The solo album of a beloved band’s front man is a tricky act to pull off. The annals of music history are filled with examples of successes, from Phil Collins and Michael Jackson to Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill. There are just as many who crashed and burned after having many in their ear telling them the unique magic that artist experienced in a group would be made even better without the democratic constraints of several people weighing in on every musical decision of that would-be genius. Then, of course, there’s all the supposed extra money to be had by not splitting the bounty several ways. Baltimore lead singer and writer for what was one of the few remaining soul bands, Marcell Russell of Marcell & The Truth, is a student of musical history and has long heard the whispers that precede a band’s demise and a solo artist’s rise or fall. So, the expectations surrounding his stepping out alone weighs heavy on Russell’s solo debut, so much so that the behemoth project of 26 tracks is undone by an overabundance of material, including several songs not quite ready for prime time. Still, cutaway the fat of too much in one sitting, there lies a full album worthy of this signature talent taking his first flight using only his own wings.
The Sermon and The Serenade is a double-album and a concept that tells two different stories about two different kinds of relationships experienced by the same man. They are transparent musical memoirs of Marcell Russell’s willingness to lay bare his thoughts and emotions with both women and his observations of how he feels those women were motivated to operate in relationship to him. Needless to say, one is richer in love and devotion for his subject (The Serenade) and one is rooted in the self-interrogations and relationship critiques (The Sermon) that allowed Russell to be ready for the love of his life. Both are ballad and mid-tempo heavy with very few up-tempo cuts among them. Both hail songs that are brilliant and ready and songs that are underdeveloped and inexpertly mixed, The Serenade being the fresher and more contemporary in production of the two projects-in-one.
In its favor, Russell’s debut album has plenty of selling points. A former minister and a newly married man and father, Marcell Russell’s very emotional and personal material is steeped in message music, heavy in lessons and reflection, and always considered of the nuance details that make or undo a couple. Lyrically, there are riches untold and much that affirms and rebukes, celebrates and accuses. Russell’s commitment to testimonial material that insists listeners meditate on their own lives, choices, and stories is particularly laudable at a time when male artists are largely urged to create high school nursery rhymes to produce single hits. There isn’t a single song whose message isn’t necessary or whose intended energy to feed the listener isn’t worthwhile.
There are times Marcell’s urgency to teach borders on preachy as with “Slave Again (feat. W. Ellington Felton)” and “I Want His Babies (feat. Chanel Marie),” novelty songs that might work once, but don’t beckon repeat listening. Of the two, the music and interplay between Russell and Chanel Marie as the irresponsible woman wanting to sire the next generation’s thug life makes it musically compelling if lyrically draining with repeated listens. Starting with a soulful funk rock bang, “Slave Again” structurally unravels, becoming vocally, harmonically, and compositionally one of the most undisciplined cuts in the Russell catalog, despite a worthy rebuke of group think. These two are among eight songs that could have been cut from this project to mine the remaining gold. From mixes that are unfinished to songs whose structure and arrangement need work, “Teach Me,” “You Complete Me,” “Wonderful Distraction,” and “Unconditional Love” all suffer in different ways that have little to do with Russell’s rich baritone singing. The vibrant “It’s You” has the potential to be a lilting love letter but the “bright” choice in keys and production cheapens what is a melodically and vocally delicious song. Collectively, they demonstrate the independent artist need for strong A&R folks who can say “no” to an artist creatively overflowing with so much he’s long wanted to say and wants to say all at once.
Now, what works on The Serenade and The Sermon are 18 songs that would comprise a near-perfect adult urban contemporary album. With much to choose from, listeners are compelled to create their own mixes to have their desired album experience, forgoing the fast-forward button. Within this collective are some of the most beautiful ballads Marcell Russell has ever sung. The acoustic guitar laden “Grow Old With Me” joins Musiq’s “DontChange” and Dwele’s “Old Lovas” as preeminent, modern soul songs on the subject of growing into one’s sage years with a life love. A thematic companion to Russell’s “Symbols,” “Simply Live” taps into middle class angst by asking the burning questions many are grappling with amidst crippling debt and the raising of privileged, but entitled children. A literal grown folks conversation, “Communicate” boasts the closing soprano highs of the Cissy Houston variety thanks to a sublime Crystal Brown on a song that ends too soon. The spare “Exactly What I Need (Mirror)” and Sam Cooke “Lost and Looking” of “Baggage” are examples of an introspective artist at his creative peaks with musicianship and production rising to the occasion. For those who’ve been waiting for Russell to finally sing out in the studio the way he does live, “Love vs. Like” featuring the rapper Messiah gives recording fans a taste of what they’ve been missing.
Mid-tempos and steppers grooves were the strong suit of Marcell Russell & The Truth; no less is present here. The memorable hooks and jazzy soul grooves of “Motives,” “Stay For Awhile,” “You Bring Me Joy (featuring Issac Parham),” “Now That It’s Over,” the gospel of “All I Have Is You (feat Chanel Marie),” and the Al Green funk closing out “Blow Me Away” each are ready, set, go energizers with great potential to keep the steppers and slow dancers moving during Russell’s future live shows. A deceptive “Abuse My Mind” adroitly tackles the rare subject of females emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusing men to an infectious two-step, joining the pantheon of songs like Sade’s “Pearls” whose dark subject matter is obscured by the groove. Two songs nod to the youth market, an electro-soul’d “Safe” and the techno, auto-tuned soul pop of “It’s Good,” win through irresistible choruses and arrangement, despite the calculated obviousness of their production nods.
The Sermon & The Serenade is an imperfect animal, but it is a stunningly honest, deeply heartfelt one. Fans of Marcell & The Truth will find much that reminds them of the band, since at least half of this recording includes members either performing or producing, including: Charles “CJ” Bennett Jr., Gerald “Fingus” Richardson, and Michael “MicCheck” Mackey (who also produces throughout). New musicians Ray Tilkens, Kevin Jackson, Issac Parham, the legendary Wade Johnson, and long-time Ledisi collaborator, Lorenzo Johnson, round out proceedings and bring fresh musicianship to several cuts. Standout duet performances by Irene Jalenti, Crystal Brown, Chanel Marie, and W. Ellington Felton complement Russell well when it counts. Producers Johnson and Mackey yield mixed results and are joined by Eric Bailey, Will Allen, and Salem Mattaniah in helping Russell shape the music of his mind. In the end, it may have been too much music under the constraints of too little money and too tight a timeline to deliver this big baby, but it’s one that still bounces with life and wiggles all its fingers and toes to a solidly soulful beat. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson
[Writer’s note: In the spirit of transparency, I should step out of my role as music critic to own what some of our readership already knows. For 18 months or so, between the albums Symbols and this solo effort, The Serenade & The Sermon, I managed Marcell & The Truth and Russell remains something of a brother to me now. So, clearly I am a fan of the man’s work, particularly Symbols (though the band’s initial entry, Hopes Too High, remains the fan favorite). That said; I was not a part of the development of this album outside of some initial feedback on a few early song drafts. Additionally, part of my relationship with Russell is rooted in honesty and there is nothing said in this review I haven’t imparted to the man himself. In the end my commitment is to you, my readers, who need to know whether the product is worth your time and resources, regardless of the backstory informing why a product did or didn’t work.]