Forefront Records/Capitol CMG
Release Date: November 18th 2016
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Til the Day I Die (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- This is Not a Test (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Backseat Driver (feat. Hollyn, GabeReal and Nirva) (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Beyond Me (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Made to Love (Portable Sounds)
- Speak Life (Eye on It)
- Funky Jesus Music (feat. Hollyn and Nirva) (Tonight)
- Eye on It (feat. Britt Nicole) (Eye on It)
- Steal My Show (Eye on It)
- Move (Keep Walkin’) (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Love Feels Like (feat. DC Talk) (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Undeniable (feat. Colton Dixon) (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Feel It (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- Light Shines Bright (feat. Hollyn) (THIS IS NOT A TEST)
- City on Our Knees (Tonight)
- Me Without You (Eye on It)
TobyMac needs no introduction. In fact, dare I say that TobyMac, along with fellow artist Michael W. Smith, is quite possibly one of the only artists who had major success in the 1990s that has continued to stay relevant and relatable in this ever-changing culture- maybe even more so now than back then? In his mid 50s, Toby is still energetic and enjoys making music, and its clearly evident by the various music videos and albums he has created since the start of his solo album career way back in the early 2000s. While die-hard fans of DC Talk (yes, the band that Toby was in back in the day) have lamented the loss of a passionate and innovative band; what has transpired from the indefinite hiatus is a career that is fast becoming one of the most respected and admired in recent CCM history. With career topping radio singles spawning from his illustrious and dynamic career thus far- from songs like “Made to Love”, “City on our Knees”, “Lose My Soul”, “Tonight”, “Get Back Up” and “Me Without You”, to “Irene”, “Gone”, “Atmosphere”, “Burn For You” and “Speak Life” to name a few; it was and quite possibly still will remain, his latest studio album This is Not a Test that has become one of the most musically diverse and universally praised albums of his career thus far.
Once part of Christian music’s most influential bands to ever be in existence, around 15 years and 6 studio albums later, Toby and his band Diverse City delivered one of last year’s most impactful CCM/pop albums. With singles like “Beyond Me”, “Feel It”, “Backseat Driver”, “Move (Keep Walkin’)”, “Til the Day I Die”, “Love Broke Thru” and “Love Feels Like”, the most that any album of his has ever produced, Toby has once again proved to listeners that an album as diverse as This is Not A Test can garner such praise and acclaim, both from listeners and album critics alike. Now in November 2016, Toby has once again let his live shows show us what a crowd pleaser he really is; delivering a live CD/DVD, his first since Alive and Transported way back in 2008. While the set lists on his live shows has changed throughout the years, his passion and ability to work the crowd and tell us an engaging story through his songs has never changed, and this is exactly true of HITS DEEP, that released November 18th worldwide.
Looking through the song list on this CD/DVD, it’s no wonder why This is Not a Test received such critical acclaim. 9 out of the 16 tracks are from his latest album, and while just one glance at the album you see the omission of standout songs from his career like “Lose My Soul”, “Get Back Up”, “Tonight”, “Irene”, “Atmosphere”, “Gone” and even “I’m For You”; what has nevertheless been delivered is a smorgasbord of hits from his most recent albums. Songs like “Beyond Me”, though shortened indeed by a full minute, still captures the essence of what the track means to both Toby himself and whoever hears it- that God ought to take us to a place that is literally beyond ourselves, that whatever we experience and hope for is beyond anything that we could ever dream or imagine; while radio singles “Move”, “Feel It” and “Light Shines Bright” all stay true to the original recordings, except for the omission, albeit a highly negligible one, of Tauren Wells’ uncredited cameo in the original studio recording of “Feel It” not translating to the live rendition. Nevertheless, the cameo was so hard to pick in the original recording so I guess we can all be forgiven if we didn’t even realise Tauren was part of the original track in the first place.
The rest of the representatives from This is Not a Test are unique in one way or another, and show us the differences between a studio polished song and a live raw rendition of a fan favourite. Both “This is Not a Test” and “Til the Day I Die”, energetic songs to welcome the set list from Toby, are both without the guest vocals Capital Kings and NF respectively, and are replaced by distorted vocals and a whole lot of backing vocals on both these songs. While I cannot deny Toby’s passion in both these songs, I nevertheless preferred each of the original recordings better. Nothing against Toby nor how he uniquely crafted the tracks, sometimes a 50-something year old rapping very fast, a bridge that was clearly made for NF, seems a little odd- you know he’s tiring when he needs his friend and backing vocal singer GabeReal to help on the NF part of “Til the Day I Die”. Yet while that’s just be being a nit-picker on these two opening tracks, what I can say is this- Toby has still delivered a passionate moment, of which both these two songs are indeed so. Toby also invites to the stage Colton Dixon to lend his voice for the chorus of “Undeniable”- and dare I say that I thoroughly enjoyed this track- maybe even more so than the original? Truett, Toby’s son, wasn’t present on the night (maybe studying for exams), and thus, couldn’t lend his voice to the second verse of “Backseat Driver”- so what did happen? It was split four ways- sung by Toby himself, GabeReal, Nirva Ready and Hollyn. While nothing can replace TRU in the second verse of what I reckon is a song that is one of the most underrated on Toby’s studio album, this was the next best thing.
Then there’s “Love Feels Like”. Yes, you know it. The song that received the most hype out of any other song that was present on This is Not a Test. The song that featured Kevin Max and Michael Tait, two of Toby’s ex-band mates of the once famous DC Talk, lent their voices on a song that is quite arguably one of Toby’s most energetic and enthusiastic song he’s ever produced since “Boomin’” way back in 2008. And while the nit-pickers could say that it was sadly unfortunate, and maybe even criminal not to have Michael and Kevin present with Toby on the night of the recording, but rather, have pre-recorded sections where Kevin and Michael both sung, and have them playing on screens on the night; but what I say is this- while it would’ve been nice to see all three men there singing their hearts out, unfortunately, in this society with everyone else having a lot of commitments, having everyone present at any one time isn’t always the case. Michael may have been busy with his Newsboys duties, while Kevin may have been hard at work on his solo material- hence the visualisers during the song on the night. Nevertheless, the song is still great- and a nice addition to the song list on the night. While I may have wanted a little less camera shaking (in that song particular) and a lot more times where Toby could introduce songs, especially this one and what it meant to him to have Michael and Kevin collaborate with him; the song nonetheless is a gem, and a favourite of mine on Hits Deep Live!
With 9 out of the 16 tracks on the live CD/DVD from This is Not a Test, we manage to see, throughout the remainder 7, songs spanning the last few years of Toby’s recent hits, songs that have impacted listeners around the world within recent memory. “Made to Love”, from the 2008 album Portable Sounds, is as popular as any other song from Toby, and reminds us all that we all need to express what we do and say out of love. What is great in this live track is Toby’s eagerness to step away from the mic and to allow the crowd to take over. A track that shows us great crowd participation, we are left to wonder- maybe this was a ploy because Toby’s vocals are rasping a little? Perhaps, but whether Toby’s vocals are going the way of John Cooper of Skillet or not is beside the point. Toby has once again shown us what it means to allow others sing in the forefront other than himself (his backing singers GabeReal and Nirva Ready also collaborate well on “Made to Love” as well). And to see that this track is the lone representation from Portable Sounds that is present on Hits Deep Live is somewhat of a sore point for me. Portable Sounds is one of my favourites of Toby’s, and to not see songs like “One World”, “Boomin’”, “I’m For You” or even “Lose My Soul” absent on Hits Deep Live is baffling. Does the track listing have to be 16 tracks? Maybe they were strapped for time, and Toby wanted to emphasise more of his recent material (and to be fair, much of Portable Sounds was on his 2008 live album Alive and Transported)…
“City on Our Knees” and “Funky Jesus Music” were the representatives from Tonight on the live album, and both tracks are sung with such fervent enthusiasm and passion. Hollyn even made an appearance on “Funky Jesus Music”, which was perhaps the most energetic song on the night (aside from “Til the Day I Die”, “This is Not a Test” and “Feel It”)- kudos to her for filling in the parts that Beckah Shae delivered on the studio recording of the track. And while I may, for the superfan of TobyMac inside of me, have wanted songs like “Tonight”, “Get Back Up”, “Hold On” or “Wonderin’” to have been added to the song lineup for the night as well, I understand that often with time constraints, certain songs need to be chosen and others overlooked- nevertheless, both “City on Our Knees” and “Funky Jesus Music” are translated well live, with “City on our Knees” even given the ‘lights’ treatment- with everyone holding out their mobile phones and lighting them up while the song was being sung on the night!
And then the songs from Eye on It, Toby’s recent 2012 album that received a lot of acclaim, that were presented on his 2016 live CD/DVD. As you would expect, “Speak Life”, “Me Without You” and “Steal My Show” are all present, with “Steal My Show” being transformed into an acoustic track that really allows us all to focus more on the lyrics, a tactic that is much appreciated on my part. “Eye on It”, with busy drums and electronic music, seemed a little out of place for me as I watched the DVD portion and listened to the music, and while I know the track is a welcomed fan favourite whenever Toby does live sets in America, I may have been one of the only ones who probably would’ve thought it would’ve been more beneficial to include songs like “Favourite Song”, “Unstoppable”, “Lose Myself” or even the underrated “Forgiveness” instead of “Eye on It”. Nevertheless, the track listing as a whole is a solid one, even with all my lamentations that I have aforementioned and described.
It has been 8 years since TobyMac has released a live album, and while many people who were fans of Toby’s more hip-hop/rap sound may complain that Hits Deep Live is more radio friendly, this is nevertheless a great addition for any collection of anyone who is a TobyMac enthusiast, like myself. It is a great way to introduce anyone new to TobyMac- either show them Hits Deep Live or Alive and Transported and see which one they respond to more… Still, the DVD has a lot of energy and we see that Toby still has a lot of infectious enthusiasm, even at the ripe young age of 50-something. Missed Hits Deep concerts during the year (like myself who lives in Australia)? Don’t worry, Hits Deep Live is your answer. I may have wanted a few more songs on the album, maybe to reach an even 20 tracks, yet with any live compilation/best of track listing, there’ll always be grievances no matter what. Still, if you are an avid fan of Toby’s music, or a fan of live albums, this is well worth the purchase. Kudos to Toby for staying relevant to the younger generation over the years. Can’t wait to see what God has in store for the years ahead!
5 songs to listen to: Backseat Driver, Speak Life, Feel It, Light Shines Bright, Love Feels Like
RIYL: Capital Kings, Hollyn, Seth & Nirva, Jamie Grace, Group 1 Crew, KJ-52, Royal Tailor