First Listen #3: Sunday Service Choir’s ‘Jesus is Born’

I grew up going to church with my mom, and honestly, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. For the majority of my childhood (at least 13 years), I woke up early on Sunday mornings, donned whatever iteration of church clothes I had (morphing from a dress during my younger years, to some slacks and shirt as I got older), waited for my mom as she gathered her Bible and peppermints, and headed to whatever church we were going to at the time. Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by other black bodies finding their way to their seats on this day of worship. I could see how excited everyone was to have this moment to share with each other and listen to the words of wisdom from the pastor, in hopes of having something fulfilling to enter the working week on Monday. And while I loathed going to church so much that when I got older, my mom knew I wasn’t paying attention so she asked me to tell her what I learned in church, after we left the 3+ hour service, I always appreciated listening to the choir sing. Though I didn’t understand and logically couldn’t agree with what they were saying and was embarrassed by the idea of standing up in front of a group of people and clapping my hands to the rhythm, I enjoyed hearing the beauty of the combined voices of a good choir.

Each member, individually, was a fantastic singer, but together, the made the walls of the churches fill with a energy that is indescribable. Between listening to my church’s choir on Sunday during praise and worship and during the collection of the offering, and listening to the likes of Kirk Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and Fred Hammond in the car with my mom, I gained a love for gospel that has not gone away, even though it’s been years since I formally acknowledged myself as agnostic.

I carried this love into the Sunday Service Choir’s Jesus is Born, and I was not disappointed by what I was given back. I had watched a couple YouTube videos and live streams of Kanye and the Sunday Service Choir over the course of their journey together. I remember falling in love with the group originally, after a video came out of Kanye and the Choir doing a rendition of a Fred Hammond song. It was a blending of sounds from my childhood with the production that I had grown up expecting from Kanye. I was amazed. Afterwards, I watched some of their performance in Chicago (from the comfort of my bed in Poughkeepsie) and another performance a couple of weeks later, and then was surprised – but pleased – to hear them in Kanye’s video for “Closed on Sunday.” However, during all of these performances, to a certain extent, they played a secondary role to Kanye. And Jesus is Born gives them the opportunity to be the stars of the show.

The album opens similar to Kanye’s Jesus is King, and it’s not long before we are greeted with some familiar renditions and covers of classical gospel songs and gospelized secular R&B/hip hop songs that the Choir has sung at prior performances. What makes this project different than JIK – and for me, more enjoyable – is the live aspect of it. Each song sounds like a performance that the Choir is giving, and you can hear how much fun their having as they sing. You can hear the laughter, joy, community, and love that each member is bringing to the songs. It’s something that I feel like JIK would have benefitted from. There is a necessary communal aspect to gospel music (especially as it has existed in my life so far) that makes it feel different when you can hear and feel the energy of the entire group coming together to create this singular force. The album also feels a lot more developed that JIK does. While some of the awkwardness of JIK could be attributed to the clunkiness of Kanye just getting his feet wet in the gospel world, Jesus is Born sounds like the work of people who have been doing this for years. You can hear the years some of them have spent in choirs in their hometowns, not to mention how wonderfully Jason White directs them; his personality as a director comes through and really ties everything together.

Listening to this album, for me, is a nostalgia-driven experience. It was so enjoyable because the sounds and the feelings of this project bring me back to listening to gospel alongside my mom in church or in the car. Or even the few times that I sung in the choir at church. And its this nostalgia factor that can, if missing, create a dissonance for listeners. There’s no Kanye-barrier like on Jesus is King, so if gospel isn’t something that a person is fond of, it could be difficult to get into this project, without the bars to reel them in. I’ve already seen some comments in a couple different places on the internet about how JIK was better or that they wish Kanye was on the project. But I don’t think that Kanye being on the project was the point. Plus, he never said he would be – that’s how people thought Frank Ocean would be at Camp Flog Gnaw.

I think this project gives the singers in the Sunday Service Choir the credit that’s due to them. They’re a group of remarkable singers (a lot of whom are black women!) that work their assses off to create a large chunk of the experience that people attribute to Kanye. Without them, the whole Sunday Service thing wouldn’t work, and I think that’s part of the reason why Kanye wanted to create a space where the spotlight could be on them; they deserve an hour of our time.

I think this is also a great album to end the year on. 2019 has been full of shit. There have been some great times, but there have also been some really trash moments this year. I think Jesus is Born and the Sunday Service Choir are offering us something that I think we could all use as we enter 2020 – a little bit of hope. There’s an optimism that this album has. There’s a gratefulness and an appreciation for life that I think we can all get from this album, regardless of whether or not we believe in Jesus. It’s that hope and optimism that is going to allow us to keep going into the new year and allow us to create a year that’s much lighter and fulfilling than the one we’re leaving behind. It’s the perfect album for a new start. Not only is Jesus being born, we are also being reborn. #bars.

Featured Image Credit: https://genius.com/albums/Sunday-service-choir/Jesus-is-born

Overall Album Rating

(listen to Jesus is Born, by clicking on the image below)

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