So the most daring recent gospel album turns out to be the most musically traditional, reclaiming material that crafty rock skeptics had previously put to their own formalist use. I mean, would Kirk Franklin risk the Jagger lyric "Don't want to walk and talk about Jesus/I just want to see his face"?

But why stop there? My friend Peter Scholtes has always wanted to hear an r&b group cover XTC's antinomial "Dear God." Would the Blind Boys have the guts for that? With Tchad Blake twiddling the mix? Or how 'bout giving Puffy a ring? With these haggard elders on board, none durst judge the wily ol' plagiarist's heart. And if Diddy turns them down, the Blind Boys should swipe "I'll Be Missing You," sing it straight to Jesus instead of that other celebrated martyr, and demand that Sting's royalties go to the church of his choice. Talk about a big payback.


The Winans Family play Radio City Music Hall June 21.

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