Reviewed by Michael Ehret
True Beauty by Mandisa
"...definitely R&B/Gospel from the get go, unapologetically Christian."
“American Idol” contestants, winners and finalists, fall into generally three categories (none of these categories refer to their actual placement on the show, but rather their ability and appeal):
1. Talents (Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson)
2. Also Rans (Katharine McPhee, Elliott Yamin, Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken, Paris Bennett)
3.You Gotta Be Kidding Me (Sanjaya, Ace Young, Justin Guarini, Melissa McGhee, Kevin Covais)
It’s not always clear, except for category three, where a particular performer may fall. Such is the case with Mandisa, an early favorite from Season 5. On her Sparrow Records debut, True Beauty, she skates the line between the two categories. On the show, Mandisa wowed viewers early on and seemed destined to at least make the finals of that season. But it wasn’t to be. She was voted off what seemed to be prematurely and amid speculation that she was “too Christian” for the show.
Now comes her full album from Sparrow Records – and it is definitely R&B/Gospel from the get go, unapologetically Christian. She opens strong with the first single, “Only the World” and the title track, both up-tempo romps that show off her undeniable voice. “Only the World” debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales Chart – then moved up to #1. The album debuted at #43 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart, but at #1 on the Top Christian Album chart – the highest debut ever by a new female artist.
It’s the high energy tracks, in general, where Mandisa has the most success. Another great example is “Love Somebody” featuring the rap of TobyMac. Also included, and another highlight, is her controversial choice for the “Idol” stage, a remake of Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You),” which was completely misunderstood by much of the viewing audience. But here it actually competes favorably with the sister’s version because of Mandisa’s full-throated interpretation.
But, like the “Idol” judges are so fond of saying, success often comes down to song choice and the arrangement. This is where the singer’s effort falters a bit. On the song “God Speaking,” Mandisa sounds like just another of the Whitney-wannabe crowd, over-emoting on trite, overly sentimental lyrics that just don’t support that kind of effort. Unfortunately, things get even worse with “Unrestrained,” a misguided attempt at a CeCe Winans sound, and the up-tempo “Only You” which bubbles “I gotta a whole lot of nothin’ if I don’t got You.” Groan.
But, lest anyone fear Mandisa can’t emote like a proper diva, “Voice of a Savior,” which should be a single, redeems the disc at just the right moment and “He Will Come,” the disc closer, provides another satisfying experience.
There are some excellent choices and performances here. But the bone-headed selections are too numerous to completely ignore. Which Mandisa will prevail? Here’s hoping for the best.
Michael Ehret is a music maven who has written about music, secular and Christian, as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star newspaper, several Internet sites, and even CCM magazine. He is also the editor of the newsletter Afictionado, the e-zine of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and is testing the waters with his first novel, Beyond December, while working on his second, Skipping July.