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By George Varga

Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.

Trusting your creative instincts is one of the most important things any artist can do. But when charismatic San Diego singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tonex was putting together his fifth and latest major label album, “Unspoken,” he ended up succeeding by going against his instincts.

Rather than write and record a batch of new songs, he selected 12 recent tracks from some of the nearly two-dozen “underground” albums he has independently released on his own over the past decade. For “Unspoken’s” 13th song, he dug deep into his musical archives and unearthed the stirring “Blend,” which is now nominated for a Grammy in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category.

“This album was almost like the ‘Greatest Hits’ of songs of mine the general public wasn’t aware of,” said Tonex, whose real name is Anthony Charles Williams II. “I picked what I thought were some of the best songs I’d done for my underground albums from the past few years. Whereas for (his 2003 album) ‘Out the Box,’ I spent nearly a year just working on the preproduction phase, getting the songs ready (to record).”

Choosing “Blend,” which he recorded more than a decade ago but never released until now, seemed counterintuitive to Tonex. Then again, so is virtually all of “Unspoken.” The album solidifies his evolution from an acclaimed gospel artist, who in 2005 was a Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album Grammy nominee, to an urban R&B artist whose music deftly explores both the secular and the spiritual.

“ ‘Blend’ was recorded in 1997 and was supposed to be on my (2000 major label debut album) ‘Pronounced Toe-Nay,’ ” said Tonex, whose debut album was first released in 1997 on the San Diego indie label Rescue Records.

Tonex: Unspoken (Album Cover)“At the last minute, I decided to leave it off and that, ironically, is the song that now got the Grammy nomination. This album is also shorter than my normal work, and it isn’t as ambitious, musically. But the most significant difference would be that this is my first mainstream nomination. So, I think this marks the beginning of my being introduced as a mainstream artist and of my being nominated along people I look up to, such as Bilal and India.Arie.”

Winning acclaim and awards is nothing new for Tonex, who in early 2004 assumed the pulpit at his late father’s Truth Apostolic Community Church in Spring Valley, where Tonex still preaches. His best songs place him alongside the likes of neo-gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, Prince, Babyface and a profanity-free Kanye West.

In 2005 alone, Tonex received six trophies — including Artist of the Year, Rap/Hip-Hop Gospel CD of the Year and Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year — at the Stellar Awards (one of the two most prestigious annual national gospel music competitions).

But his move since then away from what some fans call the “holy hip-hop” world of Christian music has been fraught with controversy — especially since it followed his divorce and subsequent acknowledgment that he is equally attracted sexually to men and women. He reinforced his coming out by naming two of his recent self-produced albums “The Naked Truth” and “Rainbow.”

The African-American gospel music community, like the churches that spawned it, is especially conservative on gender issues. The reaction to Tonex’s public candor about his sexuality was swift and largely unforgiving.

“Within no time, every engagement I had to preach or sing in churches or faith-based concert venues was canceled,” Tonex said, in a first-person “testimony” that was posted last fall on the Web site “I suppose they did not want a demon-possessed homosexual on their stage or pulpit, although I never stopped preaching or teaching the same doctrine and principles that I spoke on before.”

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