Marvin Sapp Talks New Album ‘Close’ and Recording an R. Kelly Track: “The Message Is Always Bigger Than the Messenger”

Christian Lantry/Courtesy RCA Inspiration
Marvin Sapp

As gospel star Marvin Sapp begins the promotional push for Close, his 11th solo album arriving this week (Sept. 29), he already has another hit on his hands. Currently No. 13 on Hot Gospel Songs, the title track is poised to become the 22-time Stellar Award-winning singer/songwriter’s 10th top 10 on that chart. The song is also the chief inspiration behind Sapp’s new album.

“It was the first song I heard for my new album and the first song I recorded,” recalls Sapp, who broke through in 2007 with the mega-hit “Never Would Have Made It” (which spent a record 46 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Gospel Songs in 2007-2008). Sapp was ministering at a high school in a small town outside of Valdosta, Georgia when a young man named Solomon Edwards stood up and began singing a song he’d written called “Close.”

“Immediately something in me said ‘You have to record this song, because he’s literally singing your life,’” says the affable Sapp. “And other people need to hear this because he’s also singing everybody’s life.” Check out the “Close” lyric video:

For Sapp, it was extremely personal. After losing his wife of 20 years, MaLinda Sapp, to cancer, as well as his father and two close friends, he found himself raising three children, then 11, 13 and 16, on his own. He shared the difficult journey on TV One’s popular Unsung series this summer.

“I’m still a very private person,” says Sapp, who initially didn’t want to do the show. “When I saw the episode for the first time, I cried. It was a transformative moment; a chance to reflect on all the things that you’ve come through to get where you are. Many people have watched it and told me how much it has encouraged them. So the ministry moment was worth it.”

With “Close” as the jump-off point, Sapp and longtime collaborators Aaron Lindsey and Myron Butler sat down to craft songs to help encourage and uplift listeners facing life challenges. Beyond “Close,” the 10-track project features additional standouts such as “Carried Me” (“It speaks of when I was in my worst place,” says Sapp) plus first-time collaborations with Kirk Franklin, who wrote the powerful “Kind God,” and Erica Campbell, who guests on the Rodney Jerkins-produced “You and Me Together.”

“We all go through stuff,” says Sapp, who now helms Lighthouse Full Life Centers in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Muskegon, Michigan. “However, it’s not about how we react to it, but how we respond to it.”

Which Sapp will no doubt keep in mind as his promotional tour gets underway. That’s because one track in particular is sure to spark some controversial discussion: The compelling ballad “Listen,” written and produced by R. Kelly. Sapp was told about the song by one of his longtime musicians, who also plays for Kelly — a Sapp fan who has performed “Never Would Have Made It” during his concerts.

“What really caught me,” says Sapp, “were the first four lines: ‘You tried your way/ It didn’t work/ You put Him second/ And you put yourself first.’ Even though God may not speak audibly, if we really pay attention we can hear that God is trying to tell us something in the midst of the challenges we face.” Have a “Listen” to the song below:

The song, which briefly features Kelly’s voice at the beginning, was recorded before allegations about the singer’s involvement in underage sex and physical abuse were recently revealed. Asked if he felt any concern or pressure about leaving the song on the album, Sapp says, “The album was completely done. My attorney, myself, and the record company did talk about possibly pulling it. Then I prayed about it. I later told the label that I’m crazy enough to believe that the message is always bigger than the messenger. I’m singing a song specifically designed to motivate, encourage and challenge people to listen to and for the voice of God.”

Calling Kelly a gifted songwriter and producer, Phil Thornton, senior VP/GM for Verity and RCA Inspiration, additionally notes that “Marvin’s voice amplifies the heart of the song in a way that only he can. We believe the message of ‘Listen’ will impact people in a positive way and because of that it needed to be on this album.”

As for possible fallout from fans, Sapp notes, “I’m hoping that people understand my heart. Whether the allegations are true or false, my responsibility as a pastor and teacher is to pray for everybody who find themselves in bad situations and good situations. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m not supposed to condemn. That’ s not my job.”

In a statement emailed to Billboard by his representative, Kelly says, “I wrote ‘Listen’ because I honestly feel like God is trying to tell the world something. And there’s no other voice that could deliver that message from God but Marvin Sapp.”

And has Sapp, who met Kelly years ago, reached out to the embattled artist since deciding to keep the song on Close? “No, I didn’t do that,” says Sapp. “I don’t think it’s necessary for me to do that. He’ll hear it on the radio.”

SOURCE: Billboard – Gail Mitchell