Sounds like … a blend of neo-soul, gospel, R&B, jazz, and pop that recalls the work of Lauryn Hill, Joann Rosario, Nicole C. Mullen, and Fred HammondAt a glance … the album's a bit homogenous, but Killings' impressive skills as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist indicate that this is the start of a promising solo career
Listen to Surrender, the debut album from Debra Killings, and you'll find yourself asking, "Where has this artist been hiding?" Killings not only sings, but writes, produces, and plays most of the album's instruments, including guitar, bass, and drums. The Atlanta native grew up playing in church, and while this is her first solo recording, she's no rookie, having appeared as a session musician on projects by Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Curtis Mayfield, Outkast, Deborah Cox, Jay-Z, and Monica.
Those musical chops are all too evident on Surrender. You may find yourself double-checking the credits to verify whether Killings played a certain guitar lick or sang a particular vocal. Check out her vocal performance on the soulful "Come On" and the guitar riff on the worshipful "Oh My God" for just a couple examples. If it's not Killings on guitar, it's usually her older brother Jimmy, who also cowrote and produced part of Surrender. The only track on which Killings' contributions are minimized is the subtle gospel funk of "Because of Your Love," featuring the songwriting, production, vocals, and bass work of Fred Hammond. In a sense, it's one of the less interesting tracks because it sounds so much like Hammond's work—but it's still a pleasure to hear these artists paired together.
Killings' style is exemplified in the strong opener "Message in the Music," offering a natural hybrid of neo-soul, gospel, R&B, jazz, and pop. The song illustrates growing up in the church and Killings' spiritual awakening as a child, both through music and personal tragedy. The encouraging "A Change" and the soft, worshipful "Jesus" are both more on the gospel side. The title track offers a smooth R&B groove, and "Do Right" throws a little rock into the mix with a raw electric guitar riff. "Oh I" is pure neo-soul, as is "Without Him," a jazz-inflected cut featured on WoW Gospel 2003. "Oh My God" is mixed like an old '70s gospel-soul recording, with all the bass on one side and backed by a small group of vocalists. The music on Surrender isn't necessarily diverse or eclectic, but it does show Killings' wide range of skills and influences.
Lyrically, Killings is pretty straightforward, offering the usual pastiche of praise and hope heard in most gospel and worship. This is really the album's only shortcoming, lacking inventive hooks and ideas to distinguish the songs. It's all terrific as you're listening to it, but the songs generally don't linger when the album's done. The exception is "Without Him," but I can't decide if it's stuck in my head because of the unusually jazzy melody, its inclusion on WoW Gospel, or simply because it's Surrender's last track.
There's room for growth for this proficient artist, already making strides in Christian and mainstream music. She hits the ground running with Surrender, presenting a fresh sound to gospel R&B. That's no small feat, so it's a safe guess that Killings' solo career is just getting started.