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Sharecropper's Seed, Vol. 1

  • reviewed by Andree Farias Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Apr
Sharecropper's Seed, Vol. 1
Sounds like … a more low-key India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Corinne Bailey Rae, and other R&B singers who prefer earthiness and soul over slick beats and pop appeal.At a glance … not as striking a concept album as it could have been, Sharecropper's Seed is otherwise an organic, understated affair.Track Listing Sharecropper's Seed
So in Love
One Touch
When I Grow Up
Under the Shadow
I Wish
Baby Love

It wasn't that long ago when Nicole C. Mullen shared the same record label with Jaci Velasquez, Rachael Lampa, Sandi Patty, and Cindy Morgan. Now she's the last vocal diva on Word Records.

Her permanence in Christian pop is somewhat mystifying, when you think about it. Sure, she certainly has the voice, a thing of beauty that can go from a melodious whisper to a powerhouse, full-throated wail. But other than that, she didn't really fit the scene. She's a minority, she plays the guitar, she sings about racial harmony, and she danced—Christian divas aren't supposed to bust a move, are they?

But audiences probably connected most with her songwriting. First there was "On My Knees," which became a hit for Velasquez. Then came "Redeemer" and "Call on Jesus," two songs still revered as Christian pop anthems and "special-music" performance pieces at churches nationwide more than five years later.

This gave Mullen's career an artistic edge over her peers, an authenticity that's very much a part of her fifth studio album, Sharecropper's Seed, Vol. 1. Sharecroppers, eh? Clearly the "diva" is trying to show that she's more than a beautiful voice. This project is her, a concept album that's also a loving tribute to her family and the ancestors who paved the way for her freedom, spiritually and civically.

Listen to the tender, acoustic title track, and you'll get a glimpse at her lineage in a nutshell. It's a respectful homage to her grandfather, a man who sowed seeds of hard work, perseverance, and faith into his kin. Mullen credits him with who she is today, as well as the life of her kids and generations to follow.

A noble theme, for sure, but overall a rather reserved and atypical way of kicking off an album—nothing like the techno-pop of "Talk About It" or the funk-pop of "Shooby" heard in albums past. But you may as well throw away any preconceived notions about Mullen's music: Sharecropper's Seed is her most uncharacteristic collection yet. To this point, every disc the singer has recorded has followed a formula, distinctive as each may be. Here the formula simply takes on an earthier, more understated approach.

Take Mullen's trademark power ballads. Surprisingly, Seed only has one—the poignant "One Touch," a song recounting the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' robe. Everything about it—lyrics, melody, and otherwise—could have made it another Song of the Year contender for Mullen, except nearly everything about it is restrained. The song does crescendo as it goes, but stops just short of its potential climax. The refrain never explodes, and Mullen never get to the point where she belts it.

Another change—a big one, actually—is the modesty of the grooves. Mullen is known for thumping beats and choreographed routines, so much that she often performs with a headset for ease of movement. This time, the rhythms are much more organic, more supplemental than foundational to the songs. Sometimes there isn't even a drum track to coast on, as in "When I Grow Up" and "I Wish," two moving numbers that could've benefited from a little more motion.

That's not to say Mullen doesn't entertain her funky side. The few times she does, the results are enjoyable, even if they tend to recall her earlier material. The devotional "Elohim," for example, could be a faster reading of "Call on Jesus," though not as grand. "Under the Shadow" is a joyful percussion-only tribal feast, even if it's a cultural celebration similar to "Family Tree"—in fact, Mullen even quotes a portion of that earlier song's spoken-word towards the conclusion of this new one.

But again, familiarity and showmanship isn't the main theme here. It's family, and Mullen makes sure there are plenty of references to her own, both direct and implied. Sharecropper's Seed, Vol. 1 is essentially a family scrapbook of sorts—one so carefully constructed, pretty, and personal, that some may feel a little alienated by it if they're not expecting it. The album is a thoughtful gesture, a labor of love that her immediate relatives are sure to treasure for generations to come. But it may also be too narrow in scope to find an audience much larger than Mullen's own family gatherings.

© Andree Farias, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.