If you consider yourself a hardcore hip-hop head, here’s a little thought experiment. Take a look at Houston rapper Lecrae’s fanbase. He’s got 706 thousand Facebook fans and 533 thousand Twitter followers. Compare that to, say, a Freddie Gibbs, with 40 thousand Facebook fans, or a Gunplay, with 102 thousand Twitter followers. Maybe you feel a little weird that you’ve never heard of him. That may be because he’s a Christian rapper.
Lecrae doesn’t like to call himself a “Christian Rapper,” but he’s been flying the Ned Flanders flag ever since his 2004 record Real Talk. Plus any rapper who makes a record called Real Talk where he “talks” about how Jesus is “real” should probably just own up to it. In the years following, he’s become more adamant about his faith, even as he's taken tentative steps into the world of mainstream hip-hop: He spat a freestyle over a DJ Premier beat at the 2011 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cyphers, has collaborated with the likes of Saigon, Statik Selektah, and Big K.R.I.T., as well as being Malice of the Clipse's spiritual advisor when he found Jesus and changed his name to "No Malice."
By now, Lecrae has presumably gotten used to the receiving end of light persecution in whatever circles he travels in. After all, the world at large thinks Christian rap is goofy, and the Christian establishment at large thinks that Big K.R.I.T. hangs out with strippers too much. His Church Clothes mixtape with Don Cannon focuses as much on the faults of the church as it does on the deadly temptations of the world, and features work from No Malice and 9th Wonder, people even the most vigilant heretics can boogie with. His latest album, Gravity, turns the spotlight even further inward on himself.
I got the chance to chat with Lecrae on the phone about his time in the spotlight, what Christianity means to him, and what he hopes to offer to those outside the camp.
Noisey: Do you think of yourself an artist?
Lecrae: I'd say I'm an artist. I think every artist is preaching something.
There are some people who think a good artist raises questions. You obviously believe pretty strongly in answering them.
I think it's okay to ask questions. I don't think everything is answerable though. Back in the day, especially with hip-hop like Chuck D and so on and so forth, they were answering lots of questions. They were pushing people towards something. We’re at a time now where people want to escape. There's as many problems as there have ever been, but no one’s asking questions anymore either. They’re just trying to avoid the issues of life. I'm just bringing those issues back up, asking rhetorical questions.
You’re pretty explicit about your faith. Has that caused you any problems in the mainstream rap scene?
Yeah. I think mainstream rap just doesn't quite know what to do with me. They're kind of taking their time and looking at me from all angles, trying to figure me out. I think that's a large part of it. I think some of them respect the craft and the music, maybe even some of the moves that I make.
There's this traditional struggle, in Southern Rap in particular, where there's this Saturday night/Sunday morning divide. It's a struggle that gives a lot of rap depth. I'm curious to know if there's a lack of depth in your music because you don't have that struggle?
I would disagree. I think it's easy to be what I would call a "Classic Hedonist." It's easier to be hedonistic and just chase after whatever appeals to your senses. That's the life of an animal, you just do. It's more difficult to stand by your convictions and have people berate you on both sides and feel like there’s no home for you. Sometimes you feel that you don't belong in any camp. There’s a lot of angst and pain in that.
Can you talk about what led to the Church Clothes mixtape with Don Cannon?
At the end of the day I want to do something that helps the people understand, and remain a part of the culture. Don't box me in with Kirk Franklin. Not that I have anything against Kirk Franklin, but this is different. I'm closer to you than I am to Kirk. So I was like, let me team up with somebody that I respect and let me create something for the culture, let me create something different for people to feast their ears upon, and it was well received.
What was it that drew Don Cannon to you, you think?
We just have mutual friends. A lot of people in the industry appreciate the art and the craft, they’re not just doing this for a check. There's a genuine, "Man, you're good at what you do." That’s what made it a no-brainer for him.
That mixtape feels like almost a hard cut between all of the stuff before and what you've done now. I'm curious on how intentional that was.
It definitely was intentional. Everything I do is going to be intentional. I'm getting older. I'm more confident in my skill, more comfortable in my skin, and realizing that I’m just not going to be a part of this cookie-cutter Christianity that exists in the world.
At the end of the day, people will say I’m trying to sell out, but what they don't understand is that there's an audience of over five million Christian listeners around the world who will buy my albums and will buy Christian music. It’s comfortable, and it’s cushy, and I’m heralded, and I get flown around and catered to in different ways in that world. So for me it's not about selling out or trying to get more fame. I'm very comfortable existing there. As a revolutionary, I don't just want to sit by and say, "Oh this feels good, let's just do it." I'm going to die for what I believe in and stand for it.
Because of that Christian part of your audience, do you ever feel like there's something you want to say, but maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to say it? Like, do you ever want to say “shit?”
[Laughs] I'm always mindful that there’s a large audience. I want to be able to get my point across. I respect people expressing their freedoms and their liberties and their rights, but at the same time I'm almost mindful that my freedoms can be other people’s downfalls. I don't want to flash my freedoms in your face all the time, especially if they’re going to be detrimental. I can get you to understand my point without going overboard, and we’re cool.
I saw this thing where you had texted The Game about his Jesus Piece album, how you were dissatisfied with the message behind it?
Yeah, it didn't really go down like it was put out there. But I’m here to serve people. I'm not here to wave my finger in people’s faces and point out to them how terrible they are or what I hate about them or anything along those lines. That's not my place. I'm in no position to condemn anybody. There's things I don't condone, and I talk about that, but at the same time, I would never just reach out to somebody and be like, "Yo man, I don't appreciate that," if I never met you. That's not my thing.
You talk a lot about how you've matured in your thinking and your craft. I'm curious if the old Lecrae would be disappointed in the new Lecrae.
For sure he would. [Laughs]
In what way?
"Aw man you’re selling out. You've fallen off man." I'm sure that would be the way my old self would think about it.
I would just sit my young self down and have a calm conversation articulating the reasons why I'm doing what I'm doing, and try to point out some of the self-righteous areas in my young self's life. Hopefully it would be a good conversation.
Richard Clark is the Editor-In-Chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and similar to Lecrae has an aversion to saying the word 'Shit.' Find him on Twitter - @deadyetliving