You can’t buy the kind of exposure that Le’Andria Johnson received after winning Sunday’s Best, BET’s gospel vocalist contest. You have to earn it. A contest that draws gospel singers from around the nation won’t have too many American Idol moments where somebody who can’t sing gets embarrassed on national TV. All believers may make a joyful noise during those congregational songs, but the Le’Andria Johnsons for the world continually get the solos for a reason. A seasoned gospel singer will be a trained and polished vocalist by his or her teen years. People such as Johnson go through ringer of a gospel choir that is filled with Godly Simon Cowells who have no problem telling people who’s talent doesn’t match their aspirations to settle for being a choir member. The vocalist who makes it through that grinder is definitely ready their close-up. By comparison, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sunday Best felt like a walk through the park.
Earning a victory on the popular BET program gave Johnson a loyal following. The singer takes advantage of that opportunity with her debut EP The Awakening of Le ‘Andria Johnson. The album enjoyed strong sales, debuting at number 1 on the Billboard Top Gospel Album Chart and Top Christian/Gospel Album Chart and at number 26 on the Billboard 200. Similarly, the single "Jesus" was 23 on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart. The Christian record buyer is loyal, but they’re also as tough as a sanctuary choir director. Listeners grant that Johnson can sing, but she’s got to strike a balance between showing the listener something new and innovative while also paying homage to gospel traditions. And there’s always the worry that a vocalist might come off as sounding too "worldly." Make that mistake and the critics will pull out their stopwatches and begin counting off the minutes until a gospel artist decides to cross over.
Johnson opens and closes The Awakening of Le’Andria Johnson by giving honor to her traditional gospel roots. The EP starts with a medley of gospel songs that likely taste like sweet honey to traditionalists. The medley includes "Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Something" and "Running Back To You." The five full-length studio tracks show that Johnson can also craft tunes that merge a gospel and inspirational message with cutting edge production techniques.
Beyond the vocals and the arrangement, this EP’s main virtue is that it features some first rate songwriting. The Awakening of Le’Andria Johnson finds the vocalist putting a new lyrical spin on some classic gospel topics. On the first track, "Cast the First Stone," Johnson warns listeners not to be judgmental. The second cut, "Make Him Like You," addresses the importance of being patient in the search for a mate. On "Make Him Like You," Johnson prays for her future mate. However, she does more than ask God to send her a husband, she gets into specifics. And no, she doesn’t ask the almighty to make him tall and driving a Lexus sedan. Her must haves come in the number’s catchy hook, "Make him like you/honorable/a worthy disciple/of the father/my best friend/who will be there to the end." Meanwhile, the doo-wop styled "New Reasons" is a kiss off to all unfaithful friends, with Johnson singing that she plans on turning to the friend who will stand closer than a brother.
Traditionalists who apply a Jesus count to every track on The Awakening of Le’Andria Johnson might have a quibble, but those of us yearning for artists willing to flip the script to infuse these old stories with some new school style will find a lot of like about Johnson first big effort. She is more than ready for her close-up. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes