Silver anniversaries are a big deal. They celebrate the milestone of a quarter-century since a momentous occasion. This October, one noteworthy musical release is celebrating such an anniversary. It was a release that slammed open doors and influenced a generation of artists. It was a release that redefined the musical paradigm of Christian music in a way no other album ever did, or probably ever will. It was an album of boldness, proudly declaring the faith of the three men behind this band, all the while unapologetically calling out societal ills, and their own shortcomings. It's an album near and dear to the hearts of almost any Christian music fan: Jesus Freak.
Jesus Freak was such an influential album that it put the Christian music industry on an entirely new trajectory, infusing money, style and influence into a genre that has become what it is today. We explored that industry shift in an earlier editorial (read here) and now, we'll look back on an album that remains just as relevant twenty-five years later.
An Iconic Album
There's really nothing I can say about this album that hasn't been sound countless times. If you like Christian music, you know this album. Even if you don't like Christian music, you probably know this album. It redefined what Christian music could be. It's bold lyrics challenged listeners. While the band already had solid success with their first three rap albums, the rock pivot on Jesus Freak was one of the most successful sonic transitions ever pulled off. It made each of the members household names.
Every song on the album, aside from the interlude, the "reprise," and the hidden track, became hit singles. Each reached Top 3 on one chart or another. And of those, a whopping eight would hit No. 1 on at least one of the various Christian music charts. Few can boast such prolific success from a single album. The sonic variety also helps the album stand the test of time, with rock, pop, rap, and various experimental styles all dueling from one song to the next. Jesus Freakwasn't just popular; it was legitimately a work of art. And the shadow it casts over Christian music remains to this day.
A Legacy Album
While the band members are now almost 20 years into their "intermission," each of them is still a major presence in the Christian music scene. One could argue much of the output of Christian music in the quarter century since this album's release owes itself to the success of Jesus Freak.
Toby McKeehan would rebrand himself as TobyMac after the intermission began. His brand of hip-hop/pop has itself produced several gold records and he has truly been a trailblazer into bringing Christian hip-hop into the mainstream as a viable music genre. So many of the artists in this genre, and even many from other subsets of Christian pop, owe their initial success to a push from TobyMac.
For his part, Michael Tait had a moderately successful solo career with his band, Tait, before reinvigorating the already hugely popular Christian rock band, Newsboys, into a bold new era. Their cover of "God's Not Dead" would dominate the industry and serve as a sort of sequel to "Jesus Freak" two decades later.
Kevin Max's signature vocals always elevated dc Talk songs into something that made you pay attention. While his artistic style has led him toward the fringes of Christian and mainstream music, he still has a prolific output of quality music that continues to this day and that fans would do well to discover.
Clamors for a reunion of the band remain loud. There is always a rumor of it finally happening. But as of this writing, that reunion has been limited to just two showings on the Jesus Freak Cruise (read our review of the initial announcement here). Because what else would you call a cruise where dc Talk performs? Regardless, this album remains a crowning achievement of Christian music and a driving force behind the careers of all three of the band's members. And if they finally do give in and officially reunite, it will again be the gold standard that will fuel their work going forward.
A Timeless Album
In the 25 years since Jesus Freak's release, despite all the changing of the sounds and faces behind the music, a lot hasn't changed. While a few of the production hallmarks of the 90's pin this release in time, the music has qualities that make it feel fresh, even in 2020. Perhaps it is the challenging of genre conventions, blending rap and rock with pop and even throwback vibes. Or maybe it's the convincing vocal chops of Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max. Man, can these guys sing.
Perhaps what makes this album relevant most of all are the themes. One of dc Talk's hallmark themes has been standing against racism. "Colored People" and "What Have We Become" speak to these issues most blatantly. Looking back at this from 2020, it's almost tragic to see how our racial tensions have not improved in the quarter century since this album's release and how few mainstream artists and groups are writing about it. And yet so many in our world and nation want to live the message of unity "Colored People" proclaims. Can we ever reach a world which recognizes the beauty of each of us as created in Christ?
We are also a nation full of family turmoil. These themes run through several of the tracks, with one even touching on suicide and mental illness. Again, looking back at these songs with 2020 eyes reveals just how much work we have to do to make progress on our problems.
Perhaps most refreshing in these songs is the self-awareness of man's own sinfulness. "What If I Stumble" and "In The Light" both speak to our need for a savior and the healing He brings. I think today, more than ever, the Christian world could use a dose of self awareness of this fact. Yes, we "know" it. Yes, we have song after song provide vague lyrics of mistakes, brokenness, and a need for Jesus. But our world has gotten so accustomed to making excuses for bad behavior. While fighting shame is a real cornerstone of the Christian mission, it's hard to escape the feeling that we've swung so far that we no longer have any desire to improve anymore. We're so content to have Jesus meet us where we are that we don't want Him to take us to where we need to be. Christian music often reflects this too, with the popular songs eschewing anything that might take the listener out of their comfort zone. The self-awareness present in many of these songs feels like such a revolutionary and necessary theme for the Church in 2020. It's as if the art from twenty-five years ago is more timely than much of the output from anything recent.
Then there's the title song. The term "jesus freak" was once a disparaging term used to shame believers. In these lyrics, the dc Talk boys pushed back against this–not by trying to hide who they were or what Jesus stood for, but by embracing it. For a generation of Christians, "jesus freak" became something we could own and be proud of. Yes, we are jesus freaks. We love our Savior. We will not be ashamed of loving our Savior, even though it might not be popular with society at large. Ever since the time of Christ, being a Christian has required one to be counter-cultural. While a few decades of relative peace had often led many in the American bubble to feel like Christianity was the norm, 2020 is reminding us that we're still the enemy of the establishment if we dare to live our faith.
As I write this in the Autumn of 2020, a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States is being dogged in the press for adherence to religious values. A candidate for Vice President has gone on the record of attacking the Knights of Columbus for their stance that life should be protected starting from conception, and that these beliefs disqualify one from serving in public office. A college professor publicly stated that if he could go back in time, his first goal would be to kill Jesus before he could begin His ministry. Many in academia feel the same. And these are the ones educating our youth.
While we may not be at a point where Christians are being devoured by lions for public spectacle, clearly living for Jesus still carries a sort of scarlet letter to the mainstream world. If you won't sell your soul for power, if you take positions that the world deems outdated, if you choose to tie yourself to a Jewish carpenter from 2000 years ago, the world will hate you. They will slander you. They will tell you that you have to get with the times. They will write you off as a "Jesus Freak."
Well, may we be able to stand before the Lord one day and proudly say, "I don't really care if they label me a Jesus Freak. There ain't no disguising the truth."
J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community.
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