Peter CottonTale's 'CATCH' is a Study of Chicago's Gospel Influence with a Twist
Evan Dale // May 5, 2020
The auditory aesthetic of gospel is rooted in Chicago summers. There’s an inseparable dynamic between the two things. Whether it’s organ driven beat, choir backups, or gospel-adjacent thematic exploration, soul and hip-hop artists from Jackie Wilson and Donny Hathaway to Common and Kanye, Chance and BJ the Chicago Kid, have drawn much of their sounds from the plentiful soundscape that is gospel music in the Chi.
And though there hasn’t been a classic Chicago project by any of the mainstream’s most popular names this year, there is one so drenched in gospel light and tethered end to end by such an impossible group of collaborative vocalists and rappers, that its underlying protagonist is one who has long suffered from relative namelessness in the presence of his famous frontmen and frontwomen peers.
Peter CottonTale – keyboardist for The Social Experiment, producer to some of Chicago’s most sought-after names, and modern composer for the transcendent grey area between hip-hop, soul, R&B, and gospel – is the only modern instrumentalist and producer that could pull together the list of names and stylistically indefinable range of that of his April album, CATCH. And that’s because his sound is so born of the gospel directionalism that many of his peers drew their original musical explorations from; the gospel directionalism that few of the artists have had the chance at exploring since their careers really got going.
When the super-collaboration that is Forever Always came to fruition in the late Spring of 2018, featuring the likes of Madison Ryann Ward, Chance the Rapper, Yebba, Rex Orange County, and Daniel Caesar, there could have never been a hope that an eventual album boasting of the same insane lineup and even more importantly, breathing of the same explosively anthemic emotional expanse, could have been possible. The track – for those who haven’t heard – is a three-and-a-half confluence of so many talented vocalists and rappers with such varying stylistic approaches that it’s entirety unfolds like the layers of a church choir, while still built on the kind of genius production that allows a veil of simplicity to make it accessible to listeners of all shapes, sizes, and musical tastes. Aside from a particularly retro poetic verse from an especially summery Chance the Rapper, each vocalist plays a role in the choral progressions that weave in and out of instrumentation and production of the same layered, complex cloth. By the time it’s over, a listener feels washed in the effervescent holy water of spiritual awakening and positivity, only to realize that it was hip-hop and soul with the baseline of gospel that made it all possible.
And though the rest of CATCH undeniably adheres more closely to the religious tenets of gospel music and doesn’t shine quite as bright with the impossible spectrum of collaborators that Forever Always brought with it, CATCH as a whole is still for everyone and seemingly, too, features everyone.
More than church, CATCH as a wholistic project feels more like the drive to or from church – or to and from anywhere for that matter – where the only stipulation is that the windows are down, the sun is glaring, and the music, blaring. By those measures, the album moves past the constraints of a gospel soul might leave with some listeners, and moves it into the realm of sunshiny neo-soul and conscious Chicago-rooted hip-hop.
Musically – compositionally – CATCH is perfect. Thematically, the project pigeonholes itself. And for those involved in the project, those adhering to its course, or those willing to look past it for the sake of the music itself, that’s not a problem. Creating a gospel album without the gospel, after all, would be dishonest to its stylistic direction just as an R&B album with no mentions of relationships, intimacy, love, or sex would be short-sided.
It’s not to say the project is a product of pure, unadulterated gospel. Above all else, it’s an experimental, fluid exhibition of a musical lane’s many merging with others. And for those willing to get a deeper dive into the music that birthed so many of their favorite modern stylistic lanes, CATCH is a case-study of gospel music for the next generation, inspired by its roots, but equally inspired by hip-hop, nee-soul, instrumentation, and production of the now. For our two cents, after Forever Always, Don’t Leave is Peter CottonTale’s greatest display of balance between his many musical nuances, thriving as a to-this-point unexplored coalescence of modern gospel and its adjacent stylings. The track merges hip-hop, R&B, gospel; emotion, love, and hope in a downplayed, mellow anthem worthy of any summertime love playlist.
As a whole, CATCH is deserving of attention and Peter CottonTale worthy of praise for the role of shining a light on gospel’s influence on the Chicago soundscape and how its sound might continue evolving and continue influencing not only the direction’s of hip-hop, neo-soul, and R&B in the Chi, but throughout the world as a basis for raw emotion, choral inclusions, and ultimately, elated warm-weather music for all.
Because for us, and surely then for many willing to give it a listen regardless of orientations it may not align with, CATCH is a compilation of Summer anthems from a city that has long lived up to their reputation for releasing uplifting jams for their particularly hot summers.