If you want to fully enjoy what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most accomplished soul albums of 2002 then you will have to get past the lyrics of the opening track, the worryingly self-satisfied "Don't Have To". This took me a while. It is worth it, but does involve some effort.
Let me explain. I am not, for once, on my soapbox about gangsta rap. This record is nominally that sub-genre's cultural opposite, being, of course, a gospel outing. However, it is not the religious content that causes problems. It is rather the particular ideological twist that the young Detroit duo have put on the traditional form. "Don't Have To" is the sort of gospel tune Kandi Burris might have penned. To say that this is defiantly contemporary is hardly strong enough. This is religion in the service of material wealth and conspicuous consumption.
Even if you do not cringe at the idea of God's prime role as being one of keeping us "focussed" and can sympathise with the conservative but totally understandable message of Church keeping one safe from the perils of "the street", something distasteful remains. The Lord, apparently, is important because He will make you rich. Not spiritually, but financially. "You don't have to worry no more" because faith will ensure success. Bills are paid, automobiles and Versace suits are now affordable. This is a gospel message for the smug suburbs.
If this trend continues, as seems likely, questions will need to be raised as to why African-American music, traditionally seen as almost intrinsically oppositional to dominant cultural values, has in its major current variants (hip-hop, R&B and now gospel) become the great celebrant of the virtues of consumer capitalism. That gospel should be the music of aspiration is nothing new. That those aspirations should be so limited, so Worldly in fact, is a trifle depressing.
Lyrics apart, "Don't Have To" is excellent: a good tune, well arranged, slinkily funky and powerfully delivered. This is the positive side of the whole project. Pam and Dodi are gifted singers and on mid-tempo steppers like this have an assuredness that should guarantee a long career. The urban flavour is unforced and definitely cut from superior cloth. Credit must go to the producers' input. A bevy of established and rising names from current gospel and R&B production are involved and each one is on top form. Steve Huff, Shep Crawford, Warryn Campbell and Motown's Devine and Walton all ensure a diversity of sounds while retaining a consistency not always associated with the fashionable "Many Cooks" approach.
The backroom boys do not drown out the duo. In fact, none comes close to outshining them. As an extended vocal set, Pam & Dodi is hard to fault. These young women can handle everything from big voiced ballads to smooth swayers and, on the aptly titled "Bounce", can get that party thing on as convincingly as any of their less Heaven-oriented contemporaries. The combination of soulful harmonies with bang-up-to-date rhythms is extremely eductive and it is no surprise to find that the upbeat and irresistible "Gotta Give It Up" is already a club favourite. It is not too early to claim that this is easily the best and least awkward of the new fusion of gospel and R&B outings (the preferred term is Rhythm and Praise, or so I gather).
Sometimes the sacred/secular blend is confusing. Three slowish love songs in a row demonstrate this most fully. "Love Me Like You Do" is a sexy, passionate track that, until the disconcerting Ain't nobody can do me like Jesus is belted out in the coda, had me convinced that it was a hetero-love song. Similar in mood, the double duo with K-Ci and Jo Jo (on form, thankfully) is about a human relationship, albeit one sanctioned by God. As to the third "I Appreciate You", I think it is about God rather than a partner but that is merely guesswork. The important point is that all three are expressions of a strong female declaration of love and all are little short of overwhelming.
The most tender song is also the album's stand-out ballad. "What's Wrong", with its theme of "He Did it for me; he'll do it for you" that runs through the whole set, offers a rare glimpse of possible grief and despair, which is then comforted by an unpatronising sisterly compassion. The climax of this track is on a par with the great gospel-soul wailing of a generation ago and the emotions come across as genuine and devoid of that suspicion of glib superiority that affects some of the numbers.
With the exception of the so-so signing-off tune ("There All the Time") nothing on this album uses standard, old-time structures. Few tracks would sound out of place on urban radio or MTV. That will mean that even without the current upsurge in gospel sales this record will sell well. It deserves to. It is less showbizzy than the recent Yolanda Adams and Pam and Dodi have a much wider range and richer vocal armoury than Mary Mary or any number of other nu-gospel "girl" acts. As a "straight" R&B project it holds its own and is rather subtler than many rival projects. Even if people struggle, as I did, with the lyrics the compensations, for both old soul fans and new Urbanites alike, are plentiful.
I can't see any of these songs achieving the stature of "Precious Lord" or "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and I would be unhappy if they did. The best I can say of some the words is that they accurately depict certain attitudes within modern Western society. But I'd rather not dwell on that and simply enjoy a solid initial release that attests to the arrival of two superlative female vocal talents. Those voices resonate with a power and a history that no lyrics, no matter how banal, can diminish.