Kierra "KiKi" Sheard

I Owe You

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Prior to the release of I Owe You, the debut by urban gospel starlet Kierra "KiKi" Sheard, EMI Gospel went all-out to make sure the album fulfilled expectations. After all, the label had just won a bidding war to sign the teenaged songstress -- daughter of the Clark Sisters' Karen Clark-Sheard, granddaughter of church music matriarch Mattie Moss Clark. That's a lot of pedigree to live up to, so she was introduced with a bang: "You Don't Know," the stomping, Rodney Jerkins-produced first single, became a smash at gospel radio, spending several weeks at the top of the charts. The song turned out to be an interesting thesis statement for the whole of I Owe You, as it rolled into one its mishmash of styles and sensibilities -- particularly top-shelf urban pop and churchified contemporary gospel, plus a fair share of vocal acrobatics and dazzling, Clark-like harmonies. Outside of that song, I Owe You is much more conformist, breaking up into a number of parts but never quite reaching the neo-gospel, cross-generational ingenuity of its inaugural song. On the one hand, there's Sheard the urban gospel sister, a fiery, commanding vocalist who isn't afraid to get down like colleagues Mary Mary and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 in songs like "Closer" and "Let Go." On the other, there's Sheard the budding R&B diva, a delicate, smooth songbird with enough soul to sound every bit as Janet or Aaliyah. Lastly, there's Sheard the Clark, a potent, shrieking church soloist with a squall that can blow the roof off "Praise Offering" and "Done Did It." That I Owe You can be so easily compartmentalized is not necessarily a sign of versatility, but an indicator that KiKi is merely following the lead of others. This is not a big deal in the case of debut albums, but the see-if-it-sticks mentality is ultimately too jarring to take in all at once. It's nice of Sheard to let herself be all things to all people, but here's hoping the follow-up to I Owe You is truly more her, not who her handlers want her to be.

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