Church Clothes is the latest mixtape from buzzed-about rapper Lecrae. The 18-track May release is one of the most polished hip-hop efforts you’ll hear all year. The project is hosted by a respected DJ (Don Cannon) and features a street-approved MC (No Malice, formerly of the Clipse). 9th Wonder even lends some of the same soulful production he’s given to the likes of Jay-Z and Ludacris. For all intents and purposes, Lecrae’s Church Clothes is like any other mix released lately, save for one thing—Lecrae is a Christian rapper.
For those progressive enough not to be turned off by the “Christian rapper” tag, allow us to formally introduce you to Lecrae, a gifted, well-spoken MC who knows all about the negative undertones that come with being a lyricist for the Lord.
“When you say Christian rap,” he begins, “there are so many connotations that come with that. So, one of the things I try to do is just distance myself from being labeled and just say, ‘I’m a rap artist.’ With that title comes a stigma of poor quality music, or music that is only exclusively for Christians. There’s not going to be crucifixes and holy water [in my rhymes].”
Hear that, haters? For the rest of this story, we won’t even use the term “Christian rap.” We’ll go with “substance rap.” Lecrae approvingly adds, “I can dig that.”
Turning a corner
Many hip-hop fans will relate to the rapper’s backstory. In fact, Lecrae’s bio reads a lot like those from some of their mainstream favorites. Without a solid father figure under the roof, Crae and his mother floated from city to city, looking for a better life. In all the packing and unpacking in Houston, San Diego, Denver and Dallas, Lecrae ran with some unsavory crowds. He did a few things he wasn’t proud of. But through it all, he had the music.
“I’ve been rapping since I was like 11,” adds Crae, now a proud husband and father of three who calls Atlanta home. “Rapping is just always something I did. I didn’t really have a social life at school. I wasn’t the greatest athlete. I didn’t have the coolest clothes. I wasn’t the funniest. But I could rap. That is what I did. At the cafeteria table, you know, I would battle people. I would write raps in class. So, it really kind of consumed my time, and that’s all I did.”
Where Lecrae’s road forks from your average artist on BET, however, is when he took up a friend’s offer to join her at Bible study one night. Before the invitation, Lecrae insists he had no purpose; his life had no meaning. After that evening, his world turned a corner and things started coming together. Lecrae was 19.
At 25, Lecrae recorded his first album, Real Talk. It peaked at #29 on the Billboard Gospel charts. By the time his second CD, After the Music Stops, was released in 2006, the young MC had a swelling of followers in the non-secular music sector who helped lift the release to #16 on Billboard’s Heatseeker tally. Rebel and Rehab followed, each effort more exquisite than the last. Rehab was even nominated for Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album at the 2010 Grammys. This past April, Rehab: Overdose won Rap Album of the Year at the 43rd Annual GMA Dove Awards, the premier awards program for Christian-centered music.
While Dove Awards and shout-outs from NBA sensation Jeremy Lin are cool, they’re not the sorts of things that really move mountains in rap circles. And if you haven’t noticed by now, Lecrae isn’t just trying to save souls with his music; he wants to do his part to save hip-hop.
That’s precisely where Church Clothes comes back into the picture. To gain that next level of acceptance in a rap community unfamiliar with his past accomplishments, Crae had to reach out to the Don Cannons and the 9th Wonders of the world to show that “Christian” was cool and it didn’t have to translate to Bible-totin’ and scripture-quotin’.
“What I’m doing is playing my part,” tells Lecrae, who also founded Reach Records and ReachLife Ministries, a nonprofit aiming to reform urban culture. “[I’m] making music that has identity that is consistent, that doesn’t just say, ‘Man, I got to create this because I know the radio will play it,’ but [is] saying, ‘No, I’m going to stick to my guns and create music that the radio needs to play alongside all of the other things that are being played.’”
Lecrae’s sixth full-length CD is called Gravity and it’s slated for a Fall 2012 release. The substance rapper behind the new project won’t go into specifics about its guest appearances or producers right now, but he will say, “There will definitely be some surprises. It will definitely be some of music’s favorite people to listen to, and Lord willing, some people that you typically would not have heard on my music in the past.” Subpar rappers need to get on their knees now and start asking for protection.