Mandisa has come a long way since her arrival into the spotlight as a 2006 American Idol finalist. Her Grammy-nominated 2007 release True Beauty made Christian music history as the first female artist to debut at #1 on the Top Christian Albums chart, and in just a few years, she has collaborated with some of CCM's biggest stars, from TobyMac to Michael W. Smith. Two years later, her follow-up Freedom is ready to deliver the next chapter in this gifted artist's career.
"My Deliverer" opens with a fun burst of energy and joy, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Her voice is bright and powerful, and when she sings "My Deliverer has set me free from all that's held me captive," there's no doubt that she believes it. This song nicely establishes the heart of the project's message. The theme of Freedom fills every song: Freedom from worldly beauty, from worries about life, and, ultimately, from death and suffering forever in Heaven. Keeping this lyrical thread through a diverse playlist is certainly one of the album's greatest strengths.
True, Freedom tends to revisit musical styles and lyrical themes common to Christian pop, but what sets it apart is Mandisa's amazing voice, the real star of this project. Her range is incredible, and she breathes life into every song she sings. On "How Much," she whispers and soothes as a dear friend offering encouragement ("These words go out to anyone / Who's ever felt so unlovable… That lie is so not true"). The sweet lyrics and gentle rhythm are a nice contrast to the funky, R&B flavored "Definition of Me," where she confronts the world's standards of beauty with humor and confidence ("Pretty is cool for a minute / But it always fades away / Trends are hot for a second / They'll be gone the very next day"). It sounds like nothing else on the album with a Beyonce style and guest rap section, but somehow it fits her perfectly. "Leave it in the Valley" is a cute, bouncy piano pop number with a charming whistle section (I have to smile every time I hear the line, "Tell your trouble 'bye-bye'!"). But one of my personal favorites is "He is with You," a song that speaks hope to some of life's most painful circumstances ("He is with you when your faith is dead / And you can't even get out of bed… there is love to see you through all of this"). Musically, it reminds me of some of Matthew West's best work; lyrically, it successfully walks the fine line between sadness and trust, and holds emotional power without the sentimentalism that songs like this can easily fall into. There's something in this song that just about anyone can relate to, and it will certainly become a signature of Mandisa's career.
Still, there are a few tracks that seem a bit awkward or out of place. "Not Guilty" and "Broken Hallelujah," while very pretty in sound, felt a little too much like 90's Avalon ballads. Of course the lyrical messages were great, but the music didn't pull me in the way "He is with You" or some of the more upbeat songs did. And though "Definition of Me" worked and brought some variety into the mix, "Freedom Song" was way too gospel in style, seeming mismatched with the overall album. Maybe this would be better on a gospel side project, something she could certainly pull off. Still, these are minor complaints that are easily forgotten when you hear Mandisa at her best. The final song "You Wouldn't Cry (Andrew's Song)" closes the album with just that. It's sweeping, passionate, and even epic in its portrayal of the glories of Heaven ("Blue has never been bluer / True has never been truer… if you could just see this place, / You wouldn't cry for me today"), and serves as a soul-stirring closer that grows more full and beautiful with every listen.
Overall, this is a solid pop album with some stellar moments, a diverse mix of heartfelt ballads and fun, summery grooves. Mandisa has proven herself to be more than just another "former American Idol contender"; she is a talented lady with a promising future of great music ahead.- Review date: 3/18/09, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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