Thursday, June 29, 2006

Review: Kierra "KiKi" Sheard's This Is Me

Kierra "KiKi" Sheard
This Is Me (EMI Gospel)
Released June 2006
reviewed by LaTonyaTaylor
3.5/5 Stars

Sounds like … contemporary R&B for fans of Destiny's Child, Virtue, Mary Mary, and Ramiyah.

At a glance … positive, enjoyable and occasionally irresistible, This Is Me is worth listening to, despite its occasional flaws.

With the release of her debut album in 2004, Kierra "KiKi" Sheard took her first steps toward building her own style of music ministry. Sheard, who comes from the Clark family of gospel glitterati, found immediate acclaim, and related singles topped the gospel sales chart and Japan's radio charts. Now an 18-year-old college student, she follows up with This Is Me, which continues her penchant for high-energy R&B with addictive hooks, evidenced by the opening tracks "You're the Only One" and "Yes."

Things mellow more with "It Is What It Is," a track about leading people to choose heaven over hell. Lyrically, there's a sense of dissonance between the idea of speaking difficult truths with loving passion and the song's almost flippant disregard for the seeker's questions and experiences. The soft slow jam of the title track stands in stark contrast with its sense of humility, self-examination, and growth. It closes with some of the best ad-libbing on the album as Sheard changes the emotional tone from laid-back R&B to more passionate gospel. Other highlights include the hypnotic "Have What You Want," the meditative "Hear This," and Clark-harmony-laden "No Never."

Despite some hints of funk and retro pop, this album doesn't have the same stylistic diversity as her 2004 debut, I Owe You, and no gospelicious surprises like that album's quartet-based "Done Did It." The plentiful R&B is enjoyable, but Sheard shines most when displaying her churchified vocal prowess. Here that's only evident in her jazz-gospel ad-libs during the closing vamps of her songs, where they're often lost in the repetition. But appropriately enough, This Is Me is an aural portrait of an artist finding her voice. The result is not necessarily classic, memorable gospel/R&B music, but it's always positive, often enjoyable, and sometimes irresistible.

Monday, June 12, 2006

From the Vault: Interview with Kierra "KiKi" Sheard

Something About that Name
by LaTonya Taylor

The daughter of Karen Clark Sheard, Kierra "KiKi" Sheard was born into one of the most talented families in gospel music—and into the latest generation of singers influenced by Dr. Mattie Moss Clark and her daughters, The Clark Sisters. A gifted vocalist in her own right, Kierra—Dr. Clark's granddaughter—made her mark early, joining her mom on the album Finally Karen as a 10-year-old, and winning a 1997 Stellar Award for Children's Performance. Fans have listened to her artistic development through other mother-daughter duets on Second Chance (2002) and The Heavens are Telling (2003)—and watched her high-energy performance on her aunt Dorinda Clark-Cole's self-titled DVD. In September 2004, Kierra Sheard, 17, made her debut with I Owe You. I spoke to Sheard about her family's influence, her dreams for her first album and the process of growing into her own sound.

How did this album come about?

Kierra Sheard: It's something that I have prayed for, for a long time, and it's really a dream come true. My parents saw that I could sing and they saw that I had a gift from God, and the potential to do more than simply sing, but also to minister to people. So we prayed about it, sent some demos out and pursued a record deal.

You sing about testimonies in the song You Don't Know. What does that song mean to you?

Sheard: Before my mom recorded Second Chance, she had a minor surgery procedure. But she developed complications, and the doctors gave her a two percent chance to live. The family thought she was going to die.

I didn't have much faith in God at the time, and I'd decided that if she didn't make it, I was going to live however I wanted to. But with God, all things are possible. He answered my prayers and took the load from my shoulders. My mom recovered.

That song says that we all have a testimony, something God has done for us that only we can share. Something only we feel. I chose to give the album the title I Owe You because I really feel that way about God. I owe him everything. He saved my mom, he gave me the chance to record this album, and he's kept me in his arms.

You were 10 when you sang with your mom on Finally Karen. You're 17 now. How have you grown as an artist since then?

Sheard: Now that I'm older and have experienced more, I'm really able to feel what I'm singing about. When I was younger, I didn't really feel as much—I was just singing! But now I'm able to say that God has really brought me out of some things. So I'm not just this child who is singing an older person's message. I'm able to sing what I've lived through, what I've gone through. And of course, my voice is more mature now, too.

What are some of those things you've lived through?
I've gone through a lot of things that people my age have gone through. I've been through situations that forced me to learn who my true friends are. I've had a broken heart. I've seen friends drift away from God and end up having babies, or on drugs. My mom's illness challenged me a lot.

That's why I thank God for keeping his hand on my life. There's really no telling where I'd be without him. There have been times I've wanted to drift away from him, but he didn't let that happen.

A lot of people will see your album and they say "There's Karen's baby. That's Dr. Clark's granddaughter." But what would you like listeners to know about you on your own terms?

Sheard: I'd like them to know that I've sung with Mommy and Auntie Dorinda, but that I'm very serious about my own ministry. I have fun singing, but I want it to be more than that. I want to worship God and minister to young people.

It's true, my sound has a little bit of Auntie Twinkie, my mom, Auntie Dorinda. Then again, there's a little Mary J. Blige, or whoever. Everybody says I sound like somebody!

I try to learn from everybody. I've watched my mom and my aunts and how they minister to the younger and the older people. I learn from different artists, like Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary. I just pull from everybody, and with my own thoughts and ideas, I hope that makes me myself—crazy, unique, a little silly.

I think a lot of people my age think the only music we can relate to are artists like Lil' John, BeyoncĂ© or Usher. But I want them to be able to relate to me and the things I sing about, too. To see that I'm cool and down-to-earth. I want my ministry to pull them in with gospel music they can relate to—music where you can throw your hands up and wave them around—and to inspire them to minister to one another. I want them to feel like now we have a groove and we have someone who's singing gospel music and now we can relate to the gospel music.

Did you have a hand in the writing process?

Yes. I wrote two of the songs—"Sweetest Thing" and "War"—with my brother J. Drew and Trey [Earl Wright III], who's like a brother to me. I think you'll hear more of my own songs on my next album.

What was it like having your brother produce those two tracks?

Sheard: My brother, Trey and I make a lot of jokes, and have a lot of arguments! (laughs) But we work well together. We'll pull different ideas together, and say, I like this. Oh, let's try this. Sometimes that goes smoothly, and then other times, I'm just like "Y'all figure it out. I'm leaving!" Other times they leave me alone and let me do the vocal arrangements the way I like them. So they work with me, and I work with them, and it's cool. We argue, we have good times, we work together.

In the song "Church Nite" you sing about being in church a lot. You're a pastor's kid, too. Were you always excited about spending so much time at church?

Sheard: I love going to church, because everybody there is basically my family. And not only do I have fun, but I like listening to my father, my pastor and being spiritually fed. When my dad preaches, sometimes it seems like he's been looking at what's going on in my life! Well, OK, he has been! He knows my secrets. (laughs)

Church is fun for me, though. Especially Bible study, because my father is kind of funny, kind of like Steve Harvey. So we laugh and joke and learn a lot there.

What are your hopes for this album?

Sheard: Most of all I want my music to minister to people. I want it to encourage them and help them through difficult situations. I want them to pull over if they are driving and get out of the car and shout. I also want them to have a good time listening to my music.

Review: Sunny Hawkins' More of You

Sunny Hawkins
More of You (Stillwaters/Hidden Beach)
Released June 2006
reviewed by LaTonya Taylor

4.5 of 5 stars

Sounds like … classic, gospel-tinged R&B/neo soul for fans of BeyoncĂ©, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and Lisa McClendon.

At a glance … a creative blend of genres, More of You combines strong vocals, multi-textured music, and thoughtful lyrics to yield a rewarding, enjoyable debut.

Though More Of You is her major-label debut, recently re-released for greater distribution, Sunny Hawkins is hardly a newcomer to the music industry. She's penned songs for Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, played the role of Joanne in the Broadway production of Rent, and provided background vocals for such legendary artists as Chaka Khan, Ray Charles and Luther Vandross. Hawkins also has a strong gospel heritage, by birth and by marriage, as both goddaughter and daughter-in-law to Walter and Tramaine Hawkins, with husband Jamie sharing writing and production credits.

More of You is outstanding on several levels. Hawkins' confident and melismatic soprano has a sweetness balanced with a luxuriant fullness and depth that keep her voice from becoming too sugary. She's got the bold, soaring power of a stage singer, but she can also sound tender, even whispery. The album also generally distinguishes itself with the quality of the songwriting. While there are plenty of hook-based songs and gospel vamps, they accent and support the lyrics rather than simply provide substance for the song. And rather than feeling like a disconnected collection of songs, More of You flows as an album—no small feat, especially given its eclectic mix of gospel-tinged rock, R&B, pop, and neo-soul.

Given these factors, it's difficult to choose the "best" tracks on the album. Especially rewarding are the cool, layered introlude, with a spoken-word description of Hawkins' testimony and mission; the guitar-driven funk-rock of the title track; the old-meets-neo soul of "Where Would I Be;" the adult-contemporary power ballads "It's Like Air" and "What a Man;" the multitextured "Jesus the Same," which feels like a modern-day hymn; "You're Everything," and "Love Me Too," both with particularly thoughtful themes; and the bounce-pop "Alright."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Billy Preston (1946-2006)

"When you're [making music] you're just trying to do the best you can . . . You don't know if you're doing something important, and whether it will make history has yet to be seen. Just the fact of being able to do it, and striving to do the best you can, was the accomplishment."

--Billy Preston, quoted in The New York Times

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Billy Preston was ill. Earlier today, he died. He was such an interesting and gifted person, and I wish I'd had the chance to interview him. Billy's performance on American Idol last May was, as far as I know, his last major appearance.

A few related stories:

Billy Preston, 59, Soul Musician, Is Dead; Renowned Keyboardist and Collaborator
(The New York Times) "The Beatles' 1969 single of 'Get Back' is credited to 'The Beatles With Billy Preston,' the only shared label credit in the Beatles' own career."

"Fifth Beatle" Billy Preston Dies at 59
(Fox News) "He was one of those spectacular performers who put everything into his show, even though he had no working kidneys by then and was receiving dialysis. He was a warm, wonderful human being with a mile-wide smile. He was also a genius musician, the likes of whom we will not see again."

Singer-Songwriter Billy Preston Dies at 59
(The Star Online e-Central) "Preston's majestic organ set up the perfect finale to "Let It Be," while his jazz-funk solos helped drive "Dig It" and "Get Back." His fiery remake of "Get Back" in 1978 was a high point in the otherwise dismal film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

I'm still looking for a story that digs into Preston's gospel roots. If you find one, please leave the URL in the comments section. Preston's gospel albums include Behold!, Universal Love, Ministry of Music, Words & Music: Levitical Worship; and From My Heart (Hat Tip: Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia)

Here's an entry from Red Kelly's blog, the B side, with lots of information about Billy.

Coming next week: Review of Sunny Hawkins' More of You.

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