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Not Your Grandma's Gospel

Young duo Mary Mary bridge the worlds of Mahalia and Whitney.

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From a musical genre once characterized by traditional call-and-response chants, low-sung hymns, and slow meters, gospel music has been transformed into music for the masses, aping the style of hip hop, pop, and R&B, genres that cater to a young audience. Following this impulse, contemporary gospel has evolved with more instrumentation, catchy choruses, and choreographed choirs. While the traditional format still has its place, contemporary gospel has grown into a formidable presence in the music industry.

While the contemporary field is littered with male performers, including the genre's poster performer, Kirk Franklin, female artists have been slow to the scene. Since its origins in the late '80s, women have been reluctant to abandon gospel's traditions for a more secular sound, waiting instead for the results of their male counterparts' efforts.

Tina and Erica Atkins, better known as the duo Mary Mary, used these influences to launch their own contemporary careers. Named for the biblical Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, the California natives and sisters secured their place in the industry with the release of their first album, Thankful, in 2000. "We listened to the Winans, Commissioned, and the Hawkins," Erica says. "I think when we came out we weren't trying to mimic anybody. We definitely had our own sound, but since we listened to these people growing up, there are some parts in our music that you'll hear from these people."

While Thankful became a platinum-selling debut, with the signature hit "Shackles," the sisters pushed forward, releasing their sophomore album, Incredible, in 2002. "We understand that you can't redo what's done, so we're not trying to compete with the first album," Erica says. "People want an extension of the same songs they enjoyed from the first album, but we realize that we have to use where God has us now."

"We did get a lot of awards [Thankful received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Gospel Album, two Dove awards, three Stellar awards, and a Soul Train Award], but we don't take it to the head. We're still Erica and Tina. We still try to impart the [same] things into our music as with the first time," Tina says. "You do realize that you have more listeners and that people are paying more attention, so you want to make sure that you give them something to listen to."

Incredible features 15 tracks, written mostly by the sisters and produced by Erica's husband, Warryn Campbell, who worked on the first album, along with Charlie and Kenny Bereal and R&B megaproducer Rodney Jerkins. The album was greeted with rave reviews and fans eager to hear touching lyrics over groovy beats. "I think the message in this album was God's awesomeness and that gospel music is a music to be reckoned with," Erica says. "It's contemporary. It grabs the ears of listeners today. It's a message of hope that everybody needs, not just those that call themselves Christians. If you're a hip-hop head, a country- or pop-music fan, whatever, there's something that you can enjoy in gospel music."

While radio deejays have been taken with the upbeat track "In the Morning," the remaining tracks offer a variety of styles and messages. "Smiled on Me" offers thanks for the blessings necessary to succeed in the difficult music business. "Trouble Ain't" evokes memories of Sam Cooke, while the Stevie Wonder sample in "You Will Know" stresses spiritual growth and self-empowerment. For more traditional gospel fans, the ladies do not disappoint, offering "Thank You" and "He Said."

"This album isn't as personal," Erica says. "On the first album, all we had was ourselves. Since then, we've traveled, met lots of people, and done a few things. Our perspective is on a different plane. You can see our growth vocally, lyrically, and even with production. Everything has been kicked up a notch."

Although the sisters have come a long way from their beginnings in their Inglewood, California, church, both frequently return and participate with the choir. "You never grow beyond who you are," Tina says. "You never get to the point where you don't do those things anymore. You're just at another level."

"There will always be a place for [traditional gospel music], but music grows and gospel is just growing with the times," Erica says.

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