tobymacThose already sold on the erstwhile M.C. Swirl should relish this, and more persnickety listeners could find enough to include Diverse City in their festivities, too.

Toby Mac
Christmas In Diverse City

My relationship with Toby Mac's music is that I usually enjoy his albums just fine in the privacy of my own confines, but when I hear his radio singles on Christianny radio or booming from the fellowship hall at my church before or after youth group functions, I think again. The idea of musical authenticity is one largely lost on the infrastructure of mainstream evangeliculture but, Mac talks a good game when it comes to speaking up about his influences and being a cultural mulatto (not an insult, as it's coming from someone who thinks of himself as one, too).  I do wish, however, that he would/could have push the musical manifestation of his Diverse City idea further along by now than K-Love has been willing to give it play since he and his college mates introduced multi-culti hip-hop pop fusion to Christendom with DC Talk going on a quarter-century ago.

Christmas albums aren't often the places to expect an artist to push their boundaries, and Mac's half of Christmas In Diverse City doesn't disappoint in that regard. Within the aesthetic perimeter he's inhabited for a while now, however, he comes up with a warmly winning new tune; a duet with Sixpence None The Richer's Leigh Nash, "Christmas This Year" hits all the notes of Nativity, food, and family just so, with enough emphasis on each to not be overwrought about any one. Personally, I find it more immediately engaging than anything I recall hearing from her band's seasonal longplayer three years ago.

Mac's seems high on the idea of being part of a distaff duo throughout his portion, but the results diminish further into the track list. Jamie Grace returns the favor of having her Gotee Records boss lending his voice to her Jesus-is-my-boyfriend debut biggie, "Hold Me" by exuding her trademark cuteness on the Harry Belafonte oldie "Mary's Boy Child," but production heavy-handed by at least a couple of fingers sinks it some. With his touring background vocalist Nirva Ready on the sung fills, "This Christmas (Father of the Fatherless)" ties the holiday in with a tale of adoption cleverly enough, but it sounds more than a mite like a rewrite of his Portable Sounds hit, "Lose My Soul."

All the above sound blessedly restrained, however, compared to Mac's take on "Little Drummer Boy." That Harry Simeon song demands a reverence and awe wholly absent in this brash percussive workout. Perhaps the idea was for the lad with the snare to come to the Lord boldly, but hey, the Incarnation just popped out of Mary not long before , right?; give the Kid a break from the racket!  

Mac generously gives one more number than his six to his D. City collaborators. It's a savvy move from a man apparently unafraid of being equaled, or bested, by his friends.

The smoothest movers on the kind of hip-hop fusion terrain Mac occupies are HeRose, a co-ed trio playing their field like Group 1 Crew if they weren't quite so set on wanting to be the Lord's own Black Eyed Peas. The most ostentatious of Mac's guests come from urban ground as well, with DJ Maj assisted on a run through "Carol of the Bells" with Latino M.C. Liquid and Gabe Real (Nirva's other half) assisting with rapping and chorally-informed singing.

It's not only Mac's background singers who get some shine, however. Toddiefunk, his bassist, sounds to borriwing the drum machine setting from Sly & The Family Stone's "Family Affair" every few measures for "Santa's Comin' Backl A'round" (sic). Diverse City band guitarist Tim Rosenau takes the tack of danceable infectiously danceable rock on the set's least overtly Christmassy selection, "It Snowed."

Fine spins on different manners of classicism round out the Diverse City half. Nirva returns in solo form for heartfelt "Angels We Have Heard On High" that would fit on countless other more trad' holiday albums. Byron "Mr. Talkbox" Chambers, whose treated vocals truly do make him a guy who wants to be the Almighty's own Roger "Zapp" Troutman (be glad he doesn't want to be T-Pain!) offers a slice of '70s-'80s R & B for "Christmas Time," also offering his son's rhyme spitting and other enthused utterances for the album's best use of a minor's vocals.

An insert booklet cover so economical in design as to be dull does not abate Mac's cause. Those already sold on the erstwhile M.C. Swirl should relish this, and more persnickety listeners could find enough to include Diverse City in their festivities, too.

Jamie Lee Rake