TobyMac’s current album, “Elements,” has given him his biggest hit single in a half-dozen years with the song “I Just Need U,” which spent a dozen weeks atop the Christian music singles chart. He can now look back and feel the struggles he and co-writers experienced in writing the song were worthwhile.
“It was a wrestling match, that song, honestly. It wasn’t like quick,” TobyMac said in a recent phone interview. “We probably wrote three completely different verses and wildly different melodies and lyrics. It was just trying to find (its voice). Sometimes you have to wrestle it to the ground.”
Having to grapple with various elements of a song is nothing new to the artist, whose real name is Kevin McKeehan. His songs, he said, don’t tend to just fall into place.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for immediacy in lyrics and things like that, and some people are really good at (creating) that. I’m definitely a crafter,” he said. “Sometimes they come quick, but I like to craft songs.”
And with the “Elements” album, TobyMac, 54, feels he crafted his most personal album. Several factors have contributed to him digging deeper as a lyricist.
“I just think there are a few things working together,” he said. “Number one is just life and the things you’re going through. You know, your life changes a little, your kids start growing up a little more. Then you put that together with the fact that you grow in confidence as a writer to express yourself and be a little more vulnerable. And I’m also learning that when you express what you’re learning and what you’re going through, and your heartaches and your strongholds or what have you, it begins to seem like more than a fictional song. Those songs (resonate with the listener).”
Overall, TobyMac says “Elements” deals with obstacles in life that work against someone being the person he or she wants to be. In his case, he seeks to be selfless and be there for people in his life.
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The album’s opening title song introduces the concept. Blending hip-hop and a hard rock-ish chorus, “Elements” finds TobyMac defiantly ready to fight a variety of emotional and physical elements that dot his life path. From there, he gets more specific, using the silky electronic-tinged hit ballad, “I Just Need U,” to express the value of a special person and God.
Another key song on the album, the airy synthy/electronic ballad “Scars,” deals with the struggle of letting your kids leave the nest, knowing you can’t protect them forever from life’s pitfalls and dangers. That’s a reality this father of five is starting to experience.
On “Starts with Me,” TobyMac and guest vocalist Aaron Cole address the racial divides of the country, recognizing that healing has to start with each individual.
The shift toward more personal and meaningful lyrics has been happening for some time, TobyMac said, and it feels appropriate for his stage in life.
“I feel like I’m a songwriter first and foremost,” he said. “But I feel like as I looked at this record, and even the last record (2015’s “This is Not a Test”), I was like wow, with the years and experience, I feel like an old-people depth. So novelty, I guess, it’s sliding off me, and depth and wisdom are what I feel a seasoned artist and a seasoned writer should offer people.”
Seeing songwriting as his strong suit was partly a product of how TobyMac came into his career. One-third (along with Michael Tait and Kevin Max) of the trailblazing and hugely popular Christian hip-hop group DC Talk, he went solo in 2001. His sound has diversified since then, with “Elements” bringing a synthetic mix of electronic, pop and hip-hop that’s in step with today’s Top 40 trends.
He’s consistently connected with Christian artists and had some crossover success, as well. His six previous solo albums have all been certified gold, with combined sales of more than 5 million copies. He’s also won seven Grammy Awards along the way.
Last fall, TobyMac got the chance to share the songs on “Elements” in settings that suited the more personal nature of the album. He’ll get back to theaters for a run of dates this fall, but this summer, he’s doing a series of dates made up mostly of appearances at festivals and state fairs, including Sunday night’s Great Jones County Fair finale in Monticello.
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In addition to playing songs from “Elements,” he said he’ll perform plenty of hits, although when it’s appropriate, he and his band put a new spin on fan favorites.
WHAT: TobyMac with We are Messengers opening
WHERE: Grandstand, Great Jones County Fair, 800 N. Maple St., Monticello
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday (7/21)
TICKETS: $35 track seats, $25 amphitheater and bleachers, free hillsides; $10 fair admission; Greatjonescountyfair.com/2019-concerts-events/