Review – Sean C. Johnson ‘Simply a Vessel Vol 3: Surrender All’
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Growing up in my house, every saturday was cleaning day. It was never a fun day, but there were some highlights, I must say. My mom knew that no one likes to clean, so she did what she could to make it not quite-so-awful. Every saturday I woke up to the smell of bacon and the sound of the Temptations blaring from our record player (you know what a record is, right?). After the Temptations, we would move on to some Jimmy Ruffin. Then Smokey Robinson. Then some Four Tops action. Around noon we would always finish the job with some Michael Jackson (pre “Dangerous”, of course).
It was a little while later that I was introduced to hip hop and my world was changed forever. My first Tupac cassette (you know what a cassette is, right?) was played into dust. ‘ATLiens’ was my mentor. ‘The Chronic’ was the go-to cassette when there was nothing on T.V. and no one to outside to play with. Still, I never lost my love for soul. Or classic rock, for that matter.
I got saved when I was eighteen. After a year or so I was introduced to some really good, Christ-exalting hip hop. The first time I heard ‘The Thesis’ by The Ambassador I was blown away. After a little bit of digging, I soon realized that there was a huge buffet of gospel saturated hip hop for me to feast on. Praise God. But something was lacking. I needed some soul. Casting Crowns, as much as I enjoy their music, just wasn’t cutting it. I heard about some cat named Tonex, but after a brief adventure into that corner of the musical world I was more discouraged than ever. I was referred to artist after artist who, to be honest, just didn’t have the sound I was looking for.
I’ve never really liked gospel music. I didn’t grow up in the church. I tried Marvin Winans. I tried to stomp with Kirk Franklin. Donnie McClurkin just didn’t resonate with me. I’m sorry, I know a lot of readers are probably getting a little loose in the collar by now, but I’m just being honest. I didn’t grow up in the church, and there always was, and still is, something about urban contemporary gospel that I just couldn’t / can’t get a flavor for. I just don’t like music that sounds churchy. That goes for Jars of Clay and the Newsboys, too.
Enter Sean C. Johnson. I first heard Sean’s stuff on accident. I was browsing through YouTube and accidentally clicked on a video of his called “Does Anybody”. I wasn’t overly impressed with the video, but the sound really grabbed me. I copped ‘Simply A Vessel: Vol 2.’ and, quite simply, I was blown away. I really enjoyed the soulful sound and smooth listen. It was obvious, though, that Sean still had some room for growth as an artist. Don’t we all. Enter ‘Simply A Vessel: Vol 3.’
It appears that Sean has really explored and perfected his unique style. SAV, Vol 3. is something of a smoothie, blending together the fruits of neo-soul, hip hop, gospel, and motown. Full disclosure: I love this album. I know music critics are supposed to be objective. We’re not supposed to say stuff like that. We’re supposed to lay out a collage of thoughts, all the while keeping our overall opinion to ourselves, letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions. Well, I’m not a music critic. I’m a nobody. This “review” is just my feeble attempt to think about an album “out loud”. You can listen in if you like. Let’s go.
The album kicks off strong with “Gonna Be”. No build up. No slow intro. You click play and the track drops. Sean brings a strong exhortation to his listeners: what’s it gonna be? Hot or cold? Sin or Jesus?This track sets the tone for the rest of the album in two ways.
You don’t have to guess what Sean is going to be talking about. Truth. Christ. Sin. Grace. Struggles. Pain. Justice.
2. You can feel the soulful sound as it explodes from your speakers and assaults your eardrums like a rail gun of rhythm. Cam comes along and adds some Kansas City spice. Dre Murray drops a quick eight bars, too. Perfect pick for this track. This isn’t the first time these two amazing artists have worked together. I’d be willing to bet it won’t be the last.
In comes “Surrender All”. It gives you a quick breather. It’s a chill track that let’s you decompress from all your head-bobbing induced neck tension from the track prior.
“Still Breathing” comes next. Sean lets us now that he views every day as an opportunity to grow in holiness. Amen.
A track or two later we have one of the heaviest hitters on the album: “MLMX”. The track kicks off with one of the sickest guitar samples I’ve ever heard. The kind that makes you feel like your about to experience strong emotions. The sample sets the mood and tone of the track. You hear the guitar, you know what’s comin’. Sean challenges us all with this one. Get off the couch. Go out into your neighborhood. It’s hard to proclaim the gospel to your community from your facebook page. Sean wants us all to know that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X aren’t coming back. Don’t sit around waiting for another man to lead a revolution against sin, poverty, injustice, and brokenness. Get up and do something. Christ has called every believer to the priesthood, not just a chosen few.
Now, I communicated with Sean about a personal concern of mine, so I feel it’s only appropriate to communicate it here as well. Young black men (specifically Christian): Malcolm X is no role model. He is not a man you should be imitating, nor calling other men to do the same. His worldview was fundamentally distorted. The theology of the Black Hebrew Israelites is dangerous, at best. Damning dangerous, otherwise. Just because a man is a powerful orator and a charismatic leader does not mean you ought to look at him in a positive light. I can think of another man, from the thirties, who had similar gifts, but I digress….
When I communicated this to Sean he said that he agreed. The fact is, many young men DO idolise Malcolm X. They think that he was a hero of the civil rights movement. They think his philosophy is robust and, quite mistakenly, that he was a positive peace of the puzzle in the civil rights movement. All Sean is saying in the song is this: You can’t wait for another hero. Christ calls YOU to act.
Right after “MLMX” we have “Sweeter”. A beautifully easy listen. This is the kinda track you put on when you really just want to meditate on the goodness of God. Sean let’s us know that not only does God provide bread, he provides new life in Christ. No dualism here. God is the God of our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs, namely, our need for a new heart.
“Dear Me” is up next, a more personal version of “Still Breathing”. Same message, different perspective, different sound.
“Stop and Think” is next on the roster. An overall smooth track. I really enjoyed “I Am Franklin” adding some old school sound to the neo-soul feel of the track. It really meshes well. It feels natural.
“Father I” is another track with an absolute monster of a sample. It makes me smile. That’s no little thing. Music is meant to be an experience. It should make you feel something. “Father I” is the kind of track that you can pray too. It can lead you into worship. Sean is talking about his weakness, how he can barely face the day in his own power. He needs the father to “hold him like a baby”. Doesn’t that resonate? Can’t you feel every syllable? I enjoy tracks about killing sin, but the triumphalism in those songs sometimes leaves me feeling disconnected. “Father I” connects with me in a deep way. I can identify with a song about feeling weak; a song about being desperate for the Father’s presence.
“Molasses” comes in for the kill. A refreshingly savory track.
I’m sure that I’m about to break the record for the longest review ever. Let me just add a few more things before closing:
Sean C. Johnson proves that you don’t need to be signed with a label to make a phenomenal album. This album is a classic…and he did it all on his own. This album proves that you can work with “unheard of” producers (at least in our little circle), and still make great music. Two of the producers: James Fulcher and Boonie Mayfield, really put in work. They made unique, soulful, current, and most importantly, beautiful instrumentals for Sean to work with. Live instrumentation. It’s good. We need more of it. Over half of the tracks have live instrumentation added. It makes a difference. Pay attention, gentlemen. If you want texture in your music, add live instrumentation. Sean deserves a round of applause for his unique approach. In a world full of auto-tune (yes, still), style-biters, and gimmicks overflowing, Sean has shown us all that you can make good, authentic music without taking the bait of mediocrity that surrounds us all.
Some of you might be saying “Man, this guy doesn’t have any critiques for the album…at all?” Well, there are some tracks that don’t “pop” like the others, but I can’t think of anything negative to say about this album. I think the truly dishonest thing to do would be for me to make up something so that I look “objective”. I call it how I see it. Maybe you see it differently. And that’s ok…someone has to be wrong. 🙂
1. Gonna Be (feat. Cam, Zack Gaddis, and Dre Murray)
2. Surrender All
3. Still Breathing
5. MLMX (feat. Apoc)
7. No Never
8. Dear Me (Letter To Self)
9. Stop And Think (feat. Adrianne Archie and I AM Franklin)
10. Father I
12. Pass Me Not
14. Bonus Track: Oatmeal & Spaghetti