Believer, a.k.a. The Last Shall Be the First
Imagination Fury Arts (release date: June 2, 2023)
By Robert M. Marovich
If you haven’t experienced the music of Nashville, Tennnessee, singer-songwriter Ray Curenton, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Believer, Curenton’s third studio album, is his finest to date. It gave this listener the same eye-opening reaction that I had hearing for the first time J Moss’s V2 and Aaron Sledge’s Da Light, both released back in 2007. Expertly produced by Curenton and Brandon Adams with executive production that includes another excellent singer, Tim Dillinger, Believer is an earthen vessel of relatable lyrics, likable melodies, fresh and vibrant elements of hip hop, and an ever-shifting, never-derivative tone.
As on “Make it With You,” his hit and JGM Best Single of 2022 (and included on the album), Curenton is a soul crooner with a flower-power heart and a spiritual soul. And a socially-conscious mind. On his Bandcamp page, Curenton describes himself as a Black liberationist and cultural worker. His earnest efforts are on display here. For example, on “No Empires!” he joins April Rucker and Civil in a fist-raised declaration delivered by a generation stayed on freedom. “Profit” riffs on the album’s subtitle, The Last Shall Be the First, and Mark 8:36. Together, the trio are a young generation singing truth to power. This is how things ought to work, they argue, and in the end, the answers are pretty simple: love, faith, unity, understanding, equality. What Jesus said.
“Stars” follows a brief interstitial that complicates the album’s confident beginning with confessions of doubt. Whispery, acoustic, and soul-searching, and backed by guitar and violin, “Stars” gives witness to those confusing days when belief is hard to hold onto when “all I hear are lies,” and “I can’t see the stars at night.” “Whole (Heal Me)” is the resolution, a blind faith prayer for healing. It’s also a family affair; here, Curenton duets with his pretty-voiced sister Kweli Buckner.
The undulating and introspective “Knowledge” possesses the most radio-friendly elements and the one most likely to be covered by other gospel artists.
These are not songs you are likely to hear in church, but if you can get beyond that, you’ll find Believer to be marvelously fresh, uplifting and, Ray Curenton hopes, healing.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Make It With You,” “Stars,” “No Empires!,” “Knowledge”