Tonex is the most controversial singer in contemporary gospel music and perhaps more than any since Ray Charles and Sam Cooke first alchemized gospel into soul. His indiscreet lyrics, unorthodox musical approach, and unvarnished honesty stoke disquieting flames in the hearts of even the most liberal Christians. Other gospel artists such as Walter Hawkins and Kirk Franklin may have initially caused similar rumblings, but their critics quieted with changing times and they eventually became embraced by the status quo. That is unlikely to happen to Tonex; he has proven too out of the box in both religious message and presentation for most traditionalists (and even some progressives).
This is a shame; since Tonex is also arguably the most multi-talented composer, arranger, producer and male singer gospel music has birthed in the last quarter century. Others may make more beloved and accessible material, but Tonex has proven prolific in nearly every American musical form, from jazz to rock to rap-all done with a Christian message. His lesser known works: the double-disc Oak Park 92105, The London Letters, and The Naked Truth as much as Out The Box, O2, and Pronounced Toe-Nay prove he's not merely good at these genres; Tonex has the goods to catapult to the top of any of them, should he choose. In his musical genius and chaotic personal life, Tonex is Prince for the gospel scene. In his arrogance and braggadocio, particularly on the profanity-laced The Naked Truth, he is Kanye West, likewise endearing him to outcasts everywhere.
It may be flattering to be compared to Prince and Kanye, men representing the zeniths of their profession, but they also represent a zeal for rebellion, self-defeating antics, and conflicting, schizophrenic philosophies that also ultimately gets them labeled as kooks by the masses. Here too, Tonex fits nicely, with his highly publicized rants against fundamentalists (even as he dictates fundamentalist tomes in his songwriting), his theologically questionable ministry, and a marriage to singer "Ms. Tonex" that crashed and burned before millions of adoring fans. Responses to traditionalists' campaigns questioning Tonex's manhood, sexuality and religious integrity have all found there way into his artistic expression, sometimes with more Old than New Testament results (an eye for an eye...). It is, however, these raw vulnerabilities and the obvious sensitivities he wears on his sleeve that make him such a compelling artistic figure. His tendency to create art that is unabashedly transparent about his interior dialogues, to the point of prompting a listener's own uncomfortable self-reflections, is how his work differs from almost any other artist in gospel history. There is no ugly that Tonex won't mine or state for artistic truth, and yet he still manages to hold fast to expressions of faith.
Despite Tonex's seemingly limitless musical capacities and commercially self-destructive passion for expanding the boundaries of gospel wide enough to include secular thought and sound, he has kept his lyrics largely confined to songs about faith and, more often, the struggles and hypocrisies of a modern religious life. His ambitious offerings, musical flirtations with rumors about his sexuality, public pronouncements of martyrdom, and constant, eccentric image renewals have always made gospel seem ill-suited, if not somehow too small for Tonex's vision. Ever since his Stellar Awards debut-rocking a form-fitted outfit and busting choreography worthy of Janet-the industry expected Tonex to cross-over to pop and R&B. So, a major label debut inclusive of secular and gospel tunes is something of an expected, if not a welcome, relief. Maybe the p.k. (preacher's kid) will stop his misbehaving now that he's finally walked through that mainstream, major label door. Never one to do what is expected, Unspoken is Tonex's middle finger to that idea too, and then it isn't too. Confused? This is to be expected when discussing Tonex.
Unspoken is not completely a secular album, far from it. Though there are a few polished secular cuts here, including "Love Me 4 Me" and "Cool With You," two of the safest tracks Tonex has ever recorded. Both soft-touches are lovely harmonically-layered R&B that Urban Adult Contemporary programs would be wise to eat up. The electric club-banger "Bring It" is one of only two exceptions to Tonex's uncharacteristic caution on Unspoken. With its Rich Harrison, go-go flavored production, "Bring It," could be the crossover hit of the album. Somebody needs to get a video on this quick, fast and in a hurry.
No, on Unspoken, it is once again the gospel and inspirational tracks that find Tonex's itchy fingers pushing that proverbial envelope. "When I Call" is a futuristic electronic romp spreading the most traditional of gospel messages: God answers if you call. It may, however, be difficult to hear this simple message amongst all the synthesized strings and the saturated funk vocals, though the vocals do present an interesting amalgamation of George Clinton and Roger Troutman. The minimalist rock of "Bl3nd" is the polar opposite of "When I Call." The percussive "Bl3nd" slow builds from a spare set to a more muscular electronic jam, celebrating and encouraging the God-given individuality of "the other," a recurring theme in Tonex's catalog. The self-explanatory "Joy" kicks up the energy a thousand-fold with trademark quirky arrangements and the baritone-to-soprano riffs that first put Tonex in a rare class of six-octave male singers.
Of the gospel cuts, only the lush gospel ballad "Again" and the title track seem like holdovers from 02 or OakPark 92105, drawing easy comparisons to his classics "Priceless" and "Inspiration." These gospel cuts and the smoothed-out R&B jams of Unspoken are still grand listens, but fans will not be able to help noticing that these songs aren't the bold efforts of a gospel maverick. Rather, they are unexpectedly reserved and simple. "When I Call" and "Joy" are more of the Tonex that pushes fans and critics alike to consider: what makes a song gospel? Yet, even these brash songs' sweet messages are a far-cry from the eye-popping ganja-induced confessional "When My Words Are Few," the explicitly painted sexual demons of "Feelings," or the self-flagellations of "Anthony." That the edgiest song is a typical R&B club-banger, if artfully done, begs the question: Is Tonex doing more of the unexpected or has finding a major label home quelled his demons at last?
Well, both. Unspoken is a reflection of the artist, daring at times, bewilderingly conservative at others. A more standard major label offering than anticipated, Unspoken rarely rises to the level of Tonex's best material, but his rote are others' classics. Tonex's relative reserve on Unspoken may be indicative of a new period in Tonex's life, one of the humbled boxer. Tonex's last three projects were modest selling independent releases, and he hasn't been hosting on BET programs nearly as much as he was even a year or two ago. If what is unspoken is a more quiet acquiescence to the status quo to keep the bill-paying opportunities flowing, one cannot blame him. Every bad boy of gospel finally tires of railing against everything quite so hard, and Tonex-like Kirk and Walter before him-may finally be ready to be accepted into somebody's fold. The cost of rebellion for grown men is high, and one should not expect Tonex to stay on the cross forever. It's just a shame that sober maturity never sounds as delicious as the pained expressions of youthful sacrifice. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson
*This review is based on an advance promo officially provided to ST. A longer version of Unpoken, including several additional cuts not available for review at press, have since been added to this release.