LaShell Griffin may be the winner of Oprah's Pop Star Challenge, but her debut album, Free, shows that she's actually a gospel star waiting to happen. As the winner of Oprah's competition, Griffin definitely helped separate the contest from its inspiration, American Idol: after years of honing her skills in her church's gospel choir, she is a more seasoned and independent performer than the young singers that come out of American Idol's pop-star factory. Unfortunately, this isn't always reflected on Free. The album tries to blend contemporary R&B, middle-of-the-road pop, and gospel into something that will appeal to as many people as possible, and ends up short-changing Griffin's voice in the process. Most of the album consists of pretty, vaguely inspirational songs such as "Learn to Breathe," "Rise," and "He's Coming Again"; even though Griffin gives them all the passion she's got, they still sound meandering and somewhat tuneless. Anyone who saw or heard Griffin's performances on the Pop Star Challenge or its accompanying CD knows that she's a powerful performer when she's given good material, but too often on Free, she's let down by bland songwriting. But, while the album is a disappointment, it's not an outright disaster. Free top-loads its track listing, getting off to a strong start with "You Are Mine" -- a song that shows off the intimacy and power of Griffin's voice -- and the single "Free," the album's best fusion of smooth gospel and urban sounds. Not surprisingly, Griffin is the most engaged on the songs that sound the most personal, as well as the ones that play to her gospel strengths. "I Can Only Imagine" is one of the album's liveliest tracks and one of the most musically interesting, with a syncopated beat, strings, and keyboards giving it a unique pop sound. "This Is Who I Am" takes a similarly streamlined approach, allowing Griffin the breathing room to really show off the musical and emotional range of her voice. This song, and a few others on Free, attempt to reflect Griffin's roots as a stay-at-home mother of five from Detroit. The urban pop of "Get Away" celebrates her few moments of private time; it's pretty charming, even if the hip-hop-styled shoutouts to Oprah, the Harpo staff, and other behind-the-scenes players feel more than a little forced. "Faith" is a duet with Griffin's husband Lee (who also has an impressive voice that's both smooth and smoky) that is closest to her gospel roots and suggests how much more consistent Free would have been if it hadn't been diluted with weak songwriting. All in all, Free is a nice album, but Griffin has the ability to deliver a lot more. Although the Pop Star Challenge gave her the opportunity to make an album in the first place, she seems hampered by the confines of the contest. Griffin clearly has the voice and the "faith" to make a show-stopping gospel album; maybe she'll get to make that album later in her career, but Free isn't it.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares
feat: Lee Griffin