RCA Inspiration (release date: September 18, 2020)
By Bob Marovich
I Am, the new album by Koryn Hawthorne, the award-winning gospel singer and finalist on The Voice, is as contemporary as this minute.
The musical mission of her best-selling 2018 debut Unstoppable, to bathe Christian messages in an ocean of contemporary soul and R&B sounds, continues on I Am. Her vocals are just as sassy on the current single, a love song to the Most High called “Speak to Me,” as on her breakthrough hit, “Won’t He Do It.”
But much of the lyrical mood of the new album is introspective. Whereas on “Won’t He Do It,” Koryn is in full youth evangelist mode, leading a communal cheer for God’s intervention, on I Am she exposes her vulnerability. She sings while ensconced in her prayer room, lost in musical conversation with the Lord. Even on the buoyant “Speak to Me,” Koryn notes that her favorite thing about a relationship with the Lord is “just us talking.”
But vulnerability in lyric only. “Speak to Me” has a distinctly top 20 R&B radio groove. The bracing beat of “Joy” is propelled by a thumping bass. “Sunday,” about not wanting to wait until the seventh day to praise, has an infectious beat as Koryn expresses her gratitude for God’s goodness. She posits a self-deprecating motive almost nonexistent in traditional gospel but popular among young gospel artists today: thanksgiving for blessings even though she doesn’t deserve them. It’s a subtle but important shift in gospel music messaging, one from being downtrodden because of systemic societal forces to being one’s own worst enemy.
Sometimes, though, those forces are external. “Broken Pieces” is the loveliest and most sentimental song on the album. “My heart’s been shattered into a billion pieces,” Koryn sings to a tinkling piano echoing hollowly in an otherwise empty prayer room. She seeks the Potter’s assistance to mend her broken heart. Another pretty piece, “How Great,” is an expression of praise set to a CCM melody. Koryn belts out the lyrics like a power ballad.
Amidst a silky swirl of Philly-style strings, “Pray” (which has single potential) encourages the discouraged to look to God, because “he responds when you pray.” At this point, Koryn asks her audience to come out of themselves and consider broader social issues: “So much pain in the world, they’ve been taking our girls and enslaving them, real talk.” And: “All the hate being spread and the blood being shed, I can tell that we need God.”
Koryn’s personal commitment, as articulated on “Pray,” is simply to stay prayed up. Prayer is important but it is only part of the answer. By bringing “real talk” to the fore, Koryn Hawthorne summons the power of music to stimulate real change.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Broken Pieces,” “How Great”