Number one on the Billboard charts. Sitting in with The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. What might Lecrae have to say about all of that?

I won’t stay here another night
If I gotta sacrifice
Who I am on the inside
I’d rather be an outsider
And you can stay if you like
I’ll see you on the other side
I wanna live the free life
I’d rather be an outsider.

These are the opening words of his new record, Anomaly. The track, “Outsiders,” is an in-your-face statement about who Lecrae is as an artist. For years, now, he has occupied a unique place in the music industry, refusing the labels and accompanying pressures of being a Christian artist and a hip-hop star. The resounding message of Anomaly is about the 34-year-old Atlanta-based rapper’s commitment to this unique place; an uncompromising commitment to his sense of calling.

“I really can’t tell if I’m overdressed or I’m underdressed / If I’m underpaid or just overstressed / If I’m cynical or just over this,” he continues on “Outsiders.” There’s an angry weariness in these verses, a sense of being fed up with pressure to conform to other people’s expectations of him. Lecrae consistently rejects the stereotypes of a mainstream hip-hop star, refusing the misogyny, violence, and worship of money. But that’s not all that this song is about.

Lecrae’s mainstream success has been accompanied by a steady stream of criticism from some Christians. When asked about the intersection of his faith and his work, he has said, “I am Christian. I am a rapper. But Christian is my faith, not my genre.” To eschew the “Christian” label for his music is—for some—evidence of compromise, and ever since many have accused Lecrae of selling out.

Common Refrain

But rejecting the Christian label for music isn’t necessarily about denying the faith; it’s about wanting to distance oneself from the subculture of “Christian” media that populates Christian bookstores. It’s a common refrain among Christians in music, film, and theater, and there are a variety of reasons for it. For one, the label sets up an expectation about the content of the work. When people hear you’re making “Christian” music or “Christian” films, they assume that your work is going to be safe for the whole family. It implies the squeaky-clean image of Christian radio or Hallmark Channel afternoon specials. When artists want to venture into more complex territory—like Steve Taylor’s satirical song “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good” (which got him banned from many Christian booksellers in the ‘80s), it’s usually met with shock and resistance. Flannery O’Connor would have a difficult time getting traction in the Christian fiction market.

That said, Christian music as a subgenre has its place. Shai Linne, another Christian hip-hop artist, has expressed his sense of calling as “making music for the church,” and the contrast between Shai (who has labeled his overall project as “Lyrical Theology”) and Lecrae (who raps about his faith, but also about everything from love to fear to sex trafficking) is a contrast in calling. Both are seeking to build a platform and reach an audience, but while Shai is aiming primarily at those in the church, Lecrae feels called to bear witness as a Christian within the broader hip-hop community. Each has its benefits and its perils; while Lecrae will be tempted with syncretism, Shai will be tempted by Phariseeism. Both need God’s spirit and God’s mercy in order to do their work with integrity.

“I believe the reason why the church typically doesn’t engage culture is because we are scared of it,” Lecrae has said. “We're scared it’s going to somehow jump on us and corrupt us. We’re scared it’s going to somehow mess up our good thing. So we consistently move further and further away from the corruption, further and further away from the crime, further and further away from the postmodernity, further and further away from the relativism and secular humanism, and we want to go to a safe place with people just like you. We want to be comfortable.” 

I agree with Lecrae completely. A Christian subculture built on fear isn’t going to be worth much, and isn’t going to give birth to great art. But I think there needs to be a caveat: engaging culture requires a mature conscience and strong church community. People are scared that culture is going to “jump on us and corrupt us” in part because we are warned in Scripture about keeping ourselves “unstained by the world” (James 1:27), and in part because we’ve seen it happen to many people we love. Lecrae seems aware of that danger, too, and talks on Anomaly about the need to keep close with a small group of trusted friends.

Spoiling Places

Tim Keller once described being “the salt of the earth” as a call to go to “spoiling places.” Salt, primarily used as a preservative in the first century, kept food from spoiling. So being salt means going into these spoiling places and preserving life, influencing them for good, and bearing witness to the hope of the gospel.

That seems to be exactly the opportunity Lecrae has right now. On Anomaly he speaks to a misogynist culture about the tragedy of sex trafficking. On the track “Say I Won’t” he tells men who practically worship new pairs of Jordans that he’ll sell his shoes to take his kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s. On “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” he recounts the pain of sexual abuse and aborting a child, and talks about how only God’s mercy could relieve the guilt and shame. On “Dirty Water” he tells black men they’ve been taught to think they’re worthless for 400 years, “raised to hate each other because we hate our skin . . . gold chains / just pretty shackles, we still enslaved. / Put ‘em round your neck, ‘cause we still hangin.” From front to back on Anomaly, Lecrae bears witness to a different world, a different economy, a different King, and a different kingdom.

And he says all of this while sitting on top of the Billboard chart, a seat normally occupied by rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West and pop stars like Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift. It’s an incredible place to hear such a prophetic voice. Lecrae says it on a record that ranges from the raw, stripped, Rick Rubin-style aggression of “Say I Won’t,” the vintage grooves of “Anomaly,” the R&B laments of “All I Need is You,” and the straightforward pop of “Messengers.”

No Favors

Which brings me to the last thing that needs to be said. Lecrae’s success doesn’t need to be spiritualized to be explained. It’s overwhelmingly evident on Anomaly that Lecrae is talented, and this record—with its tight production, smart collaborations, and provocative lyrics—is the product of an incredible amount of work and dedication.

“I don’t want no handouts or favors,” he says on “Fear.” “No functional saviors / Imma’ tell that truth ‘til it kill me / and I’m chillin’ with my Creator / Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus / To all of my haters / For the ones that think I forgot him / and the ones that won’t let me say it / I ain’t scared no more.”

I, for one, never thought he’d forgotten Jesus, but I’m glad he’s still shouting his name. Congratulations, Lecrae. May your tribe increase.