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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

I Speak Life

  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Oct
I Speak Life
Sounds like … a versatile combination of contemporary R&B and pop gospelAt a glance … Lawrence demonstrates a rare versatility and unique level of grace on his first album in this new phase of his careerTrack ListingHealedI Speak LifeYou Covered MeMiraclesRight NowAngelsDon't Forget to RememberSay a Prayer IntroSay a PrayerBetterWailin' to Dancin'LambComing StrongRestoring the YearsBeautiful Feet IntroBeautiful Feet

Many people seem to excel in one particular facet of the gospel music industry. There are the great writers, the gifted singers, the hot producers and those whose particular focus or sense of mission permeates all they do. Donald Lawrence is one of the few gospel all-stars. If you only get one draft pick this round, just one guy to help you work on your album, he's the kind of person you want: he excels in all of those areas, and has a reputation for blending classic churchified and up-to-the-minute sounds with lyrics designed to encourage the churched and reach out to the unchurched.

I Speak Life is a portrait of the artist in transition. Recently transplanted to Chicago, signed with a new label, and developing his own Quiet Water Entertainment, this is Lawrence's first album without his group, the Tri-City Singers. It's simultaneously a look back and a look forward, including a song or two from earlier days, a contemporary gospel favorite, and lots of high-impact guest appearances.

The album is divided into four sections: Contemporary Gospel, Inspirational, Praise & Worship, and Final Thoughts. The distinctions aren't always totally clear—for example, the major difference between the Contemporary Gospel and Inspirational categories seems to be that the latter section features songs with a gospel message performed mostly by mainstream artists, with the exception of Lawrence's group the Murrills. Still, it's a great idea—and a way to continue the conversation around the various branches of this ever-expanding genre.

"Healed" opens with a big, brassy intro and a cool, unison corps of background vocalists, then warms and expands into a song about freedom and liberation from pain. It includes the almost-constant, Franklinesque voice-overs that are tolerable at some times and wearing at others. The title track, featuring Donnie McClurkin, is a prophetic pop ballad featuring strings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In "You Covered Me," Lawrence and Hezekiah Walker testify over a bass-driven, contemporary song. Layered, old-school harmonies, French horns and trombone give "Miracles" a warm, classic feel, accented by a powerful, throaty vamp offered by Vanessa Bell Armstrong. "Right Now," a cover of the Andrae Crouch classic from 1984's No Time to Lose, includes jazzy vocals and ragtime piano.

"Angels" begins the Inspirational section. Guest Carl Thomas joins Lawrence on this step-friendly, R&B pop track. Jazz veteran Lalah Hathaway lends a low, smoky vocal to "Don't Forget to Remember," and pianist Ramsey Lewis contributes thoughtful keys. Faith Evans brings a paradoxically powerful-yet-delicate soprano to "Say a Prayer," in a plea for preservation. "Better" features the up-and-coming group The Murrills in a song with classic pop feel and modern bounce.

"Wailin' to Dancin'" is one of the most unique songs out right now—gospel praise and worship meets funk meets world music. Highly percussive, it evokes the distant past but with a striking freshness. It's outstanding for its distinctiveness. "Lamb," featuring Richard Smallwood on piano, has a classical texture, and a sense of awed vulnerability. "Coming Strong" has a slightly brooding R&B feel, aided by Hammond B-3 organ and electric guitar, and Lawrence remakes his own "Restoring the Years" (from the 2003 album of the same name). The final track, "Beautiful Feet," is orchestral and soft, crafted with lilting vocals and driven by piano and strings.

Generally speaking, Lawrence's vocal arrangements have a unique fullness and interest, and he again demonstrates an ability to blend several genres, stretching and building on organic gospel in a way that is true to the form but expands it. I Speak Life represents Lawrence in a new place. Judging from this album's quality, that new place is a good one.