It's tough to give the generous and talented TobyMac a ho-hum review; his multi-million sales and five GRAMMY Awards have been well earned. But there's something about this holiday album that stirs as many visions of "Festivus" as it does Christmas. That Seinfeld observance calls for a formal "airing of grievances" each December, and Christmas in Diverse Cityâ ”a pop-meets-hip-hop mishmashâ ”certainly does invite some complaints.
First, the project should be called TobyMac Presents Christmas in Diverse City as a clearer indication that it only features Toby on the first six of thirteen tracks. The other seven cuts are a platform for members of his Diverse City touring band to headline some seasonal jams. They have their gifts, but it's a safe bet some who buy the set at face value will feel duped to get Superherose, Arch Nemesiz, and Byron "Mr. Talkbox" Chambers.
Unfortunately such offerings don't even provide a stable listening experience. A quirky "Carol of the Kings" (Maj) feels inspired by Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," while the out-of-nowhere "It Snowed" (Tim Rosenau) sounds like bar band rock. That's followed by a much more familiar version of "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Nirva Ready).
Up front, two of the TobyMac tunes ("This Christmas" and "Christmas This Year") were already released in 2002 and 2010 respectively. Both hits are fine examples of Toby's ability to get creative with holiday music, but fans likely have these selections already. And it seems a stretch for them to buy a full album for what's left: four more songs.
Among those, "The First Noel" featuring auto-tune extraordinaire Owl City ("Fireflies") is fun, and so is the Jamaican pop-praise of "Mary's Boy Child" with Jamie Grace. The rhythmic remix-like takes on "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Little Drummer Boy" are less engaging and don't have the sort of arrangements you can sing along with easily.
At best Christmas in Diverse City can liven up a dragging holiday party or inspire the energy it takes to get your tree completely decoratedâ ”and there's certainly a place for such records among those with deep yuletide catalogs. But if I had to make a musical wish this season, it would be for TobyMac to go all-reggae or pair up with Kirk Franklin for a very merry throw-down session of worship and funk the next time his chance to make another Christmas album rolls back around.