Although she knew early on as a choir director that she could minister to believers through her gift of song, Tacoma, WA's Crystal Aikin never envisioned herself standing alongside certified gospel superstars on BET and hearing Kirk Franklin announce her name as the winner of the network's first ever "American Idol"-styled gospel competition, Sunday Best. After the gracious, bubbly emergency-room nurse won top honors, the real work began as she ironed out a label deal and sought the right songs and collaborators (Asaph Ward, Kim Burrell, Dorinda Clark-Cole, even Dre & Vidal) to convey the gifts that regaled her to her following to begin with. So, depending on who you ask, her self-titled debut either goes out of its way to provide a lil' somethin' for each spiritual phase, or it's a directionless collection of songs that showcase her powerhouse vocals, but little else.
What cannot be disputed, in either scenario, is the soaring strength of her voice: on each of the ten songs (ranging stylistically from contemporary gospel, modern R&B and even shades of jazz and Contemporary Christian Music) Ms. Aikin's soprano capably conveys the emotional core, whether its gratitude to the Lord for his never-ending grace ("What If"), a desire to recieve His spirit and wisdom over her earthly desires (the tremulous "I Deserve More") or the need to encapsulate the greatness of His son in order to teach better evangelize to the world (the Kirk Franklin-penned " A Song About Jesus"). Even casual fans of gospel will find it hard to ignore the conviction behind the galvinized tribute "He's So Worthy," an urban-flavored "Lord You Reign Forever" and the vulnerability threaded throughout "Turn To Him."
What may rub those who championed her the wrong way, however, is the lack of cohesion and/or identity established: during the competition, Ms. Akin unquestionably imprinted her style on each selection presented to her, but this time around, she seems to disappear behind them, which leads to moments of well-meaning monotony ("The Clouds," for example, and the droning, by-numbers duet with Natalie Grant, "Breathe On Me"). Recommended by virtue of her raw talent, Crystal Aikin's debut is enjoyable enough, but she'll need to assert more of that earlier exuberance and originality to maintain interest in her skills beyond it.
By Melody Charles