He's on his fourth name and eighth project release in just nine months, four full-length albums of which were released in just the last five months. Tonex a.k.a. Ton3x a.k.a. Brian Slade a.k.a. BSlade has been undergoing an astonishing transformation in the last couple of years, from a suited-up gospel singer to an outrageous glam rocked secular artist (with still plenty of gospel thrown into the mix). He's also gone from being a highly scrutinized heterosexual artist lyrically flirting with suggestions of sexual identity struggle on songs like "Feelings" and his megahit, "Make Me Over," to someone openly and unapologetically bisexual in his romantic interests. But, throughout all of these changes, the 100-plus songs released over the last nine months reveal that Tonex hasn't lost an iota of his musical genius. If anything, his creative expression has found new frontiers of sound, feelings, topics and imagery to explore.
Of those new releases (Dawn O' The Unicorn: The Mixtape, Dancefloor Arsonist: The Jack5on Magic Mixtape, gospOp, Kaleidoscope, Brilliant Catastrophe (beta), Brilliant Catastrophe (alpha), Puttin' in werQ/Sunset), Stereotype may be the most dynamic and artistically daring, if the most in need of editing to mine all its too apparent greatness.
Gospel and R&B star Tonex is a GMA and multi-Stellar Award winner and a multi-Dove and Grammy Award nominee who has written, produced, and performed on a whopping 24 releases over 14 years. The birth of his alter-ego, Brian Slade, began in June 2010 in NYC's Greenhouse coinciding with the release of his Dawn O' The Unicorn: The Mixtape. Both releases unleashed a glam pop, funk, hip hop and definitely more dance music-oriented Tonex. The persona borrowed heavily from the other-worldly glam rock iconography of Sylvester, David Bowie, and the Velvet Goldmine, artists for whom outrageous gender bending coupled with over-the-top vocal performances of brazen grandiosity and bold musicality won over music enthusiasts and legions of cultural misfits. In his aim to resurrect the visuals and kinetic performances of these early icons, BSlade has been largely successful in his recent packaging and sold-out live shows. His edgy wigs/weaves are decidedly female and often sporting a white skunk streak. His through-the-rafters church wails and soprano peaks are outside the box of what is considered traditionally masculine (particular for a Black male in R&B and gospel). His gear is tight and accented with all the accoutrements of Vegas meets space couture meets streetwalker. Throughout the ample BSlade catalog and in his show, the slang is all urban, both gay "ballroom" scene and conversely street corner thug, when not street corner preacher-sometimes intentionally blurring these distinctions.
Unlike Bowie's ilk, musically, Tonex is only as alternative as one's politics and musical tastes are hard right conservative. Lyrically there are anti-war and pro-environment warning poetics and plenty of inspirational tomes about identity, self-acceptance, and surviving "Black Sheep" status. However, musically, the palette BSlade consistently pulls from has strong, even highly referential roots in traditional Black musical genres-from electrosoul and Chicago house to PIR and Motown soul-with only the occasional, if highly competent, nod to ‘70s rock and ‘90s hip hop. Further, threaded throughout most of his contemporary material-sometimes underlying and at times overt-is still the fundamentalist message that Jesus Christ is the answer and a relationship with God the only way to salvation. The artist's uneasy marriage of conservative religious messaging with progressive, alternative presentations and liberal use of street language has invited fundamentalist calls of heresy and even music critic claims of musical "schizophrenia" when presented with Tonex and BSlade's material.
Still, what makes Tonex and his various personas endlessly interesting isn't the controversy his imaging, theology, and life drama courts, but how he sews all these different, seemingly disparate sounds, genres, musical and theological influences into something fresh and uniquely his own-when at its best. In message and music, Tonex's work can be as messy and conflicting and still at times as beautifully harmonious as we are. On Stereotype, both the brilliant and the catastrophic-and, when well executed, the beauty these tensions can create-sit among this twenty-song, ‘70s music inspired project.
An example of the homage occasionally paid here to the Jackson family's musical legacy is"Sonshine: 1971." On the standout there are no less than four wholly different musical transitions in its first 60 seconds, starting with a wall of sound of blaring horns, tambourines, bass and choral wails before sliding into Usher "OMG" pop morphing into a late era, soothing MJ smooth soul interlude before going full throttle into a wholly satisfying Jackson 5 (read: The Corporation) production on a re-imagined hook from the Broadway musical "Hair": "Let the sonshine/Let the sonshine in..." The "son" isn't a typo, itself making a sly plea for letting God's son "in" to fix a world of ills laid out in the multi-layered cut, from suicidal ideation to environmental disasters. In arrangement, the song's chorus uses stacked, old-school gospel harmonies, having sopranos and altos aiming for the heavens and tenors and baritones delivering a floor that's rarely heard in pop, while Tonex's tenor to contralto goes for the gold of the son. The song is epic in sound and ambitious in intention, the hook infectious and maybe even hindered by all the era-jumping transitions that came before it, and yet the overall effect is every bit as exhilarating and inspiring as the artist intended.
Other songs follow this winning formula of mashing the old and new. "Make U Happy" interpolates a DJ scratched David Cassidy obscure 1972 classic of "I Just Want to Make You Happy" for a renewed saint's testimony about and promise-filled apology to God. "Hurting Each Other: 1975" returns BSlade's love of the Carpenter's sampling, this time the 1972 hit single "Hurting Each Other," for a sensitive and inquisitive meditation on the pain humans - particularly self-professed Christians of different denominations - cause one another. Minnie Riperton's "Perfect Angel" provides the soundtrack for the secular "Dancin," a silky stepper's groove. Rufus meets Parliament on the funk of "Good Song: 1978," which is as intricate in arrangement and musical transitions as "Sonshine: 1971," breaking into a jazz bridge and even some oddly appropriate yodeling at one point, but far more direct in its optimistic message and drum tight in execution. The sweetly soulful "All That I Am" owes much to the folksy soft rock sounds of Harry Nilsson and Seals & Croft. The jumpin' "Baby, What'cha Gonna Do: 1979" hints at Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You" but defies gravity by cleverly using a voguer's chant to pattern its staccato phrasing, intergalactic effects, and a closing run worthy Karen Clark-Sheard. Middle Eastern instruments merge with ‘90s doo wop R&B to a delectable effect on the jingly "Prayin' 4 U" and converge again with Southwestern flavors on "Walla Walla Bing Bing," a modern square dance rebuking the inane lyrics, but appealing beats dominating the charts. Clumsier in its genre blending is "Contagious," a "universal love" message song that begins with smooth jazz ala Al Jarreau before jarringly and repeatedly bursting into an Elton John psychedelic Broadway circus that annoyingly disrupts the ease of the song's groove and appealing message.
Stereotype's genius is hampered by songs strikingly mundane in comparison and competent fillers that samples less but are parties previously heard from in the Tonex catalog. Speaking against conformity, "Blend: 1977" adds a plaintive acoustic guitar in place of the spare percussions of the original from the Grammy-nominated Unspoken for results that reference Nirvana more than classic rock. Likewise with the early grunge feel of "Blairtree Road," a call for tolerance originally debuting on the infamous Naked Truth Mixtape, which is only minutely altered by a vinyl-playing static effect. Returning to the project's ‘70s tribute are the SalSoul Orchestra guitar and bassline overlays to the NYC club hit, "Get Over You," for a "gagatha kristie" remix of the house jam dominating gay clubs across the Eastern seaboard. These fare well compared to the utterly forgettable "Hair," "Steel & Velvet," "Come & Go," "The Things You Do," "Silly Philly"...just far too much filler for one album. Perhaps worse than these underlings is the meandering, too calculated, and dare we say presumptuous "God...," a song that attempts and fails at matching the choral opuses of Stevie Wonder or Richard Smallwood, the cut's most obvious reference points.
Of course, self-penning, playing, and producing or co-producing over 100 songs over eight releases (as T.Boy, sometimes with producer Akira Shelton) ensures some clunkers in the bunch. If we call Stereotype the Brilliant Catastrophe (three), the elimination of filler and redundancies throughout this otherwise phenomenal Brilliant Catastrophe trio of material at any other time would have resulted in an astonishing run of wholly classic hit albums on par with the ‘70s virtuoso project runs of Rufus, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and like. The clear need for stronger editorial hands making an impression on both song selection and in the occasionally chaotic productions doesn't take anything away from a central truth: Anthony Charles Williams II (a.k.a. you name it) is one of the unsung musical geniuses of this generation, and if he weren't still keeping such a notable foot in gospel and were not a Black, openly bisexual man, the world would celebrate his undeniable talents far more than his relative obscurity now suggests. This assertion may be a stereotype of its own, but one listen to the Brilliant Catastrophe trio and comparing the best of its ambitious contents to any other top-selling Black R&B, gospel, and maybe even pop albums today will prove it nonetheless true. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson