Christon Gray, after some sucess the previous year, fully entered the public eye after the release of “Church Clothes,” an album released by Lecrae in 2012 on which his vocal talent was featured. The album was a huge hit in the Christian hip-hop genre, but it was also known for allusions to controversial topics such as corruption within the Catholic Church. But it was with the release of his own album “Even With Evil With Me” in 2011, which draws on several musical influences including rap, gospel, R&B and jazz, that he first gained recognition. Now, Gray is back to try and confirm his place in the music world with the release of his new album.
“School of Roses” continues the trend of borrowing from several genres. The album demonstrates Gray’s incredible range, his vocal abilities and his rapping skill. More impressively, Gray shows off his musical talent without succumbing to the all-too-common pitfall of many other rap artists: becoming vitriolic and abrasive in his lyrics. Unfortunately, the impressive vocal stylings on the album are not enough to elevate it from the pool of average rap or R&B albums released every year. Frankly, “School of Roses” sounds remarkably similar to something we’ve all heard a lot of recently, Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience,” but sadly it comes in as a second-tier version.
First, “School of Roses” covers the same mix of genres as Timberlake’s last album. It follows so closely on the heels of “The 20/20 Experience” that there is no room for both albums. Gray is a truly impressive vocalist, but he utilizes his range in mostly the same way as Timberlake. They both tend to start off slowly with a falsetto as they beg they girl they’ve lost to come back. They both often use short, clipped phrases and both tend to be a bit repetitive in some of their lyrics. In short, “School of Roses” attempts to be the next “The 20/20 Experience” but falls short because of Timberlake’s range of songs. It’s not just that Timberlake’s album was released first, it’s that he includes something from every genre of music — even a country song in “Drink You Away” — while Gray fails to take the leap to the next level, making his album is comparatively safe and boring.
“Moving On” is the song that sounds the most like it came off of a Timberlake album. It has the staccato vocals, the music that echoes the rhythm of those lyrics and some rap thrown in. The song has the same subject as a lot of other songs of the same genre — resilience — but it lacks the stylish flair of Timberlake, the earnestness of Macklemore or even the passion that Eminem delivers.
“Convenient,” a track featuring Wes Pendleton, is just confusing. Gray’s vocals and rapping take on the rough texture offered by Wiz Khalifa, and Gray starts to lose a bit of the positive image that Christian music is known for. There’s even a reference to “No Church in the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay-Z compilation from “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack that makes little sense in context. It seems lost in the album.
There are a few bright spots on the otherwise perfectly average album. The first is “Roses 101 – After All” with its melodic opening, the infusion of some a cappella singing and some great piano. The song is original, even though it’s about a lovelorn man, and its anthem-like quality could really get anyone to sing along. “Windchaser” is another gem. It opens with an angelic-sounding chorus and a dub-step-like beat, but somehow it works. In a way, it’s reminiscent of some of Jason Derulo’s music, but it maintains a sense of uniqueness. The last of the bright spots is “Vanish (feat. Swoope).” Combining some ballad-like qualities with clever lyrics and easily understood rapping, “Vanish” makes the audience wonder why Gray didn’t put a few more ballad-like tracks on the album, as it’s where his skills seem to lie.
“School of Roses” is an average album. It has a few flops and a few gems. Gray clearly has impressive vocal skill, and it’s a shame that he doesn’t show it off to the best of his ability with more ballad tracks. For fans of Justin Timberlake and Jason Derulo, this album will sound a bit familiar. But if you’re looking for some clean, R&B-style music, “School of Roses” is for you.