If any music genre needed a savior, if any category needed someone to bring life back to the hollow carcass, it was "Christian rap". Those two words seem to struggle even to be married together, as if the advanced rhyming of words in distinct patterns matched with melodic notes and pounding bass sounds were something diametrically opposed to God.
Who do we blame for this false stereotyping? We could delve into racism, but let's not saunter off into that rabbit trail. Perhaps the content of secular rap, the words and crass imagery gave pause across the pulpits and choir lofts of churches in America. Rap music was something not to be imitated by those who follow Jesus.
Perhaps this is why it wasn't until 1991 where the Dove Awards (the Christian equivalent to the Grammys) finally created a Rap category. The winner of the first Rap/Hip-Hop Album of the Year? "Nu Thang" by DC Talk. Two white guys and a black guy rhyming in the name of Jesus.
"Nu Thang" wasn't a particularly great album, but it was different from other music put out by Christian artists in previous years and, to that effect, was ground breaking. The music sounds exactly like you would expect 1991 rap to sound, and while Toby, Mike, and Kevin helped the foundation of Christian rap, one wonders if they would have even made the Dove Award category if they hadn't released a song called "I Love Rap Music".
And while secular artists such as NWA and Public Enemy were garnering attention and attracting new rap artists to put out music, DC Talk essentially held the genre hostage for the next several years, winning Rap Song of the Year at the Doves in 1992, 1993, and 1994. But if NWA and Public Enemy paved the way for Tupac and Notoriois B.I.G., who rose up in the Christian rap world after DC Talk? In 1995, nobody did. The Dove Award for Rap Album wasn't given out, because there weren't enough entries. To make matters worse, to following year Carman, a much more contemporary artist was given the Rap Song of the Year award. Yes, that Carman. Is it any wonder teens in church youth groups in the 90's looked elsewhere for their rap music fix? Carman isn't even listed in the Holy Hip Hop artist database.
Fast forward to 2014. Lecrae drops his latest album titled "Anomaly", and it instantly reaches number 1 on the Billboard music charts. Across all genres. How does a rapper that's a Christian do that?
The key may be avoiding selling out to either side of the proverbial religious fence. Lecrae does a phenomenal job of creating quality rhymes mixed with sounds and guest vocalists like you would hear on many secular albums. He isn't afraid of approaching topics many Christian rappers before didn't touch. Like Lecrae himself says "Music doesn't need to be categorized, it just needs to be good."
"Anomaly" starts with Outsiders, a song that has a sound similar to songs you may hear on a Kanye West album, using a slow intro that exceeds a minute before jumping into the rap. Nuthin is a song that hits like a Lil Jon anthem might, but with a message calling out rappers for not speaking on anything of significance.
Lecrae doesn't stray from his faith in the album, but don't expect him to be preaching in every song. That's part of the draw: people want to hear good music, and if it lines up with their spiritual beliefs, it's all the better. "Anomaly" does that and more. No, it won't need a parental advisory sticker on the front cover, but Lecrae doesn't shy away from topics that raise eyebrows. In Welcome to America he jabs at the gaudy lifestyle many Americans live, and how so few of us recognize just how blessed we are with abundance and freedom, hitting with remarks on obesity and immigration. Runners speaks to struggling with lust and fidelity. Probably his most radio friendly song is Wish that points to regrets in his life that he wishes he could take back. Lecrae is peeling back the curtain not just on his creativity, but on his very soul for us to lounge in for a moment.
While "Anomaly" mixes things up to keep interest throughout, it gives one thing that differentiates it from all other rap albums: vulnerability. Tupac and Biggie, for as much as they spoke to their struggles coming up in tough environments rarely spoke to personal failings and humility. Even in the most biographical song, secular rappers still point to their ability to bring themselves up and face down any trial in their path. Lecrae acknowledges that the only means of survival in difficult times is through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In the song Fear, Lecrae gives way to the reality that we are often entrenched in our own insecurities:
"If I could go back in time, I would stand and say something like
I ain't never scared, never scared, never scared
I'm lying, I'm scared of these thoughts in my head
I'm scared of possibly pushing people right over the ledge
When I say I pledge allegiance to the struggle
Then, I turn around and buckle
Under stress and under pressure
Bible on my dresser that can teach my pain a lesson
But I rather not address it
Address that's in depression
I'm scared if I confess it
That you gon' look at me like I'm something less
And I'm such a mess"
If nothing convinces you that a rapper in today's world of flashy arrogance can keep things real, listen to Good, Bad, Ugly. Here, Lecrae speaks to a past that includes abortion, sexual abuse, and promiscuity, and eventually how God set him free from all of his guilt and pain.
The collaborations with Kari Jobe, King and Country, and Crystal Nicole will please the strict Christian music fans, but Lecrae's lyrical ability validates his rise to the top of even secular charts. His musical talent validates the genre of Christian rap, even if he would rather not be shoved under some label. "Anomaly" not only quiets critics of "clean" rap, but validates how great art can be, even art from someone proclaiming the name of Christ.