Perhaps the most interesting story in modern Gospel music over the past few years has been the emergence from nowhere of Smokie Norful. Virtually unheard of when he released his debut album, I Need You Now, in early 2002, Norful became Billboard Magazine's #1 Gospel Artist of 2003 and also won the coveted 2003 Stellar Awards for both Best Male Vocalist and Best New Artist.
Norful was born in Pine Bluff , Arkansas , the son of Reverend W. R. Norful. Nicknamed "Smokie" after a deceased family friend, he attended the University of Arkansas , where he majored in History, following which he taught high school for several years before traveling to Chicago to attend Garrett Theological Seminary. In the late 90s he began writing for a number of Gospel artists, including Shirley Murdock and Dottie Peoples, and planned to independently record and release his first solo album, a process that ended up taking four years.
Norful was signed by EMI Gospel and released his debut, the sleeper hit I Need You Now, in 2002. While ultimately a smash, the album began slowly, adding station after station in both the Gospel and Urban Adult Contemporary markets, and finally topped the Gospel charts over a year after its release. Musically, the disc was not revolutionary. It covered the crossover Gospel/Soul ground successfully mined over the past few years by several artists, and stylistically bore perhaps the most similarities to Yolanda Adams' 2000 crossover breakthrough, Mountain High...Valley Low. But while Norful's music was not as radically funky as Gospel material being released by artists such as Tonex or Deitrick Haddon, it developed a following because Norful simply covered the fairly familiar Gospel/Soul territory very very well.
I Need You Now kicks off in high gear with "It's All About You." With a pulsating beat and Antonio Dixon's Chris Jasper-style electronic keyboard out in front, Norful created a joyful dance number about faith and gratitude that became one of 2002's most infectious songs of any genre. It was followed by the album's centerpiece title cut, a piano-laden ballad dominated by Norful's clear, plaintive voice. It became a staple on both Gospel and UAC radio for most of 2003, and was really a marvelous contrast to much of what was playing on Urban radio. Much of the remainder of the album solidly covers familiar Gospel territory, but with a few standouts: "Same Old Sad Song" is a weary, moving ballad that features Norful's lament of world problems over the sound of a forlorn harmonica, and "Psalm 64," with its spoken-word intro by Smokie's father, brings a quiet, mellow close to the album.
Following the success of I Need You Now, Norful released Limited Edition, a album of mostly live recordings of material from his first album. Unlike its predecessor, Limited Edition, debuted at #1 and stayed there for a month, cementing Norful's rise to the A-list of modern Gospel singers.
Nearly two years after Smokie Norful took the Gospel world by storm, he released Nothing Without You, which turned out to be one of the most awaited new releases of 2004. Surrounded by an A-list of contributing producers, including George Duke, Tommy Sims, Victor and Cedric Caldwell and Alex Asaph Ward, Nothing started where Smokie's popular I Need You Now left off, but with a little more emphasis on balladry. The new disc certainly included successors to Norful's most popular songs "I Need You Now" ("God Is Able," "Nothing Without You") and "Same Old Sad Song" ("I Know Too Much About Him"). But it was where the new album stretched out that it shined, such as on the hot, horn-laden first single, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" and the beautiful Tommy Sims acoustic ballad, "In The Middle." Perhaps the most surprising disc highlight was the terrific leadoff cut, "Power," a funky upbeat number reminiscent of Earth Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire." Like its predecessor, Nothing Without You wasn't revolutionary or genre stretching. However, an album that is this well written, produced and performed should never be taken for granted. It should be cherished.
In the mid-00s, feeling overwhelmed by his music career and his pastorship at Victory Cathedral in Illinois, Norful contemplated retiring from recording. But he returned in 2009 with his first Live album to generally favorable reviews.
It is encouraging to find new artists like Norful that are blending the rhythms and production quality of modern soul with the lyrical depth of modern Gospel. It also encouraging that Urban Adult Contemporary radio was willing to embrace an obviously spriritual song such as "I Need You Now." And while great Gospel artists such as Mary Mary and even Yolanda Adams had difficulty finding continuing broad crossover sales following their smash 2000 albums, fans of quality Soul will continue to hope that strong future material by artists such as Smokie Norful will lead to sustained mainstream success for spiritual music.