While Tonex, an immensely talented singer, songwriter and producer, is popular in gospel circles, he is still virtually unknown outside of them. While at various points in time, he has appeared ready to break out commercially, his mercurial nature and outsized musical vision have simultaneously brought some fans closer while turning many others away.
A California minister since his teenage years, Tonex recorded and independently released his debut album, Pronounced Toe-Nay, in 1997 at age 21. It was an incredibly ambitious - almost brazen - debut, featuring 21 songs broken up into seven catogories: retro/funk, hip-hop/rap, soul/gospel, jazz, mellow grooves, the future, and bonus tracks. It showed a young artist virtually bursting with ideas and sounds, most of them interesting. Immediately compared to Kirk Franklin because of his contemporary take on gospel, Tonex actually had very little in common with Franklin other than his willingness to brashly take on modern societal problems in the context of religious faith. And while it was difficult not to admire Toe-Nay for its ambitiousness, the lack of cohesion at times made it difficult listening (and made it feel around 20 minutes too long). It hit its highest points on soul and contemporary gospel pieces such as the hit "Real With U," "Personal Jesus" and the glorious "Restoration."
The groundswell of attention for Toe-Nay ultimately led gospel giant Verity to give it a major label release in 2000. Around that time, Tonex took the Gospel world by storm, appearing on the Stellar Awards with a performance that has been considered by some the greatest Stellar performance ever.
Expectations were high for his second release, but O2 wasn't released until 2002. While a lengthy, ambitious set like Tonex's debut album, O2 was a cohesive story start-to-finish, becoming perhaps the definitive soul/gospel masterpiece of the first part of this decade. After a brief introduction, the album kicks out strongly with the funky title cut. A scathing criticism of the music industry's incessant push of violence and sex on kids, "O2" strikes a chord rarely heard in popular music. "People want some oxygen/People want to breathe/Whatever you feed them/Is what they're going to eat." This is followed by perhaps the best dance cut of 2002, his Prince-like "Bout A Thang." The rest of the album alternates between hot dance tunes and sweet ballads such as "That's When," "God Has Not 4Got" and his love ballad to his wife, "You." O2 demonstrates that the attention bestowed upon Tonex after his debut was justified, as he shows an amazing ability to span a pretty broad spectrum of sounds effectively, all with a compelling lyrical backdrop. Now comes the rub. If there were justice, O2 would have made Tonex an across-the-board breakout artist. However, current pop and urban radio stations don't have room for a hot contemporary artist singing about God's role in solving problems or about dancing in the celebration of faith. Fact is, he'd get more airplay if he rapped about "plugging" someone. And that's nothing to sing about.
After a long wait and multiple delays, in 2004 Tonex released Out the Box. The two-discset is a mostly-live compilation recorded in September, 2003 in Tonex's hometown of San Diego, and is designed to capture the near-legendary electricity of Tonex's live shows. For the most part it succeeds. Like Tonex's previous projects, Out the Box is an almost dizzyingly ambitious project, covering a cornucopia of musical styles, from hard rock ("The Trust Theory") to Latin dance ("Todos Juntos"), to Prince-like funk ("Syng") to lounge-jazz ("To Know You Lord") and straight up Gospel-soul ("Believer"). And his performance silences those critics who labeled him as too soft voiced, a la Michael Jackson, as he repeatedly unleashes a powerful E.J. Johnson-like falsetto rarely hinted at in his studio recordings. In between the mix of old and new tunes on Out the Box is a two hour, new-fashioned revival, with Tonex preaching, cajoling and inspiring the audience to rise up, figuratively and literally. And at its best, the disc is an energetic reminder of just how far ahead of the curve Tonex's vision and music are. There are a few experimental songs ("Games," "Alive 2") that don't work well, but the new material is generally inspired and his live performances of a half dozen past hits are excellent. It is clear from the audience reaction that the San Diego concert was a great show, though much of the electricity - especially the visual portions - simply can't translate to CD. So at 36 cuts (many of them over six minutes), it is a bit long and unwieldy, and could have used some editing, maybe even to a single, outstanding disc. But overall,Out the Box is a rollicking good time, and its guest artists (including Kirk Franklin and Sheila E), along with the fantastic band and the Peculiar People choir, make this another memorable outing by Tonex that should please his growing following.
By 2006, Tonex's world appeared to be spinning out of control. He divorced and announced he was leaving Gospel music. In a rambling diatribe he condemned the Gospel music industry and many of its major players. He split with the Verity label, then returned to it in 2007, only to split again by mid-year. He sported a new, muscular look and leaked songs that had a rougher sound, filled with expletives that seemed to contradict the message and image he was delivering as a Gospel singer. In the midst of this he traveled to Europe to record a smooth jazz album, The London Letters, that is hard to find.
By 2009 Tonex returned to major label-land, issuing Unspoken to generally good reviews but only middling sales. He then took another turn in 2010, creating the alter ego Brian Slade a.k.a. BSlade and issued a dizzying number of releases over the next year (at least 5 and counting), with material ranging from rock to Gospel to disco and funk, and just about everything in between. The best of these was likely Stereotype, which was released in Spring 2011.
It's not clear where Tonex will land as an artist. Extremely talented but equally unpredictable - even erratic - he remains an enigmatic musical genius more than a decade after breaking onto the Gospel scene as one of its most exciting new stars.
By Chris Rizik