Rich Copley: TobyMac's new Christian album achieves milestone on Billboard chart

Earlier this summer, TobyMac was one of the headliners at the Ichthus Festival in Wilmore.
Earlier this summer, TobyMac was one of the headliners at the Ichthus Festival in Wilmore. Lexington Herald-Leader

TobyMac's new album, Eye On It, made a little music sales and Christian music history last week when it landed at No. 1 on Billboard Magazine's Top 200 album sales chart.

No, not Top 200 Christian rock or Top 200 gospel charts.

T-Mac's fifth non-seasonal studio album was the No. 1 album in the land, the first time since 1997 and only the third time that a Christian album topped the overall best-seller charts, and we're going to do some qualifying of those other two. The last No. 1 was LeAnn Rimes' You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs, which topped the chart for three weeks. But Rimes was an established star in the country market with No. 1's to her credit in mainstream music. Shortly before that, Bob Carlisle's Butterfly Kisses went to No. 1. Carlisle is a Christian market artist, but the title song, a father's reflections about his daughter on her 16th birthday, was a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. The album actually was a retitled reissue of Shades of Grace, on which the song originally appeared.

So, it is fair to say that TobyMac is the first Christian music artist to take an album to No. 1 based on his own star power and the music he has made?

It's a milestone that has been a long time coming. Christian artists such as Casting Crowns have sniffed at No. 1 in recent years. And TobyMac's former band, dc talk, made its own history with its 1998 release, Supernatural, which debuted at No. 4, an unprecedented bow for a Christian band at the time.

"Depending on whether you see the music industry's glass as half-empty or half-full, this either points to a long-running genre that has built a healthy audience or simply done a better job holding on while most other music sales have tanked," wrote Ben Sisario of The New York Times. "According to Billboard, 27 percent of TobyMac's sales came from Christian retailers and bookstores."

You also could attribute it to a savvy release strategy, as late August is a fairly light time for new music, making it an easier week to make a run at No. 1. Eye On It's main competition came from the hip-hop collective Slaughterhouse, whose Welcome to: Our House bowed at No. 2, and Alanis Morissette, who hasn't been a chart powerhouse since the mid-1990s and saw her Havoc and Bright Lights come in at No. 5.

It is fair to say TobyMac's music has endured a lot longer in the faith-based market than Morissette's in the mainstream.

If someone was going to bring contemporary Christian music a No. 1, it is entirely appropriate that it was Toby McKeehan, who has played a huge role in dragging along a genre that is often behind the times. With dc talk, he and bandmates Michael Tait (now the frontman for Newsboys) and Kevin Max (now a solo artist) brought hip-hop to a Christian music world that was still a bit wary of the electric guitar. Showing that fans were maybe a bit ahead of the artists, dc talk had an iconic hit with Jesus Freak, a grungy, unapologetically Christian track whose centerpiece was TobyMac's raps about Christians persecuted for their faith. The song was a game- changer, opening Christian music to edgier fare.

Articles about TobyMac invariably mention his groundbreaking band — guilty — even though it has been on hiatus for more than a decade and he has built a highly successful solo career.

The real oddity here might be that T-Mac comes to his historic No. 1 with a bit of a retro tune.

The straight Christian pop genre has given way to praise and worship acts such as Crowns and the many acts born of Passion and similar movements, or rock and pop bands such as Switchfoot that are aimed at mainstream markets as much as Christian listeners. The band that makes faith-based pop music is not as prevalent as it was a decade ago.

Eye On It has a distinctly T-Mac style of vertical music, such as Steal My Show. But it is essentially an urban contemporary album, emphasis on contemporary.

Yes, Eye On It has some blistering moments, such as the title tune. There is also a fun track, Mac Daddy (Tru's Reality). In it, McKeehan's 14-year-old son Truett, who has made cameos on his dad's albums since he was 2, lobbies dad for work so he can save up for a laptop.

But for the most part, this is an album where TobyMac, 47, audibly mellows, possibly making part of the album's broad appeal the fact that tracks such as leadoff single Me Without You fit easily on a K-Love play list while a lot of material from previous efforts was a bit loud for a significant portion of the Christian crowd.

However he got there, TobyMac has achieved yet another milestone for himself and his genre, and few artists ever get to say that.