Tori Kelly – “Hiding Place” (Sept 14, 2018)
This record right here will be a strong contender for one of the best gospel albums of 2018. Tori Kelly has delivered something of a surprise, but one that people have been hoping for. She successfully has crossed over from mainstream pop to gospel, and has done so with flourish and grace. This album is stellar, perfectly paced, balanced, and at times bordering on virtuosic. With more than a handful of gospel artists leaning strongly in a hip-hop or R&B direction, complete with modern electronic arrangements, pseudo-trap beats, and so on, this is a refreshing musical statement.
Tori Kelly does not simply lean on tired old genre clichés, however. Far from relying on nostalgia, this album manages to push forward from within the core of the gospel music tradition by being a modern iteration of the more progressive tendencies within the genre. There are R&B, Neo-Soul, and Jazz influences throughout the album, but they do not dilute the core of the gospel sound. Even the occasional hip-hop elements do not obviously detract from the organic tone of the album, which is saying a lot, considering other releases this year in the pop-gospel category. Hiding Place manages to use 808s, synth claps, and fluttering electronic hi-hats so subtly that they are basically unnoticeable. They simply dissolve into the mix and conform to the needs and conventions of the “host genre,” so to speak.
One of the things that solidifies this as a proper gospel album is the density and complexity of the arrangements. If there’s one thing Hiding Place does not hide, it’s the amount of music theory that went into its construction. The harmonies are tight, complex, ever evolving, and rich with the kind of tension and flavor that any musically astute ear will find absolutely delicious.
Part way through listening to this album, I thought to myself “Man, these songs all sound a lot like Kirk Franklin songs.” It’s a point that should be really obvious to anyone familiar with gospel music over the last few decades. There is an undeniable … theatricality to many of these arrangements that makes this whole record resonate clearly with Kirk Franklin’s writing and arrangement style. And of course, as it turns out, he wrote the majority of the music, with the only other writing credits on the album going to Tori Kelly herself, and one credit to Lecrae. This was a wise move on Kelly’s part. She could have attempted this on her own as a songwriter, but instead got the help that was necessary to make a mature sounding gospel record. This is not the compositional product of a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, but a genuinely forward-thinking musical gesture from someone steeped in a tradition.
Don’t let any of that last paragraph detract from the central appeal of this record: Tori Kelly herself. This is a vocal performance album. The choirs and backing vocalists get their own spotlight, and guest vocalists like Jonathan McReynolds would make for steep competition for any singer. But Tori Kelly shines and outshines any other presence over and over again. Her range, dynamic versatility, sincerity, charm, and disrespectful vocal runs take center stage throughout. Over the course of only eight tracks, we get to experience her in many forms: declarative, bold, intimate, gentle, broken, and exultant, each of these iterations coming across with strength and sincerity. Above anything else, this album will be enjoyed and remember for it’s sincerity. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a listen sometime very soon.
(P.S. Yes, you saw that right, this is my first 10/10 review on The Haystack. This is the gold standard for anything else that comes out in 2018. There you have it. Tori Kelly. The legend. Put the whole album in the SDA Hymnal.)