They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?
This is how Kanye West, troubadour of gold diggers and douchebags and Lamborghinis, raps about faith. The irony of his 2004 hit "Jesus Walks" is that it's a direct challenge to radio stations and record studios—"well let this take away from my spins," West declares—but it won a Grammy and made it to the top 20 on the Billboard 100. The other irony of "Jesus Walks" is that West also has penned deeply profane lyrics like "put my fist in her like a civil rights sign." He may have rapped about Christianity, but few would call Kanye a Christian rapper.
Not so for Lecrae. At the end of September, the 34-year-old rapper became the first-ever artist to land an album at the top of both the Billboard 200 and the gospel charts simultaneously. Anomaly includes shout-outs to Jesus, gratitude for "the redeemer," and not a single curse word.
It also includes lyrics about slavery, a discussion of adultery, and a song about driving someone he had sex with to get an abortion.
Since Anomaly started its meteoric rise, there has been much discussion of whether Lecrae is a Christian rapper or just someone who "never becomes a bad Christian, lyrically," as Grantland's Rembert Browne put it. The terms of this debate stem from the old, enduring conundrum Christian recording artists often face: They’re either hemmed in by the genre label of “Christian music,” or they reach the mainstream by keeping religion in their private life beyond the occasional, “Jesus Walks”-type statement.
Lecrae wants to transcend that dynamic. "My music is not Christian—Lecrae is," he said. "And you hear evidence of my faith in my music."
He also said he sees himself as counter-cultural, but perhaps the better term is "cross-cultural." His music troubles the stereotypes of both Christian music and mainstream rap—it doesn't really feel wholesome or sanctified, but it's also filled with self-deprecation and explicit warnings about immoral behavior. He also has a role in the recently released movie Believe Me, about four students who try to exploit church-goers to raise money. Again, it's Christian—but not in a way that's predictable.
Reach Records, the label he co-founded and co-owns with his childhood friend Ben Washer is explicitly evangelical; as the company's website says, "the heartbeat of Reach is Romans 1:16, 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.'" None of the songs on Anomaly is preachy, though, except maybe "Runners," which is about cheating in relationships. He demurred on whether he tries to proselytize in his art, but did say that spreading the gospel is a "battle."
"We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification," he said. "Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from."
This means writing about things other than heaven and the glory of God. While that kind of music is necessary, he said, "Christians need to embrace that there need to be believers talking about love and social issues and all other aspects of life."
In other words, people who identity as Christian—or religious in general—are also people; the music they listen to doesn't have to just be about their faith, but it's also possible for faith to be part of the music they like. That hasn't been the focus in some parts of the Christian music industry, Lecrae said.
"The exploitation of believers just to turn a profit—so you care less about making a quality product, you just want to keep telling the same stories and repackaging them over and over just to exploit people—I have a problem with that," he said.
In terms of the product he makes, Lecrae's work sounds nothing like most people’s idea of Christian music—the genre has been dominated by rock musicians like Switchfoot and Relient K for the past half decade. But even as someone who self-identifies as a hip-hop artist, Lecrae is also at odds with the rap business.
"[The] whole industry thinks that it’s sustained by a lawless worldview," he said. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson this summer, Lecrae tweeted, "Dear Hip Hop, we can't scream 'murder, misogyny, lawlessness' in our music & then turn around and ask for equality & justice." The tweet was later deleted.
His lyrics also defy the dominant mores of the genre. While Drake raps about his piles of cash in songs like "Headlines" and Nicki Minaj asks for "someone to please tell him who the eff I is" in "Super Bass," Lecrae's lyrics are often about being broken and insufficient. “Trying to get a throne on my own so I can put my feet up / Thank God my kingdom was overthrown by the sole redeemer,” he raps in "Anomaly"; in "Nuthin," he mocks the materialism of most rap:
Let me guess you counting money to the ceiling
Difference 'tween us like at least a couple million
It's foreign cars, pretty girls everywhere you go
Yeah I heard it 30 times on the radio
...You still a slave and money can't buy you freedom partna'
But Lecrae isn’t necessarily out to reform rap. He doesn't see music as a vocation or calling, so to speak, but that "everyone’s job, everyone’s vocation, is an extension of their faith and how they see the world. Every job is an act of service," he said. "If I was working at a call center collecting debts from people who have credits calls, I would call and try to help them, and try to serve them."
Artists and musicians and pop stars often seem to exist in their own elevated sphere, totally separate from regular people. This is because they have a lot of power to influence others with their ideas; as Lecrae put it, "I need to be a great steward of what comes out of my mouth." But if you accept the premise of Christianity, the difference between famous rappers and their fans seems flatter—no matter what you do to make money, the way you live in the world is necessarily an expression of your beliefs. This is true for crunk rappers, Christian rockers, and call-center clerks alike: Regular life doesn't necessarily have to be an act of proselytization, whether for Chandon or Christ; it will always be an act of expression. As Lecrae put it, "In the same way that Jesus was a carpenter, I don’t know if he put his message into all the things he built with his hands—I think he wanted to make good quality craftsmanship."
But this perspective isn't always shared in the Christian music industry; perhaps that's why it's often treated as such an isolated, separated outpost of pop culture. "Many times, that’s how people see Christian art, or Christians making art: They see the art as having an agenda," Lecrae said. "Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions." Perhaps that’s why Lecrae has built unprecedented popularity across genres: He’s not trying to preach—he’s just trying to do his art.