"I'm not trying to preach to you," Yolanda Adams sings on her new release, Believe. On one level, you wanna, well, believe her -- you wanna think that, unlike many of today's single-minded, creatively stunted gospel performers, she knows the difference between singing about God and hammering the belief of God into your head until you finally end up spending your Saturday mornings knocking on people's doors, earnestly clutching The Watchtower. But you know if she didn't preach just a little, her core audience would think she was blaspheming (translation: selling out). The least you can hope for is that the preaching sounds good enough not to come off like a sermon. Fortunately, on Believe, it does.
You have to give it up to H-town's divine diva for accomplishing in such a brief time what that flashy Kirk Franklin spent most of the '90s attempting (and failing) to do: make gospel music respectable -- and profitable. But she couldn't have done it without appealing to the mainstream just a little bit.
Her breakthrough 1999 release, Mountain High Valley Low, had her making a joyful noise with background help from contemporary secular producers such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Although the hosannas are more obvious on Believe than they were on the deceptive Mountain, Adams again gets some in-demand R&B producers to assist in her mission.
Jam and Lewis return to oversee three tracks: the histrionic yet uplifting duo of "Never Give Up" and "I'm Gonna Be Ready," as well as "I'm Thankful," where Adams, with rapper T-Bone, uncharacteristically tries to out-jiggy Kirk Franklin. Mike City adds his inner-city soul stylings to the back-to-back numbers "A Song of Faith" and "Unconditional." Shep Crawford provides folksy synthesizer riffs on "Fo' Sho'." (If Adams really wanted to get the kids in her corner, she should've named the tune "Fo' Sheezy.")
But the best track by far is "Anything," produced by Warren "Baby Dubb" Campbell and highlighted by John "Jubu" Smith's bluesy guitars. The song, which sounds like early DeBarge, has Adams vividly working her inspirational thing. "How big is your imagination?" she sings. "How much do you dream?" She manages to stay more serene than sermonizing; hell, she could be a motivational speaker, touring godless public middle schools all over this great country. As a gospel artist who realizes her music is capturing more than just the peach cobbler crowd, Adams shows she's neither a heathen nor a fool.
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