Sounds like … high-caliber gospel-pop, as if Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey had decided to go gospel.
At a glance … as impressive as her careers in Broadway and R&B have been thus far, Heather Headley's striking gospel debut positions her as one of the genre's most sophisticated performers.
Unless you're a hardcore follower of R&B or Broadway musicals, chances are the name Heather Headley doesn't ring a bell. Even in the urban realm, she's far from a fixture, having released two albums (2002's This Is Who I Am and 2006's In My Mind) that were favorably received but neither generated the en-masse euphoria of Beyoncé or Alicia Keys—too bad, because she sings circles around both.
Headley's Broadway credentials are a different story. After her family left their native Trinidad for Fort Wayne, Indiana, she joined her high school choir and then went on to study musical theatre in college. In 1997, she joined the premiering cast of The Lion King in the role of Nala, and in 2000, she was asked to play the title role of Aida, another Elton John/Tim Rice musical. That gig ultimately earned her a Tony—Broadway's highest honor.
In a seamless fusion, both her soulfulness and her powerhouse come together on Audience of One, Headley's gospel debut. As produced by Keith Thomas (Whitney Houston, Yolanda Adams), the set places her on the same stylistic wavelength as CeCe Winans—worshipful and pop-infused, but never overly gospelized.
There are some strains of contemporary gospel, like the spiritual "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way" and a delightful, triple-timed rendition of "Here I Am to Worship," but they're not the norm. Instead, Headley's flawless vocals shine brightest atop glorious, gospel-pop confections, like the sobering "Simply Redeemed," an apologetic case for faith, and "Jesus Is Love," a cover of the Commodores' hit sung as a duet with labelmate Smokie Norful.
The price of admission to this Audience of One, though, is paid by cuts where Headley evinces the depth of her rich, immensely nuanced gift, as in the stunning "Hymn Medley" and the soaring ballad "Running Back to You"—two show-stopping performances that could give other pop divas a run for their money. And you wouldn't think she'd make it her own, but she totally kills a dramatic version of "The Power of the Cross," by modern hymnwriters Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.
As of now, it's unclear whether Audience of One is a one-off gospel recording for the singer, but here's hoping there's more where this came from. In time, Headley could easily become one of the genre's leading ladies, adding a touch of class to a realm that could always benefit from a little more flair and sophistication.
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