TobyMac is a firm believer that art imitates life, and because of that his fans have learned to wait at least three years between albums. Well, that wait is over. His seventh studio album, The Elements, will come out Oct. 12, Billboard can reveal.
TobyMac started crafting The Elements on the road, writing songs and bringing producers out on tour to collaborate. "The most important thing to me are the concepts, what am I saying to people," he tells Billboard. "I've got to be going through some life myself and that's why it takes so long. I have to experience some things, struggle with some things, overcome some things and get in the trenches before I have enough to write about. That's why it takes me a few years because I want to write about what's really going on in my life. I find when you write about what's really happening in life it resonates more with people than fictional stuff."
The rock/hip-hop veteran and father of five didn't have to look far for inspiration. "Life has been a little tougher -- not tougher, maybe just more complex," he muses. "Maybe it's family growing up and also looking at our society and what's going on with race relations. It's just trying to fight these elements that are coming at us, trying to keep us from all we're trying to be. This is a really crazy world. Most of the songs are about overcoming the elements, so that's what I wanted to call the record."
The album's lead single, "I Just Need U," has already topped Billboard's Christian Airplay chart for two weeks and also hit the summit on the Hot Christian Songs and Christian AC Songs lists. His current single, "Everything," is at No. 9 on Hot Christian Songs and No. 13 on Christian Airplay. "Everything" released in July and TobyMac said stations were still holding on to "I Just Need U." "We were asking them to stop playing it because we wanted them to play 'Everything' and I know it's a good problem to have," he grins. "I knew I wanted 'Everything' to be the second release. It's a breath of fresh air. It's a summer jam. If you have a drop top, throw it on. It's THAT song. It's like a fresh breeze coming through wherever you are."
One of the most personal tracks on the record is "Scars," a song he penned to encourage his son Truett, who just turned 20. "I love 'Scars.' I don't know if it's my favorite, but it's the closest song to me on the record," he says. "I had a few people in mind when I wrote it, but subconsciously I started focusing on Truett, my firstborn son, talking to him a little about what life is throwing at him. I wanted him to know that he's not alone when the world might get the best of him from time to time. When he looks up and he's got some scars, I wanted him to know that we all face those things and that he's not alone in it."
Though in the past some of TobyMac's albums featured multiple special guests, the only outside act on The Elements is 19-year-old Christian hip-hop artist Aaron Cole on "Starts with Me." "It's funny because I was the king of features and I don't know why," he says. "I kept looking for them for this album] and thinking about moments when someone could be featured, but so many of these songs were so personal, I literally couldn't see someone else singing the lyrics that I was singing."
"Starts with Me" is the exception. Even though it's also personal, TobyMac felt Cole would be the perfect partner to bring the message to life and he enlisted Cole Walowac (Capital Kings) to produce. Diversity has always been a recurring theme throughout TobyMac's work, and continues to be as it reflects his home life and road life. His wife, Amanda, is Jamaican and two of their children are adopted African American/Caucasian, and his band, the Diverse City Band, represents multiple cultures and races.
"Obviously throughout the years diversity, togetherness, us being there for each other has always been important to me in regards to race," he says. "It's something that me and my band talk about all the time. It's on our hearts and in our minds. I usually say something on every record about race relations, so I stood with Aaron Cole and told him I wanted it to be from both perspectives. I do think that coming from both perspectives is important. I say some bold things about how we're reared, and about the household I was raised in. He's saying things about the household he was raised in, the type of things that were passed down to us from generation to generation. We weren't shy about or coy about saying exactly the things we both experienced."
In working on The Elements, TobyMac again enlisted writer/producers Bryan Fowler and David Garcia, who co-produced Carrie Underwood's new album, Cry Pretty, which drops on Friday. "I got to do a bunch of the record with Bryan Fowler who I did a lot of This Is Not A Test with," he says of his chart-topping 2015 album. "We did 'I Just Need U' together early on this record. I think I did five or six songs with him. Bryan was the main guy I was in the trenches with day in and day out. We probably started with 30 songs and ended up with the six that we have on the record together. He was my right hand man on this record for sure."
TobyMac will be introducing songs from the new album when he hits the road this fall. "I'm doing 12 theaters that are going to be a more intimate evening for the kick off of the record in November," he says. "Then I'm doing Hits Deeps Tour arena next spring, which I've been doing for the last few years and that will be 35 cities."
Ever since his debut as part of pioneering Christian trio dc Talk through his evolution as a solo artist TobyMac (a.k.a. Toby McKeehan) has fused rock, soul and hip-hop into a blend that has garnered fans beyond the confines of the Christian music community. He's hoping The Elements will attract an even wider audience as the boundaries between genres continue to erode. "I do think this record will go broader. We're watching things happen," he says. "We're watching Tori Kelly do a gospel record, and Lecrae forging into the mainstream. Things are moving in a great direction. People are seeing that. I don't think they are seeing such a divide. They are looking at the art and soul. That's where it always needed to be, but somehow a large shadow was cast and it was labeled. We're supposed to sing about what moves us, what's inside of us. Not everyone has to agree, but let it take you. Maybe it will surprise you. Before you label and judge, just listen."