Forefront Records/Capitol CMG
Release Date: October 12th 2018
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- The Elements
- I Just Need U
- Starts With Me (feat. Aaron Cole)
- Edge of My Seat
- It’s You
- Horizon (A New Day)
- Hello Future
- See the Light
TobyMac needs no introduction. No, seriously, he doesn’t. And if you don’t know who TobyMac is…well I guess you need an education lesson then. Let’s see his previous credentials. 1/3rd of DC Talk (quite possibly one of the biggest bands of the 1990s, period!), as well as being a solo artist releasing countless songs and albums that have charted success throughout the years and in both Christian and mainstream charts, alongside being the CEO of Gotee Records (housing artists like Ryan Stevenson, Hollyn, Aaron Cole and Finding Favour currently, and previously artists like Jamie Grace, Morgan Harper Nichols, Capital Kings, Relient K, John Reuben and The Katinas to name a few). 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 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; what Toby continues to bring to the table of musical genres and songs that tug at the heart of listeners, is something new and fresh- that a guy in his mid-50s can be relevant both musically and in the message that the song is bringing, is indeed an art.
‘…the most important thing to me are the concepts, what am I saying to people. I’ve got to be going through some life myself and that’s why it takes so long. I have to experience some things, struggle with some things, overcome some things and get in the trenches before I have enough to write about. That’s why it takes me a few years because I want to write about what’s really going on in my life. I find when you write about what’s really happening in life it resonates more with people than fictional stuff…life has been a little tougher — not tougher, maybe just more complex. Maybe it’s family growing up and also looking at our society and what’s going on with race relations. It’s just trying to fight these elements that are coming at us, trying to keep us from all we’re trying to be. This is a really crazy world. Most of the songs are about overcoming the elements, so that’s what I wanted to call the record…’ The Elements released last week Friday, and to say that I was eagerly awaiting this anticipated release is an understatement. If we as a human race haven’t figured out already that TobyMac and his music, alongside his influence, is vast and impactful, no matter what musical genre we are inclined to first listen to, then the love we profess about music in general needs to be re-evaluated. There, I said it. Period.
TobyMac is a revolutionary- he’s even created his own quasi-musical genre- musical gumbo, as he calls it. It’s not just pop or worship, nor is it full-on hip hop either. The album as a whole is a much more broader soul-hip-hop/blues-pop project, something that only Toby himself can undertake with such grace and poignancy and for the end result to come out looking and feeling like one genre, rather than a million different genres mashed up together. In fact, Toby himself has given life to musical genre infusion over the last decade or so. No other artist in my opinion can easily travel between pop, rap and hip hop so easily (maybe perhaps Group 1 Crew) within the CCM industry, and thus, Toby and his music is very unique to a Christian music industry that is sadly one where sameness and familiarity are championed over edginess and out-of-the-box songwriting. The Elements itself reminds me of how much we need music that continues to unite and impact on more of a social and a do-something level rather than a ‘make me feel happy’ level. Feeling happy is good, but if it doesn’t call you to action and undertaking a change on a local level, then music, particularly Christian music, hasn’t really done its job.
Standing at 11 tracks, The Elements is unique and diverse, and while the music isn’t as grandiose as This is Not A Test, the heart and hope behind such an album is very much the same. First radio single ‘I Just Need U.’ released very early this year in January- standing at a radio friendly ‘3 minutes 45 seconds’ and titled ‘i just need u.’, you can be forgiven to think that Toby has just released something that is just ‘run of the mill’, a song that has been done before, because frankly, when you look at history and hear songs like ‘If We’ve Ever Needed You’ (Casting Crowns), ‘Need You Now’ (Plumb), ‘I Need You to Love Me’ (BarlowGirl), ‘I Need You’ (Jars of Clay), ‘Lord I Need You’ (Matt Maher) and ‘I Need You God’ (Consumed By Fire), you can be forgiven to think that Toby is flogging to death a theme that has been done so many times before. And yes, Toby has undertaken a theme that has been previously covered, yet ‘I Just Need U.’ is crafted in such a way that the music is infectious, the lyrics are heartfelt and just the whole overall song doesn’t feel like a re-hash- which means, props and kudos for Toby for creating something new out of an age old theme that seems that we may need to continually be reminded of, considering the vast amount of songs that speak about this continual need for the Father in our lives, in the midst of this global climate.
While the song title may be a little bit unoriginal, the song is anything but. Most, if not all of Toby’s radio singles in the past have been ground-breaking and life affirming (take a look at the list of radio singles from Toby’s career on Wikipedia and you see what I mean!). How he manages to do this year after year is only of God, and thus, we see a man who has been able to create and produce, deliver and craft, song after song with such potential and impact, that it’s almost an assumption to declare that ‘I just need u’ impacts far and wide, maybe even farther than many songs of the past. The song itself speaks about the need to always need our Father and creator, even during the moments when we believe we don’t need Him because everything is going great, and especially during the times when we really do need Him, when things aren’t looking so bright.
The second radio single to release to the airwaves prior to The Elements release is ‘Everything’, and while the song musically is vastly different to ‘I just need u.’ (dance-pop v soul-anthem), lyrically and thematically, both are similar, and both remind us all of our constant need for the Father, and how it is in Him that we can have a different outlook on the world we live in. As Toby relays himself, when they released ‘Everything’ to radio, ‘I Just Need U.’ was still being played in rotation- nothing wrong with that, maybe it’s ok to have two songs going to radio impacting different charts, yet, ‘…we were asking them to stop playing it [I just need u.] because we wanted them to play ‘Everything’ and I know it’s a good problem to have. I knew I wanted ‘Everything’ to be the second release. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a summer jam. If you have a drop top, throw it on. It’s THAT song. It’s like a fresh breeze coming through wherever you are…’ The song itself acknowledges God’s presence in everything we are in contact with, and everything we experience. Musically the song is unique and fresh, maybe even rivaling some other popular artists like Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber of today- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For both ‘Everything’ and ‘I just need u.’ stand out, and as Toby continues to reinvent and stay relevant in an industry that is ever-evolving, an album like The Elements continues to surpass any expectation I have ever had of it, to fast become one of my favourite albums of 2018, thus far (maybe even second to Lauren Daigle’s Look Up Child!).
Throughout the rest of the album, we see Toby at his best, delivering themes and messages as very much needed in the society of today, while providing to us musical genres diverse and unique, making I reckon Toby’s music one of the most musically and stylistically ingenious out of anyone who is currently active within the Christian music industry. Title track ‘The Elements’ channels a lot of artists like NF and Eminem as Toby harkens back to Momentum days as he reminds us that we as humans fight the elements of life everyday- as with water, wind, fire and earth, that can be serene one minute and violent the next, life has its way of giving us twists and turns. There is a line in the song that speaks to the heart of not only what the song is about, but what The Elements the album is about as well – ‘…this ain’t neutral we’re up against…’ What we’re fighting is real, what we’re fighting takes courage and bravery to even face it. We are indeed in a spiritual battle for our soul, and ‘The Elements’ creates a place where, motifs and metaphors aside, gives us a reminder that as a Christian, the elements of life we’re going to be up again is only going to get greater. Toby’s first track is fitting as one of perseverance, and a perfect start to the album holistically! ‘Scars’ is perhaps the most personal song Toby has written of late, based off of his son Truett who has moved out of home and is living somewhere. As Toby relays, ‘…I had a few people in mind when I wrote it, but subconsciously I started focusing on Truett, my firstborn son, talking to him a little about what life is throwing at him. I wanted him to know that he’s not alone when the world might get the best of him from time to time. When he looks up and he’s got some scars, I wanted him to know that we all face those things and that he’s not alone in it…’; as we’re reminded ourselves about the scars we have, and take comfort in the knowledge that ‘…you, you’re not alone, we’ve all been there, scars come with living…’
‘Edge of My Seat’ promotes a theme of us being excited and in anticipation about what we believe the Lord is doing and undertaking in this city we are in (and thus, we ought to become excited in a genuine way if we really believe in the things that God is capable of doing in the world we are in), while ‘It’s You’, a nearly 5 minute track, falls into a little bit of repetition as TobyMac uses a looping percussion to deliver a theme of us declaring that it is God that we ought to and want to pursue, and then everyone and everything else will just fall in line once our priorities are realigned and refocused on the One who fulfils our every need. While this song production-wise can seem a little forced and stale, ‘It’s You’ is perhaps the one mis-step in an otherwise impactful album. ‘A New Day (Horizon)’ allows us to focus upon the horizon and the overall birds-eye ‘God view’ we all should have rather than having a me-focused mentality (the song even boasts a rap, in fact, one of the only raps on the album!), while a song like ‘Hello Future’ doesn’t follow the mould of ‘verse chorus verse chorus bridge’ but rather ‘refrain 1, refrain 2, refrain 3’…and that’s ok. Maybe the song should be called ‘hello’ instead of ‘hello future’- but the message is still the same- Toby allows his doubts and fears to be quashed as he declares from the outset ‘…hello sunshine, goodbye rain, hello promise, I hope you’re here to stay…’ It is a moment when we realise that we believe that we deserve happiness and good things, rather than just believing it because other people tell us. The album then finishes with ‘Overflow’ and ‘See the Light’, the former being a praise song declaring that God fills our cup til it overflows (and even has a refrain of Toby’s involvement in Newsboys’ rerecording of ‘God is Not a Secret’), while the latter is a motivational track that could chart very well in mainstream, as Toby employs more of a universal approach to a track that declares that ‘…I’m here to remind you it don’t matter where you come from, I know we can get through this, it might feel it’s been so long but we keep on keepin’ on, it might feel like an uphill climb, always some kind of battle, but you got more than you on your side and we gon’ see the light…’
Then there’s ‘Starts With Me’. Guesting with rapper/hip hop CCM artist Aaron Cole, this collaboration could be the next ‘Bleed the Same’ in this current culture that seemingly divides more than unites. While this album only has one guest (Aaron Cole) as opposed to quite a few on This is Not A Test (Hollyn, TRUETT, Capital Kings, NF, Mr Talkbox, DC Talk and Ryan Stevenson), ‘Starts With Me’ is quite possibly one of my favourite songs on The Elements, and maybe even one of my favourites of TobyMac…ever! As Toby unveils himself, diversity and unity has always been a central theme in much of his albums in the past, and in The Elements, it’s no difference- ‘…obviously throughout the years diversity, togetherness, us being there for each other has always been important to me in regards to race. It’s something that me and my band talk about all the time. It’s on our hearts and in our minds. I usually say something on every record about race relations, so I stood with Aaron Cole and told him I wanted it to be from both perspectives. I do think that coming from both perspectives is important. I say some bold things about how we’re reared, and about the household I was raised in. He’s saying things about the household he was raised in, the type of things that were passed down to us from generation to generation. We weren’t shy about or coy about saying exactly the things we both experienced…’ It is in light of this above quote that ‘Starts With Me’ has taken on a new light, and is now seen as an experience where people unveil how they felt (or still do feel) amongst the racial divide that has been plaguing America and to some extent the world for quite some time. The title of the song ‘starts with me’ ought to be motivation and catalyst enough to be reminded that change and how we move forward should start with us, whether we are the afflicted or the ones doing the afflicting, such a song like this ought to be one that will make us re-evaluate our lives, and encourage us to take a stand against white supremacy as we forge together a future where racial diversity is celebrated rather than shunned, both in a local a global setting!
It has been 3 years since TobyMac has released a new full-length album, and while many people who were fans of Toby’s more hip-hop/rap sound may complain that The Elements hasn’t lived up to expectations set before it, because of its more radio friendly nature, this is a reminder- that Toby continues to evolve, and much of his musical catalogue wasn’t really as similar to…well, anything. In fact, for any given album, Toby’s style in that particular album was not like the album preceding, neither was that album similar to the album preceding that…you get my drift, right? Nevertheless, The Elements is carefully crafted, and because of the success of Christian artist Lauren Daigle before this year, and because of Toby’s popular music career thus far, The Elements has certainly been polarising, some people love it and others just hate it. For me, I’ve always enjoyed much of Toby’s newer material, so this new album is a well-enjoyed one of me. Having said that, Toby’s older material is still solid, just not really my style at the moment. Nevertheless, as controversial as this album is, we can’t deny the importance of hearing such themes being discussed in the open. As Toby unveils himself, ‘…I do think this record will go broader. We’re watching things happen. We’re watching Tori Kelly do a gospel record, and Lecrae forging into the mainstream. Things are moving in a great direction. People are seeing that. I don’t think they are seeing such a divide. They are looking at the art and soul. That’s where it always needed to be, but somehow a large shadow was cast, and it was labelled. We’re supposed to sing about what moves us, what’s inside of us. Not everyone has to agree, but let it take you. Maybe it will surprise you. Before you label and judge, just listen…’ And with that, let us all just listen to the new TobyMac album, before we cast any judgement. It may surprise you, as it did me. Well done Toby for such a powerful and emotive set of songs, can’t wait to see what single #3 is after ‘Everything’, in the upcoming weeks and months ahead!
4 songs to listen to: Everything, Starts With Me, Overflow, The Elements
RIYL: Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, Kevin Max, DC Talk, Aaron Cole, Hollyn