Album Review: Mandisa, “What If We Were Real”

Contemporary Christian female solo artist Mandisa has released a third album, What If We Were Real, which has now found its way onto Philippine shores, courtesy of House of Praise, at Php495. What If We Were Real features the carrier single, Stronger, which is Mandisa’s first-ever solo #1 hit, peaking at #1 on Radio and Records’ MediaBase chart for three weeks running; to date, Stronger has run at #2 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart for six weeks now, I believe, unable to dislodge Casting Crowns’ Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me). The album debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Christian Albums chart as well.

What If We Were Real has earned Mandisa some of her best reviews yet, given the strong personal nature of the songs featured on this CD. Admittedly, True Beauty, Mandisa’s debut release, established her as a force to reckon with in Contemporary Christian music, and the sophomore release, Freedom, stamped her dominance in the genre. Both albums yielded hit singles: Only the World off the debut CD was a Top 10 hit and one of the biggest-selling Christian singles of that year; My Deliverer was an incredible single that also made the Top 10. Ballads He Is With You and God Speaking were also Christian AC hits; a third single off Freedom, Voice of a Savior, also made the Top 5 of the country’s Soft AC/Inspo chart, Mandisa’s best performance in that radio genre to date.

Mandisa has worked hard to create a unique R&B-pop feel that is unmatched by any other solo female vocalist in Contemporary Christian music today, and What If We Were Real achieves that kind of musical unity that she was developing with her debut CD and Freedom. With What If We Were Real, she comes fully into her own, and creates a noteworthy album that is musically cohesive, very, very encouraging, and ultimately her finest CD to date.

Which brings us to What If We Were Real. Mandisa puts herself completely into this CD, including songs that speak very openly about her personal struggles with weight and self-confidence, putting her own spin on these issues with grace and aplomb, thereby bridging the gap between herself and her listeners and enabling us to feel that we are not only in her shoes, but rather, she is in ours.

What If We Were Real kicks off with Stronger, her #1 single and one of the best tracks on the CD. An encouraging song about how God can use the difficult times to help make us, well, stronger, Stronger‘s melodic hook and singalong chorus – When the waves are taking you under, hold on just a little bit longer, you know that this is gonna make you stronger – makes it one of the most accessible Christian singles, not just for Mandisa, but for Christian music in general. The next song, What If We Were Real, was co-penned by Mandisa, and features a nice little hook in the chorus that will easily allow many to sing along with her as well.

These Days is probably my third-favorite song on this CD. Reminiscent of Francesca Battistelli’s This is the Stuff, These Days is a paean to the inconveniences that we all have to go through as we live life, and how these opportunities can bring us to rely on God more. The Truth About Me is Mandisa’s first ballad on What If We Were Real, and it is a lovely little thing, encouraging the listener to see himself or herself through God’s eyes. Say Goodbye follows, a haunting, piano-driven ballad that tells us to focus on the positive and “say goodbye” to the past and our old image of ourselves as we are made new in Christ.

I have to make a special note about Good Morning, Track #6. Mandisa collaborated before with featured rapper tobyMac in her first CD, True Beauty, and Love Somebody was a standout track from that debut release; prior to that, she featured prominently in tobyMac’s #2 single, the extremely anointed Lose My Soul, which also featured Contemporary Christian superstar Kirk Franklin. With this reunion, Good Morning easily becomes Mandisa’s most radio-friendly, accessible, catchy album track to date. An irresistible singalong hook, very current synth work, an encouraging message about how starting the day right, a catch uptempo beat, and, of course, tobyMac’s signature rap work, make Good Morning Mandisa’s most attractive single. Album reviews consistently identify Good Morning as the best track on the CD, and for Sparrow not to release Good Morning to AC radio would be criminal. CRIMINAL, I tell you!

I think any song would struggle coming in from Good Morning, but Waiting For Tomorrow holds its own, as Mandisa sings about procrastination and taking chances. Thank You Jesus, she sings, I can’t live my whole life wasting the grace that You’ve given, every day’s a day to start over, why am I waiting for tomorrow? The standout ballad of What If We Were Real, Just Cry, follows this, and it’s an absolute tear-jerker. Just Cry strikes me as the most likely second single from What If We Were Real, aside from album-closer Lifeline, and were it not for Good Morning, I would readily agree. Besides, Mandisa’s three solo Top 10s have all been up-tempo’s; why not release a second upbeat track if that’s what Christian radio wants to hear from Mandisa? (I can think of one reason: who would play Good Morning at night? lol)

Temporary Fills and Free suffer from their position on the album (it’s never easy being the penultimate track, just ask Only You from the debut CD), but they also hold their own. Temporary Fills‘ rock orientation gives Mandisa an opportunity to vamp in relatively unfamiliar rock territory, but I like in particular the chug-along pace and singalong quality of Free.

Lifeline closes What If We Were Real on a very fitting note. After all the encouragement, after all the victories – and recovery from the defeats – that life sends us, Lifeline returns Mandisa – and her listeners – to the source of it all. In Jesus, we have victory, and when we hold onto Jesus, we are secure and able to succeed. Lifeline could be used in your churches, and while it’s no Unrestrained, Mandisa’s finest worship ballad to date – it is still a lovely and appropriate way to end the CD.

What If We Were Real takes a leader through a journey that few artists dare to tread, and we all emerge unscathed and more grateful to He who makes all things possible. Get a copy of this CD, it is certainly worth your Php495, and be extremely blessed.

Standout tracks: Good Morning, Stronger, Just Cry, Lifeline

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