Kim Burrell: The Vocal Influence Of R&B


“All of us as recording artists share the same goal …to make it to heaven, and to help others to get there as well.”

Music posses a medicinal, transcendental quality devoid of socio-economic or cultural standing. In doubt, one would only have to hear a synonymous velvety jazz run from eminent gospel musician, Kim Burrell. A name that may not ring familiar in non secular circles, patently her influence has affixed the gap between secular and mainstream musicians. Whitney Houston to Chaka Khan, Beyonce to Missy Elliott, Burrell’s vocal ingenuity has frequently placed her listed amongst the musical elites’ biggest influences. Your favorite singer’s favorite singer.

Musical savant and Houston native, Burrell began her career at an early age, singing her first solo in church, ‘The Hallelujah Praise’ by Andrae Crouch. She was all of one years old. Daughter of minister parents, Burrell stayed true to her gospel roots, performing with youth choirs until ultimately releasing her first independent album, Try Me Again, on the Texas-based boutique label Pearl Records in 1995. This album generated buzz establishing the catalyst to signing with Tommy Boy Gospel in 1998 to release her now classic Everlasting Life album.

Let’s be clear- I’m no gospel aficionado. My fondest gospel memory is watching Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount sing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in Sister Act II. With utter candor, I have only been to church once in the past eight years. However, anyone who is audibly capable can appreciate what Kim Burrell has done here. Not your grandmother’s gospel, Burrell has redefined the way Sunday feels.

With chilling vibrato paired with hearty tone and texture Burrell is fondly referred to as this generation’s Ella Fitzgerald. Effortlessly rising to such a comparison, Burrell embraces a contemporary jazz composition and melodic harmonies. Noting that she never intended to “sound jazzy or any of that.” According to her, she was influenced by “the notes that I heard that God would give me.” Legendary singer Chaka Khan deemed Kim, “One of the most interesting voices I’ve heard in a long while.”

Nestled in bed, blanketed in goosebumps, with my right hand swaying with the proverbial congregation, Burrell took me to church this Friday morning. With effectual power, I watched as she sang with such fervor in her tribute “I Believe In You And Me” to Whitney Houston that I was brought to tears. So honest, so pure. Moments like those epitomize the power of music. Sound that can not be compartmentalized to a genre exclusively for the religiously inclined, she sings songs for the soul.

“People have listened to my music for many years, gospel music lovers especially, and they had to ‘adjust,’ so to speak, so that they could consider what was coming out of me as Gospel,” Kim explains.

A preeminent voice, Pastor Burrell is not only endowed with the gift of vocal benevolence in song, but also in sermon. The restorative quality of her words are transparent in her close relationship with the late Whitney Houston. Early in her career, Beyoncé discussed the impact of gospel in her sound, “It is the most beautiful music I think there is…gospel music is able to touch you and touch emotions that words can’t touch…”.  Knowles credits former bandmate, Michelle Williams, to introducing her to her now favorite singer. After expressing an interest in gospel music, pop singer Nelly Furtado purchased Burrell’s Everlasting Life also on recommendation from Williams. Saint Heron’s own Kelela cited Burrell in her recent interview as a vocal aspiration. Pop star, Jessica Simpson, and soul songstress, Faith Evans, also ascribe being heavily influenced by Burrell’s work. The list goes on.

Stepping outside of the expected, Kim made a guest appearance on the all-star gospel track Missy Elliott produced, “Higher Ground”, which first appeared as a bonus track on Missy’s album Miss E…So AddictiveIn 2004, Burrell made an unlikely guest turn along with Kelly Price on R.Kelly’s “3-Way Phone Call”. These collaborations cement the cross-genre impact Kim holds firm in music today.

Above all, anyone who hears the intrinsic gift Kim Burrell bestows upon her listeners will be positively impacted. She evokes my own nostalgic feelings of when, black patent leather Mary Jane’s in tow, I too felt the power of song – God’s song – at an early age going to church with my  great aunt. Humbled, I nearly felt handicapped delving into a genre, admittedly, I was scared to touch, intimidated to write about. Sonically, Kim Burrell found me in the midst of research and rough drafts that lead me to a whole-hearted appreciation for a realm of music I judiciously so often overlook. One voice speaking for many, from pop icons to little girls nestled in the front pew, we thank you.


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