By Roger Gelwicks, JesusFreakHideout.com
It was a bold move for dc Talk to go their separate ways all those years ago, but it was one that thrusted three prolific side projects into the spotlight: Kevin Max found success with his unique indie alternative pop sound, and Michael Tait's self-titled band made it with two winning albums before the singer eventually took on the vocal duties for the Newsboys last year. However, perhaps the most rewarding and successful of the projects is that of the long-time producer of dc Talk's work Toby McKeehan, better known as TobyMac. His subsequent work has made a giant spread in the musical sphere, covering genres from R&B and funk to rock and hip hop, and then some. Now back with his fourth studio album, Tonight delivers tried-and-true, signature rhythms that don't offer too many surprises, but are nonetheless rewarding with each and every listen.
Toby consistently offers up the goods from beginning to end with each album, pushing the proverbial envelope in succession, and Tonight is no exception to this rule. This fourth outing is more or less a direct sequel to Portable Sounds, so the same musical philosophy is applied as a result. The driving and catchy opener "Tonight" starts things off right with featured guest vocals from John Cooper of Skillet fame, and it makes a great vocal pairing. The energy continues with "ShowStopper," Tonight's equivalent to Welcome To Diverse City's "The Slam" or
Portable Sounds's "Boomin'." But the album highlight, however, is undeniably "Hey Devil," which touts a previously-unexplored area for Toby: 80's alt-pop. It captures the struggles of a sinner with Satan's temptations quite accurately, giving the track an engaging message with an entrancing beat ("Shuffled down the boulevard, cut me like a deck of cards, I thought you had me, You thought that you had me, but hey devil, go on, get your junk outta here, I don't need you"). "Hold On" and "Captured" are more thoughtful, slower tracks to balance things out, while "Wonderin'" is a great hybrid of two styles: charming piano-based beats by Relient K's Matt Theissen with raps by Toby interwoven. Lyrical themes range from the revelation of Christ's salvation granted to us ("Changed Forever") to perseverance to walk the path of Jesus ("Get Back Up") to fighting self-pity of past wrongs ("Start Somewhere"). It's a home run on the lyrical front like always, and substance is not sacrificed for musical style in old TobyMac fashion.
With an overall great record in tow, a few minor stumbling blocks have to be mentioned. "Funky Jesus Music" is another signature TobyMac funk-infused pop party-starter, which isn't inherently a bad thing; however, the whole song's theme is a little pretentious and unintentionally becomes tongue-in-cheek in its portrayal of a party scene ("Don't need to please when we got the proof/We be on our knees when we raise the roof/'cause we got the pumped up, mix up flavor/We got the funky Jesus blazer"). The closer "Break Open The Sky" (featuring recent gospel Grammy-winner Israel Houghton) isn't a horrible song, and the clever reference to the "Jesus Freak" reprise makes a fun "hidden track" bonus, but it's not quite on par with previous closers like "Lose My Soul" or the amazing "Atmosphere" remix (featuring the other two dc Talk members). Its reggae flavor is a little different for Toby, but Houghton's appearance isn't that interesting, and the track overall just lacks in real zeal. In TobyMac tradition, TruDog, the alter-ego of Toby's oldest son, Truett, makes another appearance here with his own spot, called "LoudNClear." Back almost ten years ago, when TruDog made his debut, it was a creative and clever idea to have the much younger Truett appear on a track to make a good contrast to the rest of Momentum. But with Truett now much older, the "cuteness effect" is just not there anymore. While Truett's younger brother Judah makes an appearance, the original idea has all but vanished, and with cringe-worthy lyrics thrown in ("Tru-Deezy, in two thousand-and-tweezy"), it'll inevitably become a track most will skip in repeat album listens.
It would be criminal to suggest that Tonight is a bad, or even a mediocre, album; however, this probably isn't Toby's greatest product. Momentum was a strong-willed rap/rock record back in 2001, and though it's admittedly now a little dated, it was a strong debut for a solo project. Welcome To Diverse City was even better than its predecessor, bringing things to almost a pure hip hop sound while still paying homage to his debut (it's still my favorite offering from Toby to this day), and Portable Sounds breathed a fresh pop style that never lacked in variety. Being that Tonight follows the formula of Portable Sounds; the radio-friendly pop sound has become the norm (especially with examples "City On Our Knees" and "Get Back Up"), and it would have been nice to see another evolution of Toby's sound. Essentially, this album covers all the bases in a nice manner, but at this point, we've heard some of this before. With every track, it's seemingly an equivalent to a previous TobyMac song, and when a solo act gets to this point, it's time to step back and observe the current direction and ask what needs to be maintained or thrown out.
TobyMac is already a legend of Christian music, and with every album he releases, he gains more and more hype and credibility. While the musical waters of Tonight are ones that we've all tread before, the astounding producing talents of Toby shine through like always, and his fourth album as a solo act should still be a widespread favorite by the year's end. All I can say is, TobyMac's still got it, and it's good to have him back and in good form as we've always known him.
Tonight (featuring John Cooper of Skillet) (4:20)
Get Back Up (3:14)
Funky Jesus Music (featuring Siti Monroe) (3:20)
City On Our Knees (4:27)
Changed Forever (featuring Nirva Ready) (3:36)
Hold On (4:00)
LoudNClear (TruDog10) (1:35)
Hey Devil (3:15)
Wonderin' (featuring Matt Thiessen) (3:40)
Start Somewhere (3:36)
Break Open The Sky (featuring Israel Houghton) (6:14)