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Sounds like … contemporary rhythm-and-blues, soul, and gospel with a little bit of a retro feel reminiscent of early '80s R &BAt a Glance … Incredible is a mixed bag — many of the tracks are on par with the duo's debut, some of them even more exciting, and some of them nearly as good.
Incredible, the sophomore release from Mary Mary comes with great expectations. After all, their debut, Thankful, was met with much enthusiasm, thanks in no small part to the crossover success of their smash hit "Shackles." As of late 2001, the album's sold in excess of a million copies and has earned sisters Tina and Erica Campbell a reputation as "the future of gospel music." There's good reason for this nod, since there's more to these two than just soulful vocals. They have a hand in their own songwriting, and Erica is married to their hit-making producer, Warryn Campell (Luther Vandross, Brandy, Sisqo). No doubt fans have been eagerly awaiting this sophomore release. I suspect the response will be mixed.
How mixed? One of my colleagues considers it one of the best albums of the year, and another doesn't like it at all. And both are big fans of Mary Mary's first album. Ever the diplomat, I found myself loving half of the album. What strikes me the most when listening to Incredible is the retro R&B sound the Campbells favor this time around, dating back to late '70s and early '80s. It works surprisingly well on quite a few of the upbeat tracks, despite the dated synthesizer sounds. The funky R&B of "God Bless" is reminiscent of Michael Jackson's early Off the Wall period. There's a catchy and soulful groove to the title track, an inspiring testament to God's ever-flowing love for all of us. "He Said" (the only track not produced by Warryn, but by Rodney Jerkins instead) has a danceable and rhythmic drive to it, blending a thick low synthesizer and a pounding backbeat that recalls "Stomp" by God's Property.
I also loved the classic gospel-pop sound of "Trouble Ain't," which combines a prominent acoustic guitar with pizzicato piano, bass, and a retro drum shuffle to create a Motown-like sound. Like many of the songs on the album, it's a song of encouragement, reminding us we "can't go through life living problem-free, but you've gotta keep the faith and you've gotta believe." There's a similar sentiment on the album's first single, "In the Morning," the best-produced track on the album, featuring a similar feel and vocal style to "Shackles" and "Joy" from Mary Mary's first album: "You'll be alright … the sun's gonna shine … when it's dark in your life, just wait for the daylight."
Oddly enough, Mary Mary and Warryn decided to keep the ballads and the dance tracks separate. I've already mentioned the first four songs on the album, which are pure gold, and the tempo doesn't really slow much until the eighth track. All of the songs between tracks eight and thirteen (except for one) are slow-to-moderate tempoed ballads. The first of them, "This Love," has an excellent slow groove with a catchy chorus and an interesting keyboard banjo sound propelling the mix. It gets a little repetitive, but you'll likely end up singing along by the end of it. This is followed by "I Try," a classic pop-gospel number in the tradition of CeCe Winans or The Clark Sisters. This one is clearly the album's standout ballad, featuring a beautiful melody and stunning vocal performances from Tina and Erica. I love this song most for its simple acknowledgement of our shortcomings and our need for a Savior. The ballad section of Incredible also features the Stevie Wonder-like "Smiled on Me," about the little blessings God bestows on us every day, and a cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Will Know."
Incredible presents more than an hour's worth of music spanning 15 tracks. I wish the ballads and dance tracks were mixed up a bit and that a few of these songs were cut so Mary Mary could have better developed the album's standout tracks. For example, "So Close" is an okay ballad that's easily forgettable after listening to four other ballads. Likewise, the album's closing dance track, "Happy," feels unnecessary and routine after all the other good dance tracks on the album. Incredible would have ended more powerfully with the second to last track, "Thank You," a knockout gospel-pop song by the Hawkins Singers in the tradition of classic acts such as Andrae Crouch and Commissioned. However, it concludes by transitioning into two minutes of an old recording by the Rev. James Moore performing the same song with his choir — the sound quality is so poor, I wish Mary Mary ended "Thank You" themselves.
Much of Incredible's production is strangely simplistic and raw. Some of it's cool in a retro-R&B sort of way, while other songs are just plain irritating. "Lil Girl" is such an encouraging song in its desire to build self-esteem, but the overly simplistic and repetitive drum loop of waterdrops and fingersnaps gets tiresome by the end of the song. Nicole C. Mullen has done much better with similar themes. "Ordinary People," meanwhile, sounds rhythmically awkward, utilizing old synthesizer bass sounds and a clunky rhythm track primarily driven by a simple kick drum, out-of-date handclap effects, and a cowbell. "Hold On" is the most annoying track on the album because of the cacophonous and sloppy use of pitch bend on the backing tracks.
How much will you enjoy Incredible? I don't think it ever manages to upstage recent albums by Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, Out of Eden, or Mary Mary's debut for that matter. Yet for every mediocre to bad track on the album, there's at least one or two more that truly shine and demonstrate Mary Mary's true artistic growth. I guess your satisfaction with the album will depend on your tastes and expectations, since the responses thus far are so varied, including mine. Overall, I'd expect a mostly positive response to Incredible — another smash from Mary Mary.