Life Changing

by: Smokie Norful

With only two albums, Smokie Norful achieved what normally takes contemporary gospel hopefuls a lifetime to attain: acclaim, accolades, and album sales numbering in the millions -- not bad for a former school teacher and now pastor in the Chicago suburbs. Life Changing, Norful's third full-length, further attests that he was born to do this: everything comes to him so effortlessly, so naturally, you'd think this is the work of a veteran. A cornucopia of producers and styles are represented throughout the album, but Norful manages to keep both in check, never letting things get out of hand or out of sync with his vision for elegance in his brand of neo-classicist contemporary gospel. Even the album's most celebratory, rhythmic moments are tempered with a dose of chic and sophistication, like the joyous "Great & Mighty," a romp whose understated choral and orchestral elements give the otherwise beach-ready groove an air of grace and style that's simply breathtaking. Of course, part of this worshipful charm stems from Norful's pastoral heart, which, when coupled with his soulful tendencies, only heightens his sensitivity toward the more corporate material -- the songs that are chiefly intended for a church audience, like the Sunday-morning praise of "Celebrate" or the convocational "Right Now." When not leading the choir, Norful sits at the piano and turns into a consummate soulster -- John Legend who? -- absolutely killing a rewrite of the Whitney Houston hit "Run to You" and the showstopper, the self-penned quiet storm ballad "Run Til I Finish." It's Life Changing's fluency to transition from the pulpit to the nightclub -- figuratively, at least -- that explains how Norful has, in such a short time, managed to outclass other newcomers, putting him on the same wavelength, artistically and otherwise, as more seasoned mainstays in gospel, R&B, and beyond. ~ Andree Farias

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