~Tirhakah Love (@GoonTherapy)
A wealth of critical music literature still has yet to uncover the difficulties of transitioning between gospel and traditional R&b. The duality explored most directly in James H. Cone’s, “The Spirituals and the Blues,” is one of eschatological significance. Early 20th century black Christians were passionately opposed to the blues, it’s vulgarity and sexualization were second only to the belief that bluesmen gave their souls to their guitars in exchange for a hypnotic power over both spiritual and non-religious folk. That power made itself known whenever the blues were played,not through the recitation of an artists’ lyrics but through the corporeal catharsis experienced when crowds ingested it. The blues, then, was carnal because of what it was able to evoke from the body–a musical metaphysic of freedom–that ultimately stemmed from an “impure” deal with Satan himself.
Contemporarily the transition between gospel and R&b almost feels inevitable. Though gospel musicians have found lucrative success in the niche market, a great many of them, especially in the mid-20th century would cross over to more traditional rhythm and blues. Sometimes, it was as simple as replacing “god” or “Jesus christ” with “baby” and “boothang” but other times the transition is more subtle. For indie artists like MJM (aka Mark J. Morgan), on his new EP, MJM Parables Part 1, that transition is a statement about the virtuosic nature of true spirituality–if someone is spiritual, it is supposed to translate to every aspect of one’s life. The distinction here relies on behavior more than meaningless words; “You gon have to do more than just (saying)/ You gon always be blessed when you (do it)” Morgan shrills on the song “Parallel.” Indeed, even in the movement towards sensuality, Morgan keeps it G (as in God, not as in gangsta–which if we’re being historically accurate was the true meaning anyway). The first track, “With You,” comes off as a lovingly honest dedication to someone’s love, it takes a while for us to realize he’s looking upwards, and not laterally. Morgan often blends R&b and rap. While the latter is performatively even more vulgar than the former, it is here that Morgan makes his first appeal to God: “Lord, you’re the only reason my mind straight.”
The R&b/rap blend is prevalent among popular artists–Morgan’s lead single, “Hold You Down,” legitimately sounds like a Bryson Tiller B-side–but it requires a kind of melodic mystique that Morgan struggles to find on Parables. There are moments, many moments, where Morgan’s voice feels much too flat for the registers he’s attempting to reach. Sometimes, the vibrato is much too flimsy. His vocal shortcomings coupled with trap-inspired minimalism can be a bit difficult to get through if you’re here for straight up sangin’. Morgan’s vocals work best when supported by noise, sometimes even bordering on distortion. “Human Nature” serves as a perfect example of this. The song features, not only his most admirably delivered raps but, behind a full-on production complete with soul snaps and bed spring soundbites, also a style that feels his own. Unfortunately, this singularity doesn’t last.
Between flat lyrics and sometimes flatter vocals, MJM is inspired but hasn’t technically mastered the modern R&b sound just yet. He doesn’t lack the talent to make it happen, the EP does, however, lack the vibrancy to make his talents palpable.
Here are some resources to keep up with MJM: