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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Out the Box

  • reviewed by Andree Farias Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 May
Out the Box
Sounds like … an electrifying Kirk Franklin live show with more traditional moments, á la Donnie McClurkin, plus Tonéx's distinctive, genre-hopping eclecticismAt a glance … though a fair representation of Tonéx's scope as an artist and producer, this 2-hour plus project can be too overbearing to take in one listenTrack ListingDisc OneYolanda Adams IntroductionOvertureOut the BoxThe Trust TheoryAliveAlive 2FundamentalsWork on MeGamesEndangered SpeciesThe Children's BreadFreestyle—Church FloorReal with U (live)Taxi OvertureTaxi (live)Personal Jesus (live)Why? (live)God Has Not 4Got (live)To Know You Lord (live)God Is LoveAin'tDisc TwoNureau InkBelieverTodos JuntosYour WordFreestyle—ThroneroomThe Spirit RealmFreestyle—WorshipMake Me OverThe TruthSince Jesus CameOut the Box OutroSyngDoesn't Really MatterThank QClosing Interview

Anthony "Tonéx" Williams is one restless, unstoppable freak. Not in a bad way. Renowned for his energetic dynamism, free-flowing creativity, and love of the spotlight, he seizes every opportunity to bring the gospel to the masses in ingenious, resourceful ways. Whether that encompasses producing music that rivals that of his mainstream contemporaries, shooting lavish videos that would sit comfortably next to other programming on MTV or BET, or using lyrics and metaphors not normally found on a gospel record, Tonéx always tries to go "all out" in all of his missionary endeavors.

Never one to stick to formulas, Tonéx fashioned Out the Box much differently than other live gospel projects. Enhanced with sumptuous intros, interludes, and a number of studio tracks, this double-disc set never stays put when it comes to stylistic conventions. Reminiscent of his debut Pronounced Toe-Nay, Out the Box is a sonic mishmash of styles, sensibilities, and a bit of Tonéx's trademark self-indulgence, all of which highlight—or hamper, depending on how you look at it—his ability to get his message across.

Divided into segments ranging from traditional gospel and praise anthems to splashes of spirited urban dance, rock, and hip-hop, the ambitious Out the Box at times calls to mind the grand-scale dynamics of Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation Project. Franklin, who guests here as pianist and performer, is just as multi-faceted and out-of-the-box as Tonéx—being all things to all people, regardless of how flamboyant or grandiose the results.

This extravagance is felt the very moment the spatial synth beat of the short-but-sweet title track kicks in, serving as a lead-in for the explosive "The Trust Theory," a rock-inflected anthem with big, layered vocals á la En Vogue or even HIStory-era Michael Jackson. "Alive" and "Alive 2" are polar opposites of each other—the former a horn-drenched, '70s soul celebration, the latter is an electric, head-banging rock barrage. "Work On Me" brings the horns to the forefront again, this time in a Broadway, show-tuneish sort of way, while Tonéx details how God has transformed his life. Later on the first disc, "The Children's Bread" emerges as an aggressive, dirty-pop number with menacing old-school keyboard accents and steady drumwork.

Then Out the Box loses its legitimacy as an album of all-new material, hitting an unnecessary string of "Tonéx Throwbacks"-ballads and slower cuts from his previous two albums—which appear with very little variance from their original recorded form. Still, the hit "God Has Not 4Got" (from his last effort, O2) is worthy of notice, featuring Franklin at the piano, plus an inspired, clap-and-sing-along section.

The front end of Disc 2 is where Out the Box hits its climax. "Believer" is a joyous, top-of-the-lungs choral festivity awash in faith-filled declarations with a contemporary gospel twist. The delicious "Todos Juntos" (featuring drummer Sheila E.) is easily the best track of the set, a salsa-driven fiesta that hinges on irresistible Latin percussion and a top-notch horn arrangement, even as Tonéx delivers a believable vocal performance in Spanish.

Throughout the album, Tonéx's love of pop music is clear in the way he toys with others' work. One could swear he's sampling A Tribe Called Quest in his "Out the Box Outro," or that the ascending horn parts on "Believer" are at least informed by Kool & The Gang's "Celebration." Equally memorable is the brass section in "Alive," a treatment admittedly inspired by the Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine." Elsewhere, the amped-up riffs in "Alive 2" are lifted directly from the opening riffs of Jesus Christ Superstar, while the slick, danceable groove of "Doesn't Really Matter" sounds like J. Lo or Brandy. The most bizarre (but fun) of these is "Games," a gospelized version of the theme from the "Family Feud" game show, complete with lyrics of spiritual unity.

Still, the album has other downfalls. A more coherent track sequence would've helped; while there's nothing inherently wrong with following up an energetic church freestyle dance session with the lovely throwback "Real With U," that roller-coaster effect is felt throughout the record. Disc 2 is also tediously overloaded with spoken sermonettes, interludes, and spontaneous moments of worship—complete with charismatic praying and prophetic singing—adding clutter to a project that could've benefited from a little more cohesiveness. Why not place all the original live material sans filler—12 songs in all—on one disc, and put all the new urban gems and throwback stuff on the other?

Tonéx has clearly outdone himself with Out the Box, maybe to the point that will make people scramble for the "skip" button as they try to get to the meat of the project. Instrumentally, it's extremely well executed. It's in practice that it becomes tiresome and quite a task to take in all at once.