Generation Z’s favorite gospel singer, Zacardi Cortez, has dropped his third album and he aims for it to touch every generation. “There’s something for everyone,” he says. Imprint (Live in Memphis) (ZetRoc / Black Smoke Music Worldwide) is the Houston native’s most poignant, personal project yet and the first for his own ZetRoc label. “This record is all of who I am, in all the different styles and ways I love to worship and sing,” he continues. “It’s 100% my imprint.” The thirteen-track collection features guest performances from some of Cortez’s favorite singers such as Kim Burrell, Tim Rogers, and Lisa Knowles-Smith. All those sonic threads mesh to weave an engaging and riveting string of modern songs that reflect the passion of traditional black church music.
Anyone remotely familiar with black gospel radio over the last decade has heard Cortez’ incomparable voice that combines the grit of classic soul men like Bobby Womack and Eddie Levert with the cathartic power of the pulpit. That fascinating combination has hung over Cortez’s clouds of Billboard No. 1 gospel radio hits such as the retro anthem “Oh How I Love You,” the `80s throwback groove “YDIA, “ and the acoustic calm of “1 on 1,” which reigned at the top of the charts for five weeks in 2014. Deep fans first heard his hair-raising vocals on James Fortune & FIYA’s hits such as “The Blood,” “Let Your Power Fall,” and “I Believe” which spent nineteen weeks at the apex of the Billboard Gospel Airplay chart in 2011.
“Zacardi’s voice is his imprint,” says Black Smoke Music Worldwide founder Kerry Douglas who first discovered Cortez when he was just a teenager who loved to sing around H-Town churches. “His voice is leaving a mark on the music industry. When people hear it, they know instantly know who it is because no one sounds exactly like him. His God-given talent has left an undeniable stamp on gospel music.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to write or be this involved in a project,” Cortez says enthusiastically. “I wrote, co-wrote, or arranged everything on here to show that I’ve got something to say.” Alongside producers Morgan Turner and Marcus Caylen, he is saying a lot and he wanted to say it live. “Honestly, I think I’m much better live,” he laughs. “I like studio and all of that, but I love the live sound and the raw feel of the stage best. That’s where I’m really in my element.” It shows too. The set opens with the joyous up-tempo worship track, “You Deserve It,” which morphs into a rousing quartet stomper. He then shifts into the aggressive backbeat, “The Best,” where he channels the ferociously raspy roar of Otis Redding or James Brown working a chitlin circuit crowd back in the day.
Next up is, “Testimony,” a funky jam with a `70s swagger. “My family recorded that back in 2014 but we never put it out,” Cortez says. “That song is my favorite because of my history of doing it with them and just because of the message of it. It just stuck with me.”
A good many of the songs were born during Cortez’ brief jail stay back in 2018. He and one of his buddies were driving through a rural Native American area of Louisiana. His buddy, who was driving, had had a couple of drinks, and was driving erratically when they were pulled over by the police. “It’s just crazy,” Cortez remembers. “I wasn’t even driving, but I made some bad choices too. I got locked up in St. Tammany Parish and I had to stay there for ten days because it was too far for any of my family to come and bail me out. The second half of this album was done there because I had nothing to do but think, pray, and write songs. That’s when God lets you go idle, so you can do what you need to do.”
Cortez is doing what he needs to do to please his fan base. He has earned a reputation for his mastery of ballads and Imprint boasts some brilliant examples. On the quiet but intense “I Know He Will” he earnestly sings of God’s faithfulness, to the rhythm of Morgan Turner’s throbbing bass. “Work It Out for Me,” written by ASCAP Award winning tunesmith Travis Malloy, is a piano-centered rumination on God as a problem solver. Legendary vocalist Kim Burrell joins Cortez on “Anyway,” an eight-minute worship declaration that allows them to both showcase their Jazzy vocal gymnastics to the delight of the capacity audience at the historic New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis. From there, Cortez launches into the handclapper, “Steal My Joy,” a mid-tempo, congregational sing-along that finds keyboardist Sean `Synthsei’ Alexander displaying some of Ike Turner’s early 1970s psychedelic atmospherics.
Anyone who’s heard Cortez’ current Top Five radio single edit, “You’ve Been Good to Me,” are in for a surprise. There’s about five more minutes of it, full of gripping autobiographical testifying about depression and the trials of life, to round out the full length nine-minute album version. “Oh Thank You,” is a quartet vamp that finds Cortez squalling lines with quartet king, Tim Rogers, on a riveting story about Jesus healing the Ten Lepers. “Lord, Do It for Me,” is a bluesy plea for divine intervention that ends with an infectious praise team call and response.
The final live track is “You Don’t Know,” a fiery 1960s styled bop, that features powerhouse vocalist, Lisa Knowles Smith. “I always wanted to get Lisa on a track that would really take advantage of her gift and let her just drive the song,” Cortez adds. “I found this one and thought she would be perfect for it. I love the way it came out. I think we’re like the new Ike & Tina Turner on this one.” They clearly evoke the Turners’ heyday with their ferocious vocal workout. The album is rounded out with bonus studio cuts of Cortez’ two most recent No. 1 hits, “Oh How I Love You” and “You Don’t Know.”
“It was rough, and it was tough, “ Cortez laughs of completing Imprint, “I learned a lot of things, but I got it done. Also, I’ve got the best team. Kerry Douglas and Black Smoke are on top of everything. Nicole Heyward and the whole Creative Classic team are doing great things. I’ve got so many other people around me who are really helping me and pushing me to the next level.”
As a testament to his next level popularity, Cortez has also been showing up on the recordings of other artists such as John P. Kee, and Kirk Franklin. Grammy® winner PJ Morton pulled him in for “So in Love” from his, Gospel According to PJ, album and for his all-star cypher, “The Better Benediction,” from his current set, Watch the Sun. “That’s my brother,” Cortez says. “I’ve been knowing PJ since probably 2007. His dad, Bishop Morton booked me and gave me my first real concert check for $1,500, so I’ll never forget that. But PJ has always pushed me, and he always brings out the other side of me vocally. We’ve done some other songs that people don’t know about because they’ve never been released.” In the meantime, the father of two is hard at work on putting his imprint on his own recordings and just living life. “I’m the life of the party,” he jokes. “When I come, you got to wake up because you’re gonna have some fun.”