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I was raised by a man who was raised by San Diego. In 2000, I lived hundreds of miles away in a placeless place called Greensboro, North Carolina. I was 13-years-old watching Showtime at the Apollo back when Steve Harvey said “Show ya love!” before every Apollo contestant and celebrity guest.

B.Slade, then known as the urban gospel artist Tonéx, looked like he was high. Or maybe zoned out. Or maybe really creative. His silky locs cascaded around the mic stand. He wore one of those huge coats like a pimp in a blaxploitation movie.

The organ runs, dragging bassline, and snare hits let me know Tonéx was about to bring the funk. He sang “Personal Jesus” with a tone that sounded like sweat, childhood trauma, and late nights calling on the name of Jesus. Though it was obvious he naturally had a lithe tenor voice, he was also a squaller who can turn his voice into a loud, harsh rasp that signifies he’s a top tier church singer full of the anointing.

Just the phrase, “Personal Jesus,” sounded heretic. Jesus was essentially our pastor’s Jesus. To democratize Jesus and say I should know him personally beyond my pastor’s interpretation seemed revolutionary. I bought Tonéx’s mainstream debut album, Pronounced Toe-nay, within the next 24 hours, or so I remember.

“He sound like he just woke up,” my cousin said of Tonéx while “Personal Jesus” played at the Christian bookstore.

I ignored her statement and waited for the cashier to put my CD in the bag.

Pronounced Toe-nay was one of the first albums I bought independently of my mom, who forced me to listen to only gospel music. Fortunately, my mom’s taste in contemporary gospel overlapped with mines. One of our favorite gospel artists, Helen Baylor, sang of being delivered from a seedy life as a secular singer. She prepared me for what I would hear on Pronounced Toe-Nay.

There were songs like “Why?” that had tortured ruminations on getting high and having sex: “I can’t seem to behave because of the things my body craves.”

At the time, I knew nothing about drugs and sex because no one talked to me about it except Tonéx. I wanted to know about the world beyond me outside of fear-inducing sermons and my mom’s harsh tones that would end in abrupt silence. Tonéx taught me why to live for Jesus, and made it cool.

Pronounced Toe-Nay was essentially my gospel Sesame Street. The album traversed almost every sound from futuristic glitches to bass-driven late 90’s R&B to altar call preaching to get right with Jesus.

The album was also a Rolodex of topics as well. Need to abandon bad influences that lead you away from Christ? Listen to “Restoration.” Need to be honest with God about a secret you have? Listen to “Real With U.” Want to feel like you have youth group friends even though you don’t? Listen to “It’s On Like That” and imagine its gospel skate night.

I instantly became a superfan. “How’s Tonéx doing?” became a question my mom would ask as a form of greeting.

I wrote a high school report on Tonéx and when I was bullied around the same time, my mom knew exactly how to cheer me up. She played Tonéx’s hit song, “God Has Not Forgot” from his 02 album on a boombox when she picked me up from basketball practice. The tape player in her Volkswagen Jetta stopped working, so my mom improvised.

As a black girl bullied for being dark-skinned and basically just “different,” I felt a part of Tonéx’s cultural movement. He called it Nureau (pronounced ‘new row’ as in a new church row or pew) to describe the progressive outsiders of gospel music.

I bought all of Tonéx’s underground projects through his neon-green Nureau Underground site. I became the annoying music snob that snickered when someone said their favorite Tonéx album is his most popular (and most conforming, yet genius) work, 2004’s live double-CD Out the Box.

Real ones know that Oak Park 92105 is possibly the most progressive (and controversial) gospel album ever created. First released in 2003, Oak Park is basically the movie score of B.Slade’s southeast San Diego upbringing. The double-disc album explores hidden vices with surgical precision. B.Slade weaved fictional and nonfictional details to express the nebulous guilt of his private life conflicting with his public church persona. There’s a song about struggling with pornography and masturbation, a song about getting HPV, and a song about the weed paranoia of Jesus coming back. It’s not surprising that Oak Park is considered the first album from a Christian-based artist to have a parental advisory sticker.

“A lot of people don’t know [Oak Park] was the sequel to Pronounced Toe-nay but the label didn’t want to put it out. It was too risque,” B.Slade reminisced over a phone interview last year.

His speaking voice sounded bright and gentle, but B.Slade said he is just starting to feel comfortable enough to talk about his tumultuous gospel career while signed to Verity Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music.

As a Tonéx fan, I knew that Pronounced Toe-Nay, recorded in 1997, was in label purgatory for three years. While labels like Tommy Boy Gospel clamored for him, Pronounced Toe-Nay went bootleg platinum and attracted celebrity fans like Missy Elliot.

“A lot of people don’t know [Oak Park] was the sequel to Pronounced Toe-nay but the label didn’t want to put it out. It was too risque,” B.Slade reminisced over a phone interview last year.

What I didn’t know was that Oak Park was basically a clandestine project.

To please Verity, B.Slade delivered 11 different versions of 02. The final product was a polished, yet relatively safe 2002 album. “Okay, label,” B.Slade remembered of his annoyance, “I gave you what you asked for with 02 now give me reciprocity with Oak Park.”

That didn’t happen. Verity didn’t support Oak Park at all. In 2003, B.Slade self-released the project on Nureau Underground with no album cover or track listing. Even as a kid, when I told B.Slade that I’m saving money to buy his mysterious $30 album, his only response was that “It’s hot.”

I got Oak Park in the mail with a black and white photo of B.Slade with his arms outstretched in place of a proper album cover.

B.Slade explained why he released Oak Park with scant information until the official launch in 2005: “A lot of it was because I thought that if people really knew what it was about they wouldn’t give the album a chance to hear it and experience it. You have to listen to the album in context. If you pick one song from Oak Park, you really won’t get it. It’s a story. You have to play it from top to bottom to really understand the journey. Also, I was trying to not get in trouble with the record label with an independent release technically without their permission.”

At over 20 tracks, Oak Park is difficult to describe because B.Slade wanted this album to be unlike anything he ever created. With the money from his gospel celebrity, B.Slade used a nicer recording facility where he had more tools at his disposal.

“Following 02, I knew I wanted to do something more street. Like way more raw,” B.Slade said of his first Oak Park recordings around 2001. “ I didn’t really care about what anybody had to say because I had enough money to take care of myself and if they didn’t like it, I was still going to be okay.”

“If I came out right now as Tonéx … it would change everything all over again.”

This is why Oak Park begins with the ferocity of a sledgehammer. In “California,” he taunts producers “biting his style” as he raps over the most aggressive hip-hop sounds he ever created. There’s rapid-fire drum programming, abrasive synths, and whimsical piano melodies. It’s as if B.Slade is Willy Wonka as he whisks us into the magical world of southeast San Diego.

On the next song, B.Slade explores his grandmother’s chaotic Santa Margarita neighborhood that was minutes from his home in Oak Park.

“It was the most horrible, crack, drug infested street ever. I remember sometimes being scared at night,” B.Slade said before mentioning a nearby candy store got shot up during his childhood.

In “Santa Margarita,” he uses synths that shriek like an obnoxious alarm. The sound seems to mirror a crack high, or the frenetic depths that follow.

B.Slade had a lot he wanted to prove as a producer.

“I know you know me from gospel but I really know how to make hard ass, innovative hip-hop. ‘Santa Margarita’ is one of the favorite beats I ever made. Because it’s so hard.”

The album gets softer and more intimate, with the neo-soul inspired “Anthony.” B.Slade exudes vulnerability when he sings that his notebook is “the best friend I never had.” The song centers on a confrontation where he’s told he’s stuck up and arrogant. That’s an easy trait to acquire given B.Slade growing up Apostolic, which is like the Marines of black Pentecostal denominations. “Anthony” closes with B.Slade singing of becoming more humble and giving to the world around him.

“That’s why I end that song saying, ‘nice to meet you’ because I haven’t even met myself yet. By the end of the song, I kinda for the first time got a clue about myself,” B.Slade said. “The album became like therapy sessions. And by saying these things out loud, using my gifts to get them out so I wouldn’t be afraid to say them, by the end of certain songs, I had grown as a human being, not just as an artist.”

Oak Park is an album of layers. The first disc, which B.Slade named “San Diego City,” has urban grit and fairytale-like allegories about childhood memories, church politics, and music industry drama. But the expansive second disc, “San Diego County,” covers even heavier, more explicit themes.

Because I was so sheltered when Oak Park came out, some of B.Slade’s disc two references went over my head. “Sisters and brothers alike are trying to get up on me” was one of the many breathless rap lyrics in “Insanity.” This leadoff song was a tonal shift and a revelation. Was B.Slade alluding to his sexuality?

“YES. YES,” B.Slade emphatically said, before playing “Insanity” in its entirety during the phone interview. He let the song speak for itself.

“The album became like therapy sessions. And by saying these things out loud, using my gifts to get them out so I wouldn’t be afraid to say them, by the end of certain songs, I had grown as a human being, not just as an artist.”

In “Now,” B.Slade juxtapositions the song’s angelic sound with the secrets of his first sexual experiences.

“That song is basically about sexuality and promiscuity on the complication level. How many people are introduced to sex in the lobby, in the hallway, in the hotel, in the elevator?” B.Slade questioned. He was referring to the “lobby full of freaks” he mentioned in “Now” that would be at church convocations.

The shocker of “Now” is that the song’s narrator gets HPV. But B.Slade encases his edginess with spiritual exhortation. The song includes a part where he uses another acronym: ATM — Abstinence Til Marriage.

“In Oak Park, I was still encouraging people to live a saved life but I also wanted to be real about the other side that we can never share,” B.Slade said.

“Now” is one of the many reasons why I chose abstinence until I turned 30. I used B.Slade’s warnings as an affirmation that abstaining from sex was the right choice. While the world was making fun of my virginity, Tonéx said I can draw strength (and even some swag) from it.

But now at 31, the lessons I get from Oak Park is that there are some things you may not get delivered from because they are apart of who you are. I’m old enough to realize that the sexual fluidity B.Slade alluded to in Oak Park in some ways mirror my own.

After the shock of having sexual dreams about women at 30, I sat in the bathtub and cried in the shower. (Yes, like the Kermit meme.) Up until that point, I thought I was heterosexual. I was terrified of having feelings that were beyond my control.

At the time, I knew that B.Slade emerged like a phoenix after being blacklisted in gospel for saying he’s attracted to men in a 2009 interview. B.Slade lost everything for being himself and gained it all back again. Since launching his B.Slade career in 2010, he’s released over 20 musical projects and collaborated with mainstream artists like Snoop Dogg, Patti LaBelle, and Faith Evans.

Leaving gospel also birthed new creative freedom. Gender and sexual fluidity are a more prominent part of B.Slade’s music, evidenced in the candor of My September Issue and Stunt B%$@H. The honesty of the B.Slade era eclipses what he achieved as Tonéx in Oak Park.

B.Slade’s evolution from wrestling with his identity to embracing it models the life I want to have.

I knew what happened to B.Slade, but what would happen to me? I had no idea who I would emerge as when the Bible I was conditioned to read says that people like me are going to hell. I sat in that bathtub and felt the peace of God saying that I shouldn’t change myself. I am this way for a reason. But the scriptures include a completely different message.

This conflicting emotion of both acceptance and religious guilt is captured in “Feelings — the song about pornography and masturbation that Verity rejected.

“I remember them making a mockery about that.” B.Slade recalled what he said in response: “You know what guys, that was really personal and I put a lot on the line for a lot of young people to talk about that.”

“Feelings” was so personal, B.Slade recorded the vocals alone and engineered the studio session by himself. In the song, his voice sounds faint and worn as he unloads each guilt-inducing secret.

“Feelings” has a pop and hiss of old vinyl recordings. There’s also a Karen Carpenter sample where she repeats, “and the same old feelings come again.” Those words could easily have been written in B.Slade’s notebook.

“That sample … it gives me chills just thinking about it,” he said. B.Slade considers The Carpenters as one of his musical inspirations.

After laying down vocals, B.Slade thought the song’s ending was missing something. “I felt like after that type of confessional like that, you need some type of redemption or some type of worship because when you become that broken the only thing that can follow is worship,” he said. “When I sang that part, the engineer started crying. The engineer started confessing stuff and then I had to restore him. I knew Lord, ‘Make Me Over’ had to be a full-length song.”

“Justin Bieber posted a video of playing ‘Make Me Over.’ Millions and millions of people have heard it. But ‘Feelings,’ particularly that song, has [sparked] some of the most real conversations I’ve had with other people.”

The outro to “Feelings” became the most popular song of the Tonéx era. “Make Me Over” from the smash hit Out The Box was the Sunday morning staple Verity wanted. But Oak Park, sandwiched between the artistic compromises of 2002’s 02 album and 2004’s Out The Box, had a rawness that removed the churchy veneer people hid behind.

“Out of all my songs from my Tonéx catalog, that song is where I get the most testimonials from. All over the world,” B.Slade said of “Feelings.” “Justin Bieber posted a video of playing ‘Make Me Over.’ Millions and millions of people have heard it. But ‘Feelings,’ particularly that song, has [sparked] some of the most real conversations I’ve had with other people.”

Due to Oak Park’s mystique, I had no clue that the album included demos for Kim Burrell (“Can’t You See”), Kierra Sheard (“My Friend”), and Rahsaan Patterson (“Good 2 Me” and “Yahtzee”). I also didn’t know that fictional songs about B.Slade taking hallucinogenic drugs (“The Blue Mood Ring”) and leaving the secular music world (“Out The Game”) was for an unreleased film soundtrack called 2 Each His Own.

Looking back, B.Slade would still be an outlier in gospel music if Oak Park was released for the first time today.

“Those projects would still be revolutionary. If I came out right now as Tonéx … it would change everything all over again,” B.Slade confidently stated. “There is no urban in gospel right now. There is no edgy. There is no [one] addressing these things. That’s why I’m thankful to God for the legacy that some people are just now discovering Tonéx because of B.Slade ... It means a lot to me. I haven’t had a chance to reflect on it.”

After an hour of answering questions, B.Slade had a question for me about Oak Park.

“In what way do you understand the album more?”

I told B.Slade (with far less eloquence) that the only person who prepared me for my sexual awakening was him. Everyone from campus ministers to youth pastors made me feel I would be a virgin until I get married (to the opposite sex) in my early to mid-20s. Nobody told me what to do when I exhausted my willpower to live like a “Christian.”

Oak Park teaches me that church kids are human. Many of us have fluid sexual desires that can’t be prayed away, no matter how hard we try. B.Slade’s evolution from wrestling with his identity to embracing it models the life I want to have. I hope to create space for my full sexual identity so I can meet myself for the first time, much like the Oak Park song, “Anthony.”

And that is terrifying. Now that I can no longer fit into the confining space of Christian culture, I’m that 15-year-old kid listening to Oak Park trying to learn about a world beyond my view. This time, that world is within me.

“Thank you,” B.Slade said in response. “It shows a lot about my healing that I can even talk about this.”

I wanted to tell him the same.

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