This is a monumental occasion. A Christian artist has reached the top of the iTunes charts. Lecrae's brand-new Gravity debuted at #1 on Tuesday, September 4, 2012.
I'd like to indulge in a moment of nostalgia here. We're never more prone to nostalgia, ironically, than when we step into a new era. You may not have followed Christian hip-hop for years like I have, so I'll briefly catch you up. On the message boards like Sphere of Hip-Hop, I was introduced to fellow Christian rap fans, people from Montana and New York and California, bonded by a love for Christ and a love for gospel rap. We tracked the pioneering efforts of artists like Mars ILL, Grits, The Cross Movement, Gospel Gangstaz, Tunnel Rats, Braille, and LA Symphony.
On this and other outlets, we considered such essential life questions as whether Toby Mac is a rapper or talented pop star. (Most opted for the latter.) We mused over whether Christian rappers could actually make a difference or were forever consigned to small crowds and little trust among the broader evangelical community.
Today, we have a verdict on that last question. Gospel hip-hop is here. It has broken through. It's edifying the church, it's influencing the culture, and, wow, it's moving units.
Leader of the Pack
Houston-born Lecrae Moore is the head of the new breed of gospel hip-hop artists. With Flame, Trip Lee, Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, Stephen the Levite, Tedashii, Propaganda, Beautiful Eulogy, and others, he represents a new era in Christian hip-hop, one marked by increased popularity in both the church and the secular music industry and also by enhanced cooperation between different evangelical camps. As with his other albums, Lecrae has released Gravity on Reach Records.
Coming on the heels of the wildly successful (and somewhat controversial) mixtape Church Clothes, Gravity is a statement album. Church Clothes was downloaded more than 250,000 times on the popular secular rap site DatPiff.com. Gravity is the next step, and like its predecessor, it has some secular flavor, including mainstream artist Big K.R.I.T. For this reason, the album has generated some controversy, which we will address below.
Boasting outstanding production, honest and impressive lyricism, and cover art that mashes motorcycle outlaw with Prometheus, Gravity repre
We see the strength of Gravity when we work through it track-by-track. The album begins with a violin. That may surprise some expecting a properly Houstonian beginning, something with bounce in it. The expected heavy bass isn't long in coming, but Lecrae shows he's up to something unusual in Gravity. We're not a minute in, and the track sounds like something Hans Zimmer might record if he teamed up with Timbaland.
The title track, “Gravity,” features J. R., a smooth crooner, who lends a soulful vibe to Lecrae's honest confessional. The rapper tells us off the bat who and what he's aiming for in his music:
I pen songs for the perishin' and parishioners
Them hearers and them listeners, the home and the visitors
This is not a game, you can't tame or make it purty
They say the earth cursed, so our mouths stay dirty
Track 3, “Walk with Me,” is a Luther-like examination of sin and suffering that features a cry to the Lord to strengthen Christian faith amid temptation. This is a crucial part of Lecrae's appeal: he speaks with directness and honesty about life's struggles even as he constantly points to the superabundance of grace found in Christ. An example of this kind of clarity comes in Track 4, “Free from It All,” where Lecrae raps from the perspective of a beauty-obsessed person, detailing the empty brevity of a life driven by appearance.
The next song features a truly stunning beat. I listened to Track 5, “Falling Down,” many times in preparing for this review, and repeatedly got chills from its gothic vibe. The track, crafted by the uber-talented Watchmen, brings in Trip Lee and Swoope for quick-witted dissertations on the tendency of human existence to break down. Trip is, as they used to say of Sinatra, in good voice. If you don't own some Beats by Dre headphones, save your lunch money, buy them, and make this the first song you listen to.
In Track 6, “Fakin',” Lecrae calls out hip-hop artists who pretend they have what they don't. That may not sound like a salient subject, but if you've ever seen a rap video, you know it is. Not all who record a studio track can drive a Maybach. Lecrae's boldness is striking, both here and elsewhere. He wants to reach a mainstream crowd, but he's not pulling his punches. In Gravity, he hits as hard as he can to reach lost souls with the gospel.
We get another superb beat on Track 7, “Violence”—this one from the mysterious Tyshane, who also contributed the beat to “Black Rose” on Church Clothes. The track is itself an act of violence against your speakers, though in it Lecrae decries glorified brutality, another staple of hip-hop music.
Track 8, “Mayday,” features a controversial guest verse from secular rapper Big K.R.I.T. Some think Lecrae shouldn't give non-Christian artists a microphone, arguing that darkness has no place with light (cf. Eph. 5:5-8; 2 Cor. 6:14). Other Bible-loving believers don't strictly object, citing Lecrae's self-expressed desire to be a cultural missionary (per Matt. 28:16-20). I am sensitive to the former group's concerns. I would surely find it troubling were Lecrae to move beyond what one could conceivably call bridge-building and into more serious partnership with non-Christians. That said, though, if you or I were a painter or a classical musician, might we host a show or concert with a thoughtful, philosophically minded unbeliever who grapples with life's great questions? It's possible. This is a complex matter that deserves longer treatment, but I think the crucial matter here is the way the partnership is framed, and the degree to which one goes in collaborating with secular artists.
On Track 9, “Confe$$$ions,” Lecrae returns to the subject of wealth, discussing the fading nature of the pursuit of money. Given his recent success, I can't help but think he's speaking not only to a materialistic culture, but also to himself. Sometimes we find ourselves in the most spiritually challenging situation of all not when we suffer, but when God answers our prayers and blesses our work.
Lecrae speaks to a different kind of battle in Track 10, “Buttons,” which is deeply insightful about the way married couples push one another's buttons. In Christian marriage we don't lose our sin altogether, but we learn how to be sinners together and not encourage one another in ungodliness. In Track 11, “Power Trip,” Lecrae explores the desire to gain fame and power with Pro, Sho Baraka, and the jester of Reach, Andy Mineo. Sho hits hard with his witty verse:
I been connected to the power,
I don't have to chase it
I roll with the Trinity, this is sorta the Matrix
A hard pill to swallow: we're evil to the core
Wicked power exploits the poor, and it brings war
On Track 11, “Lord Have Mercy,”—one Waka Flocka might easily have snatched up—Tedashii briefly breaks into a stutter reminiscent of Machine Gun Kelly. Gravity is deep, but it's also fun.
The Watchmen return for another track on “I Know,” and Lecrae matches the production with a lively delivery: “Cuz I be on my Spike Lee/Even when I do the right thing, they still wanna fight me.” Track 14, “Tell the World,” sounds like a collaboration between Coldplay and the secular rapper Lecrae most closely resembles, Jay-Z. It's a great song that, like so much modern Christian hip-hop, packs a great deal of theology into just a few verses:
I can't offer you nothin', but your care & kindness keeps comin'
And your love is so unconditional, I get butterflies in my stomach
I got the old me in the rearview, now the new me got a clear view
And I was so dead, I couldn't hear you, too deep in sin to come near you
. . . My face look the same, my frame ain't rearranged, but I'm changed; I promise I ain't the same
Your love's so deep you suffered and took pain, you died on the cross to give me a new name
Ain't nothing like I've seen before, I got a beaming glow
I was low, down, and dirty, but you cleaned me, Lord
You adopted me, you keep rocking me
I'mma tell the world, and ain't nobody stopping me!
Here we have, in no particular order, the love of God, regeneration, the great exchange, substitutionary atonement, the active righteousness of Christ, adoption, and the perseverance of faith. To think, some people still worry about whether rap can be theologically rich.
Track 15, “Lucky Ones,” is a slow, melancholy, deeply affecting track. I'm struck by how both Lecrae and his running mate, Trip Lee, know how to speed things up and then slow them way down. I loved Rudy Currence's velvet hook, and I think this is the first rap track I've heard that features a French horn (played by Danika Lukasiewicz). The album could have ended on this note, but it continues. Track 16, “No Regrets,” sounds like Big Juice cooked up a Drake track, though Lecrae's call to a sold-out life in Christ diverges sharply from Drake's hedonism.
Master of Many Styles
There are few critical comments I could make regarding Gravity. I would like to see Lecrae focus on one kind of sound and milk it for an entire album. His gifting allows him to range over a myriad of styles, but I would love to see him do a concept album or similar project that would allow us to hear him unswervingly explore, say, the classical theme of the intro, the gothic style of “Falling Down,” or the more emotional aesthetic of “Lucky Ones.” His talent allows him to tackle, and master, most any style.
I do also think Lecrae will have to carefully consider how much partnership he forges with secular artists in pursuit of ministry. How much voice do we give non-Christian artists in our works of art? These and other questions naturally pop up for evangelists like Lecrae. Reaching out to a lost culture is serious business, to be sure, but so is staying squarely in the light (2 Cor. 6:14; cf. Eph. 5:5-8).
These brief remarks aside, Gravity accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's a superbly crafted album that will appeal to Christians because of its content and to non-Christians because of its quality (and, I'm sure, vice versa). With many others, I'm stunned to see how far Christian hip-hop has come and how much God is blessing it in our day. From the forgotten child to the heir of evangelical musical influence in the broader culture—such is Christian hip-hop's journey these last few decades.
This is a good day, one I pray will mean the spread of the gospel to those who don't want it, aren't looking for it, and desperately need it.
Editors' Note: You can buy Lecrae's new album, Gravity, at Amazon.com and many other outlets.