Dc Talk
Jesus Freak


3.0
good

Review

by Nat S. USER (18 Reviews)
September 22nd, 2023 | 5 replies


Release Date: 1995 | Tracklist

Review Summary: “Is this one for the people or is this one for the Lord?” As it turned out, this one was for both…

dc Talk today are looked back on as top dogs of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene of the 1990s, and there’s one album that’s directly responsible for that: their 1995 effort Jesus Freak. Peaking at #16 on the Billboard 200 and certified as RIAA Gold within a month of its release, the album took the band – consisting of Toby ‘TobyMac’ McKeehan, Kevin Max and Michael Tait – from underground youth group curiosity to unlikely commercial success story. And more surprisingly, it did so without dialling down their Christian convictions one bit.

For Jesus Freak, dc Talk moved away from the pure hip-hop of their three previous albums in favour of a rock direction. But far from sounding like Rage Against the Machine, the group decided to combine the grungy sound of bands like Pixies with elements of soul, R&B, gospel and reggae. The result is one of the most stylistically unique and lyrically challenging albums the CCM genre has ever produced, and one that avoids the accusations that all Christian artists just copy what’s in the charts and hope for the best. Yet despite its commercial success, Jesus Freak still finds itself in the same trap as many other Christian releases – wanting to evangelise to those outside the Church but never really managing to speak their language.

Opener “So Help Me God” is perhaps the best example of the album’s genre-bending attitude; it starts off with a slowed-down guitar line before giving way to a big bluesy riff and some soulful scat vocals, then setting out a tight, funky groove for McKeehan to slow-rap over. The song’s template is one that most of the album goes on to follow: straightforward mid-tempo tracks built around guitars, Hammond organ and drums, over which the three vocalists can weave in and out of each other. dc Talk’s transition from rap to rock had the potential to be awkward and muddled, but it never feels that way; Jesus Freak doesn’t rock out for the sake of rocking out, but lays down solid foundations that serve the band’s songwriting rather than divert attention from it. That’s not to say it never picks up the pace, however – the title track, “Day by Day” and “Like It, Love It, Need It” all follow the early 90s pattern of quiet verses followed by loud, fuzzed-out choruses, with “Day by Day” taking this a step further by having the chorus be twice as fast as the verse. But for all the rock energy on display here, it’s the smooth R&B jam “Between You and Me” – with its on-point vocal harmonies, jazzy chord progressions and very tasteful acoustic guitar solo – that arguably ends up being the album’s standout track. The versatility of the three vocalists, particularly Michael Tait, also deserves a mention; Tait’s distinctive croon seems to fit every mood the album goes for, sounding at times like Robert Plant and at other times like Seal.

The main feature of an album like this is its lyrics, and for Jesus Freak, these are both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Christian artists have often been criticised for not putting much effort into their lyrics, but for this record, dc Talk went further than many critics probably expected them to. Most of the tracks on Jesus Freak explore a personal relationship with God, but often do so in a very unsparing and honest way – much like their contemporaries Jars of Clay, the band weren’t afraid to address the challenges and difficulties of a life of faith, or admit that their spiritual lives weren’t as healthy as they wanted them to be. “What if I Stumble?” sees them expressing their fear of being bad ambassadors for Christ (“What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?”), while on “Day by Day”, they confess to being “blinded by distractions, lost in matter-less affairs” as they attempt to live sacred lives in a secular world. This kind of raw, unfiltered lyricism, combined with the big words that the band seemed to love using, is what helped Jesus Freak stand out from the CCM crowd and avoid the genre’s tendency towards toxic positivity. (For those who do want something more light-hearted, there’s also the short interlude “Mrs Morgan”, which features a clip of the band’s elderly neighbour joking about their noise levels over a hip-hop beat. I guess even dc Talk themselves could only go so long without needing to let off steam…)

Indeed, it’s on these more introspective tracks that Jesus Freak really comes into its own, with the rest of the album often feeling a bit too self-assured and dismissive of people’s valid concerns about the Christian faith. “Like It, Love It, Need It” opens with McKeehan complaining about his generation “drowning in despair-o” and lamenting that they’re not coming to Jesus with their problems; the song then gets even more preachy in the chorus, with the band belittling one-night stands and ‘hippy farms’ and declaring “You’ve gotta like it, you’ve gotta love it, I know you need some Jesus in your life”. The title track famously asks “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak? What will people do when they find that it’s true?”; this might be a reasonable question if being a ‘Jesus freak’ was in some way weird or unconventional, but it feels a little tone-deaf in a country where more than half the population identifies as Christian and people of faith hold the most important political positions. To their credit, the band were prophetic in calling out racism on “Colored People” and “What Have We Become?”, songs which feel especially poignant in view of Michael Tait’s (who is Black himself) recent support for Donald Trump.

dc Talk released one more album after Jesus Freak, expanding on the alt-rock sound with 1998’s Supernatural, before officially splitting in 2000. The band has occasionally reunited for one-off live performances, but these have been limited due to the three members’ busy schedules – McKeehan and Max have both enjoyed successful solo careers, while Tait had another stint at the top of the CCM pile as lead singer of the Newsboys. Listening to Jesus Freak in 2023, it’s hard to deny that while the album’s composition may have aged well, its lyrics and general outlook keep it firmly grounded in mid-90s youth group culture. Though there were other CCM albums that saw acclaim from the mainstream music press (Jars of Clay’s self-titled album and Amy Grant’s Age to Age, to name two), none of them have quite come to define the genre like this one has. In an ironic twist, dc Talk’s loud and unapologetic Christianity is both what earned them their brief moment of commercial success and the reason why, almost 30 years later, their influence is limited to a very specific period of American Christian history.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
MantisTobogganMD
September 23rd 2023


144 Comments


Jesus Freak was the first "heavy" song I ever really listened to. My mom at the time had me on a heavy diet of Kirk Franklin and other gospel music so that song and this album was a revelation.

Emim
September 23rd 2023


35500 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Album goes crazy

Koris
Staff Reviewer
September 23rd 2023


21288 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

It really does



Awesome review too! Pos'd. I may not be Catholic anymore, but Dc Talk are always going to be a cornerstone of my teen years

pizzamachine
September 23rd 2023


27349 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Huge album as a kid pizza

MetalMarcJK
September 23rd 2023


1054 Comments


Great album!



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