As I am writing about Joy Ike’s newest album, Bigger Than Your Box, my daughter is literally making a home out of a cardboard box on the carpet beside my chair. It is a house for our cat, Berdie. Before Sally Ann finishes spelling out “Welcome” in marker on the front, Berdie is already inside, purring.
We never outgrow the urge to build or inhabit such small spaces for security and comfort, and the older we get the more elaborate and invisible these constructions become. In Bigger Than Your Box Ike reminds us that these safe havens can be coffins for creativity, barriers to the very air we need to thrive, and we are at our best when we are able to break free of them.
In “You Betta’” Ike confronts her listener’s security box like the best kind of life coach. She’s not having it. Her challenge is backed by a whole choir of confronters, clapping their hands as if to wake us up, chanting together, “You betta’ step out that box. / You betta’ stand up and walk.” All together the songs on this album sound just like that, a long awaited burst of just anger and firey optimism grounded in the confidence that “your hope is coming.” If you are facing the iron grip of your own limitations, if change feels impossible, this is album is for you.
Yes, she is calling her audience to break through their boundaries, and she is perfectly willing to perform the example. Chris Slaten
One way she approaches this task is by playfully calling out some of her subjects on the habits that keep them in hiding. She almost seems amused by them. In “Give a Little” she wistfully pleads for a lover to reach out from living “lives so isolated,” joking “maybe we can trade anxieties.” Later in “Full” she calls out a more obnoxious subject for being so un-empathetic that they have “no room for anyone else.” Towards the end of the song the studio is invaded by a crowd crashing the one-band show inside. It ends with the laughter of a host of new friends. Instead of being spiteful, the message is an invitation: Being so self-focused is a lonely prison; instead, come join the party.
That’s not to say that every box is of our own making. Her latest video for “Hold On” focuses on facing the constraints beyond our control. You can even see her sister, Peace, for whom she wrote the song, pounding against the walls of her own body as she presses through physical therapy.
Ike’s passion pervades the record and in some ways seems to have freed her from her own musical boxes. Anyone who has seen Ike perform live knows she’s typically the most versatile and lively performer in the room, but this is the first of her recordings that comes close to taking the risks needed to capture what it is like to listen to her sit behind the piano, fully leaning into her stunning range of vocal textures. She moves deftly between sonorous growls, Nigerian whoops and howls, and more vulnerable moans and whispers; she manipulates notes like threads that can be strained and stretched; she punctuates her rhythmic piano style with percussive breathing and mimics her drummer’s cymbals by striking words like “else, else, else.” Yes, she is calling her audience to break through their boundaries, and she is fully willing to perform the example.
What is most compelling about her message is how she finds greater security in the One leading her out of her box and the saints that have gone ahead. She begins and ends the record with “Ever Stay” and “Assurance,” which both assume the only real way to step out is to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The best kind of assurance comes not from our homemade safety measures, but out of adventurous obedience in step with the One who is near, who not only frees us from our boxes, but like an “unassuming fire” has a knack for lovingly burning them down.
Given more time, I’d go into just how beautifully the band fully realizes the energy and joy of these songs, but you’ll just have to hear for yourself. Joy Ike’s music can be purchased from her website, iTunes, or Amazon.