Four record labels courted the versatile artist after his departure from Collision Records, according to his management, Tom Drawer. Three of those labels were mainstream.
When Gray announced his selection on June 20, he revealed the only Christian or gospel brand in the running.
Gray had signed with Fo Yo Soul Recordings, a Dallas-based joint venture between legendary gospel musician Kirk Franklin and RCA Records, a flagship label of Sony Music Entertainment.
Gray explained the choice to Rapzilla this week. Three motivations stood out.
1. Franklin treated Gray like a humanWhen Gray flew to Atlanta on April 28 to meet with Franklin and Ron Hill, the president of Fo Yo Soul, they acted more genuinely than had other label executives in meetings.
“Often we never even talk about me or who I am," Gray said. "It’s about the music and where prospective labels can take me, usually, or where they see me going. It’s just repetitive sometimes, and, to be honest, never really felt authentic.
“With Kirk, it just felt real. He wanted to know about me and my faith. He wanted to know my background. To me, it just made all the difference in the world. It was refreshing to have somebody want to actually know who I am as a person.”
Who Gray is as a person and his background also influenced his decision.
2. Gray wanted to maintain his gospel rootsGray’s father led a choir for years. His mother toured in a choir, the Golden Gospel Singers, for years. Christon’s roots are so deep in the genre, he referred to his home as a “gospel household.”
Doors opened this year that would have allowed him to leave gospel entirely for mainstream music, but Fo Yo Soul won him over with more than Franklin’s charismatic recruiting.
“I was presented with the question, ‘Do I want to leave Christian music, just to pursue the mainstream?’” Gray said. “My answer to that question was, ‘I’ve always wanted to expand in Christian music.’ But I know that the music I write has a mainstream appeal. I mean, the last album, School of Roses, was released as an R&B album.”
Who better to take notes from on how to expand in Christian music, Gray said, than a multi-platinum, nine-time Grammy Award-winner who has a show on BET and collaborated with Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Bono and Crystal Lewis on the same song?
“I just figured, for musical purposes and as far as my personal beliefs, it just seemed like there was nobody that got it quite like Kirk Franklin,” Gray said. “The clout he has in both the mainstream as well as in the gospel music community, it goes both ways. He’s like the king of crossover. Between him and maybe The Winans, that’s what you see the most as a successful crossover, so I want to stay within my roots, but then still be able to have a really dominant voice in both Christian music and mainstream. It was a no-brainer.”
Franklin also hopped on the phone with Rapzilla, and, without even being asked a question, the first statement he made about the signing paralleled Gray’s vision of bringing gospel to the mainstream.
“We just want to align ourselves with talent that we think still has a very current, relevant voice in the culture that can help us push this agenda,” Franklin said. “We want to make God famous, in terms of, him being on the lips of people’s mouths, and we think that Christon has that type of unique gift as an emcee, as a songwriter and as a singer who can be part of trying to make that conversation continue — even at a time of when the dialogue is harder to have.”
Fans of Gray's mixtape, Body Art, are not the only ones pleased to hear Franklin value him as an emcee.
3. Franklin embraced the hip hop in Gray
Franklin heard Gray for the first time singing on the hook of "What About Love," track No. 12 of Da' T.R.U.T.H.'s album Love, Hope, War. However, after being informed of Gray's free-agent status earlier this year by Fo Yo Soul's president, Franklin did his research and grew impressed with more than his singing ability, which did not dominate the conversation when they eventually met in Atlanta.
“One of the first things [Franklin] said to me musically was, ‘I really think you should rap more,’" Gray said. "I was like ‘Really?’ I didn’t expect to hear that from the king of gospel.”
Gray did not rap nearly as much on his debut retail album, School of Roses, as he did on Body Art, and it debuted on Billboard at No. 5 on the R&B Albums chart and No. 44 overall. This left fans wondering what Gray would create next, as well as if he would ever return to hip hop.
Here is their answer, which Franklin gave after being asked what he expects Gray to accomplish at Fo Yo Soul.
“I want to push Christon as an emcee," Franklin said. "He has the [talent] to sing, but, studying his former body of work and looking at him as a 360-artist, I think that Christon has a lot more potential than he realizes to be a really dope emcee because he really, really, really can rhyme. I really would love to see how we can creatively find some dope ways to be more inclusive of that.”
Franklin added that if there were a template established that reflects the versatile skill set that he wants Gray to display, it would be The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Fans of School of Roses-Christon Gray should not fear either, though. His next album, which he will aim to release this fall, he expects to be a "good blend."
"The more you find out about me, the more you realize it’s hard to just put me in a box," Gray said. "The authenticity of who I am as an artist, it takes time for it to unwrap itself. I’m waiting for the time in my career where I can just travel around and sing Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel covers, but then there’s a part of me who just wants to put on a backpack, go on the corner and spit. It’s difficult for people to really understand that until my brand is a little more solidified, and I think this next move will help nail that down.
Rapzilla: It’s kind of funny. Every single artist says, ‘Don’t put me in a box,’ but very few have all these elements where people actually have a hard time putting them in a box.
Christon Gray: Yeah, and I think for me, it’s a little difficult because I want my music to be in a box — it’s just different boxes at different times. If I come out with an album where track 1 and 2 I’ll rap, track 3 and 4 I’m singing, track 5 and 6 are jazz, the next two are classical and the next two are country, it’s going to sound like a bad visit to a radio station.
I understand I can’t do all of that at once, so I want people to almost eat it like different dishes at a restaurant. Right now, I’m giving you steak. Tomorrow, we’re going to do pasta. One day, they’ll understand, this is what this restaurant serves, and then we can kind of intermingle them and play with what that looks like. I know that’s not the best example in the world, but I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.
RZ: Yeah, definitely, so are you still trying to figure out what this restaurant serves?
CG: I think for me, that’s the beautiful part of working with a team. They’re invested in me, they see what I have, what’s current and, more importantly, what makes me me.
I’m not trying to be unique. I think everybody’s unique. When people say, ‘I want to be different,’ then that’s not the best goal in the world to have because you already are. I think original is probably more the word I’m looking for, and original takes time. Original means you have to prove yourself. Original means that people actually have to grasp it before it can go widespread. And I think original means that they’ll stick around and find out what else is a part of you.