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I Owe You

  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Sep
I Owe You
Sounds like … R&B gospel in the same vein as Destiny's Child, Ashanti or vintage Brandy. At a glance … this long-awaited album is a worthy listen, showcasing Sheard's versatility and a surprisingly mature vocal abilityTrack ListingYou Don't KnowLet GoChurch NiteCloserPraise OfferingSweetest ThingWarAll I AmDone Did ItSo LongSnap (bonus track)

Whenever second- or third-generation gospel artists enter the family business, at least part of the discussion surrounding their work and sound involves the timeless theoretical question of nature vs. nurture. Is "the gift" something that a person is born with, or can it be cultivated?

For 17-year-old Kierra "KiKi" Sheard, the granddaughter of the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark and the daughter of Karen Clark Sheard (of Clark Sisters fame), the answer is a little bit of both—because she was born and raised to sing. It's no exaggeration to say the gospel music community has been waiting for Sheard's debut, I Owe You, for years—since her Stellar Award-winning performance as 10-year-old on her mother's album Finally Karen. Later duets on Second Chance and The Heavens Are Telling, plus an appearance on her aunt Dorinda Clark-Cole's self-titled DVD, only heightened the anticipation.

The album opens with "You Don't Know," a stylish marriage between traditional- and contemporary- styled gospel. The chorus lyrics come directly from a familiar old-time testimony song. It's got a stomp-and-clap vibe fresh from the wooden pew. But there's also an unmistakably hip-hop feel to the song comparable to Destiny's Child or vintage Brandy, courtesy of producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. The song features phrasing and harmonies right out of the Clark Sisters' "You Brought the Sunshine."

Which leads to one of the interesting things about I Owe You. There are several nods to the Clark Sisters throughout—some of Karen's famous riff-and-run sequences, or an ad-lib that subtly mentions one of her songs; twinkie-styled harmonies; a hint of Dorinda's jazzy rasp. But these references are so clever and well-placed, they're like little bonus nuggets for the people who know—while not excluding those who don't. It's Sheard's way of acknowledging her story, while writing her own chapter.

"Let Go" is a brisk guitar-and-horn infused song featuring a hint of Latin percussion, clear, powerful delivery and a soaring, shiver-inducing vamp. "Church Nite" bounces with synth-heavy whimsy while telling the story of growing up in church: "If you wanna go hang you might be delayed/for me to get my praise on/so that I can stay strong, it's all at church tonight/If you're going to the game you might have to wait/for me to get my dance on/Not gon' even take long/I'm going to church tonight."

The PAJAM-produced "Closer" has the feel of a choir-come-R&B song, complete with background party noises. "Praise Offering," a praise-and-worship song, is beautiful for its relative simplicity. Here, Sheard's voice is clear, fresh, youthful and strong, buoyed by the gradually building background vocals and piano. "Sweetest Thing," authored by Kierra and produced by her 14-year-old brother J. Drew II, is a sparkling, girlish groove, with a light, winsome vibe. The lyrics and delivery could at first describe a new boyfriend, but it becomes clear she's referring to a higher love: "Instead of me getting weak/he makes me strong."

The siblings collaborate again on "War," where growling guitar, punchy delivery and heavy layering give the song its aggressive, militaristic sound. "All I Am" is relaxed, jazzy and retro-flavored, and "So Long" has a similar sensibility. The bonus track "Snap" is shrieking, funk-rocker, thanks to the input of Tonex.

Amidst all of the modern R&B, "Done Did It" is three-and-a-half minutes of 100 percent pure churchified, "good God A'Mighty" moments. If there's any doubt about where Sheard's roots are centered, this song should clear it up. She takes on the quartet sound normally heard from a group of four or five men—men four times her age (new labelmates the Mighty Clouds of Joy, for example). It's amazing, taking the listener by total surprise. That's partly because of the novelty (the closest thing in recent history would be RiZen's self-titled debut), but also because it works so well, from start to finish. She's got it down, from heavy, testimonial lead to crisp background delivery to riff and run, including the must-have ad-libs and that back-of-the-throat grrrowl.

If I Owe You is any indication, the answer to the nature/nurture argument regarding Sheard is yes—and yes. She's an undeniably gifted singer, and the tutelage of her mom and aunts has no doubt allowed her to hone her craft. It's a worthy listen.