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Say what you want about TON3X, but you just can’t deny the man’s talent while keeping a straight face. As controversial and polarizing as he can be, somehow he’s an artist I can never manage to stay mad at for long. This month, with the release of Circu$$ on iTunes, Amazon.com, and other digital retailers, he finally allows us a look at a brilliant album that’s been chained up in his basement for nearly 10 years.

Though most of these songs were recorded in 1999, they chronicle a pivotal period for TON3X. It was at this time that he first began flooring the pedal on his crash-bang journey to gospel notoriety. If you listen to the album in its entirety, you can see young seedlings of all of the elements that became his trademark.

TALENTED ARTIST, TORTURED ARTISTRY

If you’ve ever seen his outlandish costumes and performances and wondered “why does he act up so?” then this album is rich with foreshadowing clues to facets of his artistry and personality that are only coming to light recently.

On “Soft 17,” he uses a light pop-funk theme not unlike that of late-70’s Prince to address struggles with identity and masculinity. “Sycamore Tree” borrows the Fat Albert theme song and pulls back the covers on his battles with recreational drugs as his spoken voice pleads, “please, don’t embarrass me.” The cartoonishly manic pace and theatrical multi-layered vocals of “Ridiculous” point to his admitted frustration with record company release schedules that would prevent him from getting music to his public.

For anyone who was knocked flat by Pronounced Toe-Nay when it was first released independently in 1997, Circu$$ is the album that rightfully should have followed it. There’s only one problem. It’s not gospel music.

Circu$$ focuses its attention primarily on the business that produces gospel music. The songs read like journal entries on what happens when one attempts to run a headstrong artist like TON3X through the machinery of the gospel music industry. At some point there is friction, overheating, loud noises, and the artist gets smashed up pretty badly. Meanwhile, the machinery loses a cog or two and has to go down temporarily for repairs.

The outcome is a non-linear, scantly literal, yet astounding piece of work peppered with comedic satire, and allusions to pop culture and childhood nostalgia. It’s as if the pressure of being signed to a major label threw his creativity into shock, and the resulting convulsions were set to music.

FROM THE BEGINNING

I caught wind of this project a decade ago when a politely autographed promotional cassette single of the song “Mad” arrived at my doorstep. Its cover was simply emblazoned with the title and an emblem of a baby’s pacifier. My first listen was a quizzical one. The pastiche of macabre string stabs, arbitrary kick/snare hits, babies’ cries, cuckoo clocks, and car brakes screeching to a halt left me absolutely dumbstruck. Every detail seemed to be a carefully wrought commentary on his true feelings about being a signed recording artist.

In the guise of a pouting pre-teen, he sings, “record companies make me sick, record companies are full of– ” with a timely interruption by the cuckoo clock. I was horrified and immediately called him up in a panic. He assured me that the song was not an accident and explained the conflicts that were preventing his career from developing as he planned. With a little understanding and a different perspective, I was able to listen again. Within a couple listens, I was singing along with the chorus and telling my friends about it.

TURN ON THE MUSICK

TON3X was one of the first gospel artists to embrace the internet as a means of distributing music. Unfortunately, he frayed many a gospel executive’s nerve in the process. Then-burgeoning MP3.com was his avenue of choice to get free music to his fans at the time. Though the move probably vexed handlers at Verity Records and Tommy Boy Gospel, as a fan, I was thrilled to find a few late Christmas gifts on the site in January of 2000.

Among the first to appear was “Happi,” which expands the soundscape of “Mad” into a three-ring aural circus with a push-me-pull-you groove that would make George Clinton proud. On it, TON3X croaks the lyrics “why are you so mad that I’m happi? Creativity is just a part of me I can’t control.” Soon enough, curious ditties like “Cherri Jubilee” and “Sour Sugar (The Banana Song)” all made their way onto the website which was increasingly gaining in popularity.

The most compelling and plainly understandable of the leaked songs, however, was the title track “Circu$$.” Its likeable, clap-happy uptempo track is a counterbalance to plaintive lyrics like “How can someone own what they didn’t create?” The song appears in two versions. The original gives more than a nod to the influence of Minneapolis icons Prince and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and features a sample of Janet Jackson’s “Escapade.” The Paisley Park Mix (which first surfaced in 2006 on the artist’s MySpace page) follows in the album’s sequence and highlights his musical growth and maturity dramatically since the original recording. True to its name, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place as the 10th track on his royal badness’s Around The World In A Day.

On the brash and industrious track “Nerve” toward the end of the album’s sequence, TON3X sings “You think I’m too worldly? Well you better get ready. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Perhaps if audiences had gotten to hear this material earlier in TON3X’s career, they wouldn’t have been so overwhelmed with the nakedness of later releases like Oak Park 92105 and last year’s impressive set Bapost.o.g.i.c. (both of which were also digitally re-released on the same day as Circu$$).

Circu$$ can’t be dismissed as a 70 minute gospel industry bash-fest though. It’s full of danceable rays of light like “Definitely” and the mid-80s styled “Where Did She Go?” that skips along like Janet Jackson’s sunshiny UK hit “Whoops Now.” A feel-good melody line anchors my personal favorite “The Musick” that simply says we’re all “just a work in progress.”

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Though I very much enjoy TON3X’s music when it’s pasteurized through the mechanism of a major label, there’s something both fantastic and frightening about what a genius can do when no one is around to tell him what can’t be done.

If you pay attention, it’s easy to see TON3X has been honest about his life from the start and it was only the drive to make him commercial that kept us from knowing more information sooner. It would be 5 full years before his next full studio album entitled O2 was released in 2002. By then, TON3X was happily married and writing all about it with undeniable hits like “God Has Not 4Got.” But Circu$$ is the missing link that completes a long-standing gap in the story of an artist who has spent his career-to-date giving us “something to talk about.”

RECOMMENDED LISTENING: “The Musick,” and “Circu$$ (Paisley Park Mix).”

Written by Mark Chappelle Coston for Elev8.com. More info, follow @MarkChappelle on Twitter.

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