TobyMac’s new album, Eye On It, made a little music sales and Christian music history last week when it landed at No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album sales chart.
T-Mac’s fifth non-seasonal studio album was the No. 1 album in the land last week, the first time since 1997 and only the third time that a Christian album topped the overall best-seller charts, and we’re going to do some qualifying of those other two. The last No. 1 was LeAnn Rimes You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs, which topped the chart for three weeks. But Rimes was already an established star in the pop and country markets with No. 1’s to her credit in mainstream music. Shortly before that, Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses went to No. 1. Carlisle is a Christian market artist, but the title song, a father’s reflections about his daughter on her 16th birthday, was a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. The album was actually a reissue of the album it originally appeared in on, Shades of Grace, which was retitled for the re-release.
So, it is fair to say that TobyMac is the first Christian music artist to take an album to No. 1 based on his own starpower and the music he has made.
It’s a mark that has been a long time coming. Numerous Christian artists such as Casting Crowns have sniffed No. 1 in recent years. And TobyMac’s former band, dc talk, made its own history with its 1998 release, Supernatural, which debuted at No. 4, at the time an unprecedented bow for a Christian band.
“Depending on whether you see the music industry’s glass as half-empty or half-full, this either points to a long-running genre that has built a healthy audience or simply done a better job holding on while most other music sales have tanked,” wrote Ben Sisario of The New York Times. “According to Billboard, 27 percent of TobyMac’s sales came from Christian retailers and bookstores.”
You could also attribute it to a savvy releases strategy as late August is a fairly light time for new music releases, making it an easier week to make a run at No. 1. Eye On It’s main competition came from the hip-hop collective Slaughterhouse, whose Welcome to: Our House bowed at No. 2, and Alanis Morissette, who hasn’t been a chart powerhouse since the mid-1990s and saw her Havoc and Bright Lights come in at No. 5.
It is fair to say TobyMac’s music has endured a lot longer in the faith-based market than Morissette’s in the mainstream.
If someone was going to bring contemporary Christian music a No. 1, it is entirely appropriate it is Toby McKeehan who has played a huge role in dragging along a genre that is often behind the times. With dc talk, he and bandmates Michael Tait (now the frontman for Newsboys) and Kevin Max (now a solo artist) brought hip-hop to a Christian music world that was still a bit wary of the electric guitar. Showing the fans were maybe a bit ahead of the artists, talk had an iconic hit with Jesus Freak, a grungy, unapologetically Christian song whose centerpiece was TobyMac’s raps about Christians persecuted for their faith. The song was a game changer, opening Christian music up to edgier fare.
Articles about TobyMac invariably still mention his groundbreaking band – guilty – even though it has been on hiatus for more than a decade and he has built a highly successful solo career. Part of that has been his Diverse City Band, which helped bring a lot more diversity to Christian pop music than there was at the turn of the 21st Century.
The oddity here may be that T-Mac comes to his historic No. 1 calling a bit of a retro tune.
The straight Christian pop genre has given way to praise and worship acts such as Crowns and the many acts born of Passion and similar movements or rock and pop bands such as Switchfoot that are aimed at mainstream markets as much as Christian listeners. Band that make purely faith-based pop music are not as prevalent as they were a decade ago.
Eye On It has a distinctly T-Mac style of vertical music such as Steal My Show. But it is essentially an urban contemporary album, emphasis on contemporary.
Yes, Eye On It has some blistering moments such as the title tune. There is also a fun track, Mac Daddy (Tru’s Reality). In it, McKeehan’s 14-year-old son Truett, who has made cameos on his dad’s albums since he was 2, lobbies dad for work so he can save up for Macintosh laptop.
But for the most part, this is an album where 47-year-old TobyMac audibly mellows, possibly making part of the album’s broad appeal the fact that tracks such as leadoff single Me Without You fit easily on a K-Love playlist while a lot of material from previous efforts was a bit loud for a significant portion of the Christian crowd.
However he got there, TobyMac has achieved yet another significant milestone for himself and his genre, and few artists ever get to say that even once.