TobyMac says one thought he had in mind as he went in to make his new album, “This Is Not a Test,” was to create “soul” music.
That doesn’t mean the popular Christian artist was going to step aside from his familiar hip-hop and pop sound and go Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett on his fans.
Instead, TobyMac had a more multifaceted meaning for soul music in mind.
“It might have something to do with music. It might have something to do with the lyric,” TobyMac explained in a recent phone interview. “But there’s a mentality behind it that was sort of like, ‘Let’s make soul music,’ which to me calls for depth in the lyric and in the music. And also, I think I touched on some things. I wanted everything to be a little deeper and be a little richer.”
One such song that’s deeper lyrically is “Love Broke Through.”
“You know, ‘Love Broke Through’ is the first time I have ever written a song about my personal first encounter with God, my initial step into faith,” he said. “I don’t know why I had never really written that song much (before). … It’s sort of where this adventure of faith all began with me, my faith in God.”
Another song that found TobyMac (or Toby McKeehan as he is known on official documents) exploring a richer level of emotion is “Love Feels Like,” which features guest vocals by Michael Tait and Kevin Max, his former musical partners in the ground-breaking Christian hip-hop group DC Talk.
“It’s a very personal song to me, it’s about, the song is about really a deeper sort of love that, a new depth of love that I had never gone to,” TobyMac said. “Like my dad passed away about eight months ago, and the last few years of his life ... my family ended up caring for him because he couldn’t care for himself. I think it’s interesting how much it really wears you out, but at the same time, you’re filled. The song says, ‘Empty has never felt so full.’ It wears you out. You pour it out. But somehow or another you’re able to give, and it’s fulfilling.”
Doing a song that held such profound personal meaning with Tait and Max was special, TobyMac said, although he noted it was actually the music for the song that made him think of the collaboration.
The subject of a DC Talk full-on reunion tour, possibly an album, has been floated from time to time since the trio went their separate ways in 2000. The three band members have remained close friends, and TobyMac said he is open to the reunion idea, although three busy individual schedules will make it a challenge to coordinate any tour or project.
The 51-year-old singer said he remains proud of what DC Talk accomplished, which in a nutshell was to become, as the “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music” by Mark Allan Powell put it, the most popular overtly Christian act of all time. The group broke through commercially with its third album, 1992’s “Free at Last,” and followed that with the double platinum “Jesus Freak” and another hit album, “Supernatural,” in 1998 before going on hiatus in 2000.
As a solo act, TobyMac has enjoyed major success. His first four solo albums all produced hit singles on the Christian charts, including a pair of chart toppers (“Get Back Up” and “City on Our Knees”) from 2010’s “Tonight.”
He then reached a new high point with his 2012 album, “Eye on It.” It became only the third album by a Christian music act to top the all-genre Billboard Magazine Top 200 album chart when it debuted at No. 1 in June of that year. It featured the No. 1 Christian hit, “Me Without You.”
In making “This Is Not a Test,” TobyMac said he tried to follow his edict of having no rules as far as the styles of songs he created. The result is a musically varied album that sounds tailor-made for Top 40 radio. It ranges from the glossy dance pop of “Like a Match” to the tuneful hip-hop of “Backseat Driver” to the EDM-infused “Til the Day I Die” and the soul-flavored “Feel It.”
The synthetic sounds woven with instruments prompted TobyMac to put together a live show that mixes organic and digital sounds.
“We have a DJ in the band, so some of it (the sounds) are reproduced there. If it’s a real obvious thing you could never do live, we do it electronically,” he said. “But we definitely have evolved a little. We have two different players on stage with drum pads, reproducing samples and playing them live. But I also have a horn section now, a really solid horn section.
“I love it. It’s a richer, deeper sound live,” TobyMac said. “There’s more depth to what we’re doing musically now, more dimension to the live elements, more dimension to the live performance.”