Disclaimer: All views presented in this Album Review are those of the reviewer and not of DJ Wade-O
If you wanted soul with a message, since 2005, one of the only voices within the Urban Gospel/CHH arena, that filled this category, was Sean C. Johnson. The marriage of his smooth vocals and mellow tracks made his style of music an instant classic. Since his debut on the scene, his unique style has been appreciated, and he has been sought after for collaboration from a plethora of artists.
Much of the inspiration for his releases are from his own life experiences. One that comes to mind is a song called “Thirty(30)”, off of his Grateful EP. The project told the story of his struggles with pornography growing up. But many artists who are creative desire more – even from themselves. So how would Sean’s new album Circa 1993 be a transformational project in his artistic career?
For anyone who has heard some of Sean’s previous work, we can agree that there has always been glimpses of the past that made Sean who he is today. But as I try to recall, we’ve never gotten a complete story from Sean to get the full picture of his past. From the title alone, we know that 1993 was a very important year in the forming of Sean’s life. The songs give us understanding as to what makes this year important as well. In an episode of Testimony: A Musician’s Story, he highlights that there are four incidents that occurred in 1993, that influenced the album.
His work tells stories about his own life, but the formation is more abstract in the telling of the story. Each song is a time capsule of its own from Sean’s past. The albums starts off with “Mountains”, a soulful take on the classic song “Rough Side of the Mountain” by Rev. F. C. Barnes. The next track is a reference to the west coast Gangsta rap of the 90’s in “Nothing but a ‘G’ thang.” Then, the song right after that is a homage to Kirk Franklin’s “Melodies From Heaven.”
Now if you are listening for the first time, you could miss the relevance of the song order, because you’re vibing along with the music. But the order of songs is the key to the overall story being told. From the beginning to the end, we get a view of Sean’s growth as a man, an artist, and as a Christian. From growing up in the church to being introduced to West Coast rap, to hearing the new wave of Gospel music that was growing, to giving his life to Christ at the age of 11 – each song is a step of progression in the story of Sean’s life.
As his relationship grew with the Lord, Sean had to come to grips with his own struggle with pornography and he had to struggle with the concept of grace in the midst of it. This makes for some huge records on this project that deals with the internal pull of faith vs current reality. “Redemption Song” featuring Armond Wakeup and Adam L, “Mirrors”, and “Knew Him” are really nice tracks that address the moment of frailty that every blood-washed believer comes to. Their sinful flesh becomes unbearable and they’re faced with the massive amount of God’s love that overwhelms them.
Topping all of that, 1993 had another very significant event happen in Sean’s life. It’s the same year that his mother passed away. Having to deal with such a difficult event, on top of realizing your own frailty, this would leave a mark on anyone’s life. That is why 1993 is such a poignant year for Sean C. Johnson. It all wraps up with “Final Frontier”, as Sean accepts his calling, fights through the storms of all the struggles he has experienced, and steps forth on faith to live a true Christian life.
This album is such a smooth and easy listen. All of the tracks are so fluent because of the overall soul influence. It’s not your typical neo-soul either, as it strays from the normal slow drag of that sound, to incorporate musical influences from Hip Hop and R&B respectively. This creates a fun mix of sounds in many of the tracks.
Sean always great with the harmonies he fills his tracks with, so there is nothing new there. But there are a few tracks that had some production that was different. As an artist, you get a real vision of the type of growth Sean was trying to accomplish. “Final Frontier” has a beat that flips the tempo up a bit, and once you catch it, you hear the fusion of hip hop and soul. The same thing happens on the track “Mirrors.” This track brings in 808s and the rarely heard rap skills of Sean on the verses.
“Magic and Kareem”, which sounds like an homage to the state of CHH/the body of Christ, has bars from Sean as well. Not saying he’s the greatest lyricist in the world, but you will be surprised when you hear him flow. The surprise of the album has to be the re-imagined version of “No-Flex Zone.” He turned something completely “ratchet” into something you could listen to over and over again. Sean flips the usage of “no-flex” to describe some personal life situations he has had. I also enjoyed “Melodies From Heaven”, as Sean included the actual sample of Kirk Franklin’s original song.
In Circa 1993, we get a full glimpse of the backstory that Sean C. Johnson has only told us in part, until now. And since Sean went deeper into his past to described what happened to make him who he is, this allowed him to grow as an artist like he has desired. In order to move forward, he took a few steps back and took a good look at himself in the “mirror,” – a process I myself can attest to. This isn’t Sean C. Johnson reinventing the wheel though. If you have liked Sean in the past, you’re going to like him now. He has always made great music with a foundation of soul and truth, topped off with creative melodies.