Benny Charles – Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith – Album Review
Now that’s the way to open a record! Especially when we’re talking about the faith-based music-scene – we’re all kind of conditioned to expect an acoustic guitar to come out with some variation on the same old hymns we’ve heard for years…but this…this is immediately different and establishes an instant interest. From the brilliant spoken-word combo & cleverly subtle electro-beat on “Intro (The Beginning)” to the tight production & overall sound…you can tell that Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith is going to be a unique experience, especially on the inside of this particular genre. I keep on saying that faith-based music really needs a champion out there – and we’ve found some great candidates along the way throughout this very year in fact…seems like Benny Charles would be another excellent name to add to that growing list. Dude’s put together a highly-collaborative and wildly imaginative record here – and that journey springs to life through “Intro (The Beginning).”
I’ll say this definitively…I’m not even fully sure that the second tune “Blessed” worked 100% – but I can tell you without hesitation that if the music is going to be this continually unique, I’m definitely in. As many times as I checked this song out, I still honestly couldn’t tell you how the people would respond to it. I have the suspicion that the inspired performance from featured guest vocalist Frannie El is probably more than enough to entice people into listening to this tune…it’s bright, cheery, grateful…all good things happening on the mic. I’d challenge that there’s just as much great things happening in the extremely innovative beat created here by Benny…but yeah…I’m honestly not quite sure how other people would hear it. The way it echoes doesn’t exactly cause complications, but it does give the track a complexity that might be tougher for the average listener to wrap their minds around. All that being said, I’m confident that the uplifting spirit in both the sounds chosen & on the mic will have people listening…it’s not a typical cut by any stretch – but for some people, myself included, that’s enticing.
Benny Charles my friend…you are apparently spoiled for choice when it comes to the talent you’re finding on the microphone! Right from the drop on “Don’t Forget About Me” you can tell that guest star Esraelia Mack is gonna bring her A-game to this track and she puts in a solidly confident & stylistic performance. Definitely heading more into the Electro/R&B-vibe on this cut – I’m a huge fan of the layering techniques and editing on “Don’t Forget About Me” – as far as ideas in the music go, this is pretty wild stuff. There’s a couple spots on this track that probably push the threshold of the limitations of people’s speakers out there…some of those hi-hat combinations come through pretty hot when it comes to the mix and could likely be dialed-back about 50% and still be just as effective. Unless like, you know, the intention is to have the hi-hats be the feature star of the show, in which case, rock on I suppose. I have the feeling that’s probably not the intention though…and some of those hits will come through strong enough to make you squint your eyes for a second or two as they burst through the mix. Other than that, I dig it…I think Esraelia does a great job in the first of her three appearances, I like the ideas overall, and the hypnotic vibe that runs through the main hooks and chorus are highly effective.
All these songs end up being really interesting to listen to due to their anti-typical structures and ideas. Like if you would have explained on paper what was about to go down on “Haven” featuring Olivia Cipriani, I’d probably have looked at it and said it’s not gonna work. Listening to it – I think that it does – I think there’s a whole bunch of barriers up against a song like this, but I think it does end up working. Individually, I have zero complaints about either of the main elements in “Haven” – when it comes to the music, I love it, when it comes to the vocals, I feel the same – it’s the combination of the two that I was never 100% sure of. There are more than enough moments where the energy and approach seems like it’s a perfect match, but a few noticeable spots where it kind of felt like forcing the square peg into the round hole. The classy, graceful, and angelic way that Olivia sings is spot-on…but admittedly, kind of an odd-fit for the vibrant, bouncy, & playful electro surrounding her. Once the strings and piano melody join in, I think it all starts to fit into place and the vision here comes into focus a bit more…but will it be enough for the people out there listening…much harder to say. The continually friendly & inviting sound of the music and the undeniable talent in Olivia’s vocals could be enough to pull it off when it comes to getting the nod from listeners out there…it’s an odd mix of styles & sound overall, but as I mentioned in the beginning – there’s value in that too…it really does make each experience on this record interesting.
Because as you’ll hear on the next track, “Let Me Know” featuring Farrah Monster, Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith isn’t about to become any more typical than it’s been any time soon. Having said that – this track is really something ain’t it? I think Farrah is incredibly vibrant and sounds fantastic in a multi-dimensional role that has her putting a whole range of her abilities on display. I think she has some absolutely amazing moments along the way and immediately starts out on strong tones & solid ground. In particular when she goes into the vocals just past the first minute – that gear right there is equally spectacular and in a completely different style. If it wasn’t for the one listed credit, I’d have been positive this was actually two entirely different singers. That chorus hook is immaculate…I absolutely loved it, and the free-flow into the vocals afterwards around the 2:30 mark really seems to embrace that inspired spirit of music in a really beautiful way. Once again, I also felt like the editing, production and layering of the vocals really made for a spectacular listening experience – and I liked that Benny also saved a moment at the end of this track to let the uniqueness of the music shine too.
As much as I might personally like the odd-pairings of sound that songs like “Blessed” and “Let Me Know” have – I can also acknowledge that when things go right and the energy matches all-around, it’s always a noticeable thing. “Pray For You” is a great example of that perfect match between the vocals and music – and that goes for the rap, goes for the singing, goes for the sound, etc. etc. – this WORKS. I think the melody in the main hook heads straight for the heart and is likely one of the strongest you’ll find at any point on this record. Featured guests Quincy Thompson & Nekro G both do a fantastic job and really found the core emotion and energy that complements the vibe of the music on “Pray For You.” Lyrically, also one of my favorites…all-in-all, I just really don’t think there’s a single thing to complain about when it comes to this track from performance to production…this song pulses with real life in its veins and sincere sentiment. I’m not sure what Benny’s got planned as far as single-releases from this record may go…but if I was him, I’d be taking a serious look at this one as the ultimate choice. Tight bars are rapped with precision, melodies are sung with passion, emotion, & heart – and the music itself displays just as much character and personality as the guest stars on this song do – the balance between all these elements stack up to a seriously impressive song and memorable highlight.
Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith is essentially impossible to predict as to where it’ll turn next – and personally, I love that. Oddly enough, even with all the different vocalists and guests that show up, the truly defined perspective and approach that Benny takes to the music ends up creating a powerfully cohesive thread that ends up bonding all these songs together tighter in this set than you might think they would at first. Again, if you looked at it all on paper, it’d look downright WEIRD at times…but somehow, this all really makes sense and continually sounds fresh & inspired. While I felt like Esraelia Mack did a great job on “Don’t Forget About Me” – I would also make the argument that she’s even raised the stakes yet again and exceeded expectations with the artistic, rhythmic, & stylish flow she sings with in the swagger of the gentle melody on “Fool In Me.” Following one seriously strong song with another, the back-to-back combo of “Pray For You” and “Fool In Me” is definitely one of the most noticeable points on the record where it feels like your attention naturally gravitates to every note sung and sound added. Much like “Don’t Forget About Me” used that hypnotic aspect of the way that Mack can weave her vocals into the fabric of the melody, she makes complete magic on the microphone through the humble sincerity & beautiful sway of her voice on “Fool In Me.”
I’d also challenge that the strengths continue. I know in my heart of hearts that most people out there won’t give the same time of day to “I See You” as they will readily supply it to “Pray For You” or “Fool In Me” – they’ve got the advantage of highly accessible hooks, that’s just the facts. But when it comes to “I See You” – this entire song goes for a completely different vibe than we’ve heard at any point on the record so far…and it makes a HUGE impact on the entire experience. As far as hooks go – there’s ONE – and on “I See You” between the music from Benny and the vocals from Daniel Lemo, they prove that ONE solid idea is really all you need if you can bring it to the surface in just the right stunning light. I felt like this song was more than captivating…it’s brilliantly hypnotic and all-out mesmerizing; Lemo’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful. Like if anything, considering where everything started – we’re almost ending up in Radiohead territory here at this point on “I See You” – if that doesn’t speak to the wide range of sound you’ll find on this record, I don’t know what else could…this is miles away from where it all began. For what’s essentially the one hook being morphed, repeated & slightly changed throughout the entire three minutes, I think you’ll be surprised at just how much you might connect to this song and crave it. I know that’s how it went down for me…I honestly couldn’t get enough of this song and probably ended up repeating this more often than most of the songs on this record…it’s just a vibe you can absolutely stay lost within and never want to leave. Lemo nails every possible second and tone of the vocals with remarkable creativity, skill, and professionalism…when it comes to the vocals, it’s next-level stuff here.
Alright…so…I think we’re still on the hot streak with “Devil Ain’t Foolin Me” featuring Nekro G back in the mix to spit the bars…and for real, the man’s got game on the ol m-i-c, putting in some of his most memorable moments into this cut through the verses. Wasn’t completely wild about the main-hook of the chorus, it’s alright…but I think the odds of it making the impact it could are stacked against it due to how wild it is to listen to Nekro G in the verses. So versatile on the mic! So skilled! Such a perfect match for the energetic bounce and low-end infused vibe that runs through the music on “Devil Ain’t Foolin Me” – this track has got the SPARK! Loving the old-school record scratches in the mix – but if there’s any one major aspect of this cut that’s gonna pull you in, I really gotta hand the award to Nekro G without question this time around – I just don’t know how anyone could ask for anything more than they’re getting with the stunning combination of complexity, precision, passion, knowledge & skill that you’ll get on the mic here. That’s supercharged charisma on the mic, straight-up.
It’s not just me that hears it right – Benny’s workin’ with some Super Mario fireball sounds on “Hope” isn’t he? I dig this cut…I’m not sure I’ve got all the credits on this one or not…I know Frannie El comes back into the mix here and does another excellent job of his vocals on this track too. There’s such a tangible brightness and clarity in the way he sings that sounds like he’s in full control at all times. I don’t quite know if it necessarily continues the hot streak this record has been on, but I didn’t really feel like it hurt it…”Hope” is a good tune. With the female backing vocals, it actually reminds me of something you might hear from OhLand in those parts…Frannie El is always on-point so no concerns there either, the rap is strong…there’s a diverse range of elements to dig on when it comes to “Hope.” Plus I think Frannie’s a great choice for a track called “Hope” – the dude SOUNDS like the audible definition of the word and consistently brings a sweet, controlled, professional and bright melody to his vocal tones.
For as light as the sounds of the music on “Better Man” truly are – this is one intense cut! The rap comes at you real fast on this track, guest stars Jayo The Beatslayer & Nekro G assisting in leading the way to victory here. I’m…somewhat indifferent on the music of this particular cut…I could take it or leave it; what really fascinates me is just how much they’ve all maximized this moment. You’ll get a taste of what I mean in the instrumental ending to this cut…at this point we’re all maxxed-out on the music of this melody and now you get a chance to hear it as plain as day on its own…and were that the case like it is at the end, you’d need more without question. Listening to Jayo The Beatslayer & Nekro G somehow conquer this molehill and make it a mountain is extraordinary…it’s truly due to their efforts on the mic here that this song ends up becoming as entertaining as it does. Hypnotic repetition has worked to Benny Charles’ advantage throughout much of this record so far…once those sounds become the dominant aspect of the sound, things become tougher, know what I mean? Like I’d love to be able to fully concentrate on all the solid lyricism that’s happening on the mic, but that does become tough here with the brightness of the electro melody so upfront in the mix. Honestly not sure what I’d recommend here…I don’t know that turning the music down a bit or the vocals up would be the fix this cut particularly needs…but there’s something needed here…just a slight tweak or additional dimension added to the music somewhere maybe…hard to put a finger on what the solution could be ultimately. Once again though, the heroes on the mic shine through and end up pulling us on board – it’s pretty hard to argue with the fantastic energy and flawless flow from Jayo The Beatslayer & Nekro G on “Better Man” – Jayo’s got mad precision & a continuous flow, Nekro G supplies the rhythm like he’ll never run out of it.
“If This World Was Mine” is a tougher track to examine. I like that it diversifies the sound even more on the record with another new style & approach…this is more of a low-down club vibe. I think they’ve run into a bit of a confusing cut here when it comes to how to tackle it all…I felt like guests Deem Jaye and Nekro G had no problem with the bars they’re featured on tone-wise…but Antonia Marquee is doing everything she can just to try to find her way into what is a truly tough part to sing. She’d have to nearly be singing in completely dissonant tones to match the sound of the music here…and that’s a tough ask of any singer when the natural inclination is to add some melody with life in it through the vocals, rather than flat tones. So…you can hear that struggle here in the hooks…that complexity creeps in while searching for the right tones…and the natural melody ends up being the jarring effect rather than the more lifeless tones do. I don’t fault Antonia…you can hear she can sing, there’s no doubt about that – trying to fit into the sound of this song is a seriously enormous ask and I felt like she’s done the best she could with the part she had. Nekro G is likely on his way to becoming the unsung hero of this record – every time he shows up on the mic, he raises the stakes & standards…definitely a tough act to follow. Musically, the low-end infused beat works pretty well…I think the real highlights of “If This World Was Mine” come through during the inspired ending that this track eventually finds in its last minute or so.
The all-instrumental “Uncle Tom” was a great moment for the music of Benny Charles to really take its own moment in the spotlight – and it’s awesome! I think this was a great move to provide a break in the record and reset for a moment before starting the official push through the final third to the end on what’s definitely a lengthy experience overall…it gives us all a chance to catch our breath a bit, chill-out and get our minds ready to absorb some more of these beats & rhymes to come. “Uncle Tom” has an excellent Electro-Jazz deal of its own goin’ on…and quite honestly, always ended up being a track I sincerely looked forward to hearing each time it came around. I think the melody is strong, unique, & memorable – it’s as bright as what you’ll find on “Better Man” in some ways, but with this track being completely without words, that’s the moment where you want a sound like this to take the starring role.
Not sure who’s taking the lead on “Footprints,” but she does a tremendous job on this melody, summoning her strength as the song plays on and going from smooth tones to bold notes throughout this song. The notes I’ve got here mentioned Daniel Lemo being featured here…and the ability to morph the vocals even more than I thought to be capable of – I thought we had someone else entirely here in comparison to the vocals we hear on “I See You” earlier or “Believe” to follow, which also features Lemo. Bottom line is, Daniel does a great job and really has some excellent moments throughout this song where there’s seriously giant notes to be taken on, and Lemo takes them all on confidently. I’ve long forgotten most of the teachings of the religious background I was raised with aside from the essential core values of human decency, politeness, & respect for others…but I think it’s also pretty safe to say that most people out there have had a run-in or two with the infamous passage of “Footsteps” which inspires the lyrics & direction of this song. If you’re out there shopping at Christmas time or ever spent time in a photo or greeting card store, you’ve likely read the passage just in passing if you’re not already wholly familiar with it. It’s classic, it’s timeless, it’s beautifully written and a highly expressive & meaningful message…and I think if you’re at all familiar with it, you’ll likely get just that much more out of this song at the end of the day. And if you’re not familiar with it…well…tell me how exactly that’s a thing, and like, possible – everyone knows “Footsteps” don’t they? I think the vocals in the verse of this cut were probably my favorite part – I like the more delicate atmosphere of the music as well…I think the biggest moments still fit the song really well, but for me it was the more intimate and isolated moments that hit the mark most often. On “Believe,” Daniel dives deeper into a more theatrical & dramatic style of tune…dig the darker-style of sound on this track and the atmosphere it provides – yet ANOTHER different kind of vibe that you’ll find on Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith – there’s definitely no shortage of versatility on this record, that’s for sure. Clever pacing with curious and mysterious sounds, combined and brilliant vocals from Daniel – “Believe” really ends up being quite the captivating tune where it feels like you’ve really gone right into the atmosphere & depths of this song…like it takes you right out of your own world and into the realm of Benny Charles.
At the beginning of three bonus tracks before the end – “Pastime Paradise” brought a smile to my face. Talk about a cover tune! I think you kinda gotta admire just how well this works here. If nothing else, I think it’s an extremely clever idea to have tried this – but I think the strings/bass combo and Frannie El’s consistently solid vocals really make this track a worthy venture. When the choir vocals and background vocals come in over the final two-minutes or so, I felt like things got even more interesting and amazing to listen to…”Pastime Paradise” really surrounds you in sound at all times. Smart use of ambience and the beginning & end of the song – and the incredible tone on the bass-lines was phenomenal…every time this cut came on I found myself addicted to listening to the rich sounds of the bass & how well they complement & lead this whole vibe.
As a bonus cut, I can accept “Hallelujah” being on this record. Because Olivia Cipriani has a beautifully bold voice, I can accept “Hallelujah” being on this record. With the music being different enough from the original, I can accept “Hallelujah” being on this record. On the strength of the amazing songwriting of this cover-tune alone…don’t get me wrong, on some level, I’ve always got time for this song in any of its forms. But as for the rest of me, I’m pretty much in the ‘like c’mon’ crowd…because as much as I can appreciate this version as I do many of the millions of others – that’s exactly what works against this and likely why I’d assume it doesn’t make the official final lineup on the album. Including “Hallelujah” is nearly the most anticipated move you could possibly imagine to find on a faith-based record in any genre…and the last thing that Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith has been at any point along the way has been typical…so I’ll admit, it was strange to find this here. It’s an incredibly tough song to sing, especially when presented in what’s almost a cello & drum-led version of the song as it is here…I felt like Olivia does what she can with it and represents herself strongly on the mic – but at the end of the day, I think the right call was made by having this appear as a bonus track on the record.
Or even as a separate single to help hype the record…bundle these bonus cuts up and put out an EP a month before the album comes out! Ain’t nothing wrong with doing that Benny. It’ll keep great ideas like “Don’t Forget About Me” from being worn out too quickly…which can happen quite easily over time when a cut appears twice on a record like this one does. I think the mix of this particular version comes out a bit stronger…I still think those bright hi-hat bursts come through with too much power at times – but I like the ‘Hip-Hop Mix’ and the extra flash that this version comes along with. The rap is solid and vibrantly rhythmic – you can hear the spirit and LIFE in these bars…the passion is there…and I really dig the commitment in the performance when it comes to the rhymes on “Don’t Forget About Me (Hip-Hop Mix).” Combined with those insatiably cool & hypnotic hooks from Esraelia Mack on the mic, you undeniably get MORE of a great thing on this second version of “Don’t Forget About Me” – there’s risk in having any song appear twice as we all know, but I felt like this version was probably the stronger of the two and does end up furthering the journey of this song with the additional two minutes in length.
And if I’m being REAL honest with ya…as I always am…I gotta say – the “Intro (The Beginning)” and “Outro (I’m Coming)” – these both go so much further beyond the average intros/outros that you’ll find on a record – these ended up being some huge highlights on this album where they collectively really spell out what the main messages of the subjects & themes of this record really are. But the combination of clever samples (This one actually sounds like it comes from “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” by Aerosmith unless I’m crazy) and spoken-word is absolutely awesome to listen to on “Outro (I’m Coming).” Incredible social-insight being provided on this final track as well…I’m massively impressed by just how many relevant references are included and the points being made – it makes an incredible impact and thought-provoking finale to Rhythm, Blues, & Gospel – A Story Of Love, Hope, & Faith. What a unique experience! Definitely a ride worth taking and a ton of ideas to be found here, stunning guest stars, singers, sounds and much, much more…it’s not typical, it’s not what you’d expect – and all that adds up to a memorable experience worth repeating.
Find out more about Benny Charles from his official page at: http://www.bennycharles.com
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