Lecrae’s maturity will make some uncomfortable, but will also create the space to take a subgenre to the next level.
“I’m not saying that a Christian audience shouldn’t listen to this – I think it will be beneficial for them, however, I don’t think you’re gonna get some of the same type of messages that you’re used to nor the same kind of music that you’re used to. It’s not gonna be a lot of “commercial” music on here. It’s gonna be raw, uncut hip-hop tracks.” – Lecrae, discussing Church Clothes (Volume 1) in 2012
When Lecrae moves, Christian hip-hop moves. Although he does not claim the crown of the subgenre, to call Lecrae the Jay-Z of CHH is entirely short-changing Lecrae. Being the leading man of this particular subgenre that is simultaneously music, movement, and lifestyle is not like being the leading artist in any other type of music because the music has such a close connection to a religion. The squabbles that fans of music have about their favorite artists are magnified by the stakes of the debate, namely: Is the music Christian enough or is it too worldly? These debates are often quite silly, and it’s not my present intention to walk through them, but suffice to say the subgenre is, for many reasons, hindered by disagreements over how this type of music should be handled.
As a result, Lecrae, as the subgenre’s leading man, faces more pressure than anyone because he carries the most weight and can affect the most change. And that’s why some fans were upset by what Lecrae said about the content of Church Clothes and then eventually by the mixtape itself.
But what Lecrae began with Church Clothes in 2o12 has come to full realization with the surprise release of Church Clothes 3 on January 14. Even as Lecrae’s retail LPs took his name and the subgenre to new heights of popularity (Gravity won a Grammy for Best Gospel Album in 2012 and Anomaly hit number one on the Billboard in 2014), it has been his trilogy of mixtapes that have been his most important contribution to music. While he has risen to be one of the most recognizable icons in popular Christianity, it has been the side projects of Church Clothes that have done the most for him, his subgenre, mainstream Christianity, and mainstream music.
Church Clothes was not a mainstream-seeking, worldly, irreligious sell-out like some fans irrationally feared. Rather, it was a collection of 18 “raw, uncut hip-hop tracks” that boasted an impressive array of producers and featured artists and some of Lecrae’s best lyrical work. Hosted by Don Cannon, and released for free on DatPiff, the mixtape drew the attention of many in the “secular” rap world. Most remarkably, it was fierce, gritty, and yet unapologetically Christian. It was, in a way that so much of Christian music is not, rooted in the so-called “real world.” While his 2008 album Rebel (an instant classic in CHH) was like a lion roaring in a pulpit, Church Clothes was more like a panther stalking the streets. Both cats are useful, even excellent, in their own right, but the important thing about the panther is that mainstream Christian audiences, let alone mainstream secular audiences, were only used to the lion in the pulpit.
Lecrae incorporated the panther approach into his 2012 LP Gravity, and continued it in full with Church Clothes 2 the next year. However, even as Lecrae’s rapping skills improved alongside better and better production with each release, and even as his lyrics became more and more socially-conscious, mainstream Christian listeners revealed that these things mattered little in their decision to help make Anomaly an astounding commercial success. The same fans who turned their backs on Sho Baraka for Talented Tenth, perhaps the most “black” CHH album of all time (and basically To Pimp a Butterfly before there was To Pimp a Butterfly), passed over Anomaly’s “Welcome to America” and “Dirty Water,” two hard-hitting songs about social inequalities, for the more tame and more mainstream songs like “All I Need is You” and “Messengers,” the two songs on the album that received Grammy nominations. In the wake of Anomaly, racial tensions grew in America, especially concerning police brutality, and Lecrae, like many of his fellow black Christian rappers, received heavy criticism for talking about issues of race.
In short, the message from so many listeners was clear: make youth group music. Make fun music with a Christian message that young white people can listen to while driving around with their friends. The sound can be mainstream, the lyrics can be mediocre, as long as it’s loud and Jesusy.
So you could say that, entering 2016, CHH was in another formative stage as it awaited the next release from its biggest star.
Enter Church Clothes 3, the mixtape that settles all debate on what Lecrae is about and where the subgenre is going.
Like the other two installments in the trilogy, CC3 is going to be just about totally absent from any kind of mainstream radio as well as Christian youth conferences. There are no conventional party tracks, hype songs, and no features from contemporary Christian music (Lecrae has previously featured big names like For King and Country and Tenth Avenue North).
Instead, the album starts with “Freedom,” which recalls the African spiritual sound with which Sho Baraka began Talented Tenth. “Freedom” and “Gangland” set the tone for the album as they take hard looks at the plight of black America. CC3 is not black in the way that To Pimp a Butterfly or Talented Tenth are black, but suffice to say there are a lot of listeners who will want to turn the music off after guest artist Propaganda raps on “Gangland”: “Why would we listen/When American churches scuff their Toms/On our brother’s dead bodies as they march/To stop gay marriage/Yo, we had issues with Planned Parenthood, too/We just cared about black lives outside the womb/Just as much as in.” Together, “Freedom” and “Gangland” make a statement: Christian rap isn’t running from racial issues, even if many listeners would rather ostrich the issue and ostracize the activists.
Lecrae takes the time to address his haters and critics on the album, most notably on “Sidelines,” but makes statements on other songs like “It Is What It is”: “You wasn’t with me on the 4th down, huh?/Then you can miss me when I touchdown/And that’s no shade, no shade/It’s just those games, I don’t play/I’m gettin’ wiser with more age/And realizin’ some gonna hate/And that’s okay.” Recently, Lecrae has addressed these kinds of criticisms people cast at him and his Reach label mates, but on CC3 he sounds much more sure of himself, letting his actions speak for themselves, whereas his verse on KB’s “Sideways” last spring seemed more conceited. This approach is in step with how he has handled criticisms recently: those who criticized his label for removing Romans 1:16 from their mission statement (this writer included) had to backpedal as Lecrae shared pictures on social media of his mission trip in the Middle East, not even bothering to address the criticism directly.
While the album is not a roaring lion in the pulpit that some listeners want, or the light and easy feel-good message that satisfies many contemporary Christian music fans, make no mistake: this is still a “Christian” album. Lecrae is not hiding: “Now they’re wondering, is it rap or is it Gospel?/Look all you need to know is I was dead, now I’m not though… I hit my pastor on the cell, I said, “I’m catching hell”/Well, what you think they did to Jesus?/Only time will tell.” As well as he ever has, the message of Lecrae’s music artfully balances the grit of the real world and the hope of the Gospel, making the message of CC3 authentic and meaningful.
Musically, CC3, executive produced by S1 (who has worked with big names like Kanye West and Jay-Z), is not only excellent, but continues the Church Clothes tradition that makes a statement for keeping raw hip-hop sound in CHH. While the youth group crowd clamors for EDM and pop sounds, which can be found aplenty in CHH, CC3 is another album that is neither commercialized nor overwrought. While some mixtapes become a conglomerate of different sounds, CC3 remains fairly consistent throughout under S1’s capable direction.
Lyrically, this is as good as we have ever heard Lecrae. His flow and delivery have always been as strong as anyone in CHH, but occasionally his writing has been less than ambitious. On CC3, Lecrae’s flow and delivery are nearly flawless, and his pen is as strong as it has ever been. Sometimes the nuances of lyricism are overlooked by mainstream crowds (Christian and secular alike), and in truth Lecrae would sell records even if he mailed it in lyrically, but it is clear from this album that Lecrae is committed to the craft and can hang with anyone bar for bar.
All of this is plain to see in the album’s best song, “Misconceptions 3.” The beat drives forward as S1 samples “N.Y. State of Mind ,” a legendary song by Nas. Lecrae finishes the song with what is probably his best verse of the album, but only after unleashing as lethal a lineup of lyricists as you will find – “Misconceptions 3” features cousins John Givez and JGivens, as well as Jackie Hill Perry. And oh are they ever lethal. Hip-hop listeners, in general, tend to overreact to how great a verse is, but there is no overstating how excellent John, J, and Jackie are on this song, and it is to Lecrae’s unending credit that his verse is not a weak link when all three of his guests are more gifted writers. And it’s not a song about nothing – it’s a brilliant battle-rap style song that attacks the misconceptions that Christians and non-Christians have of Christian rappers. JGivens raps: “This a misconception triple threat/Did Givens flex? Still a Christian? Yep/Don’t need acknowledgement, just respect the conglomerate/Double tap it and follow it.”
The featured artists on CC3 are significant when considering the accomplishments of the album. Lecrae features his talented young label mate, KB, as well as rap veteran E-40, and the little-known N’Dambi, who sings the hook on “Freedom.” But more significant are the features from the aforementioned John Givez, JGivens, Jackie Hill Perry, and Propaganda. They are four of the best artists in CHH, despite not being as popular among the youth group crowd. The key is that all four fit the Church Clothes panther approach, favoring authentic instrumentals, skilled lyricism, and socially conscious content rooted in the real world. All but John Givez are signed to Humble Beast, which is, for my money, the best label in CHH right now, but one that is anything but mainstream. Givez and his teammates at Kings Dream are not far behind Humble Beast, and have a similar style. It’s pretty clear that CC3 is an endorsement of the style of Humble Beast and John Givez. Even as Lecrae’s label becomes more mainstream, Lecrae has made it clear that he wants to run with the talented underground of CHH.
CC3 demonstrates not only Lecrae’s skills, but his goals and intentions: he’s going to be a socially conscious, Gospel-rooted artist no matter what anyone (including mainstream Christianity) says. It sends a message to the world of secular rap that he is committed to authentic music and he can make it as well as anyone, while alerting Christian listeners that, while his music is still unashamedly Christian, he isn’t here to make youth group music. And, because Lecrae is doing and saying these things, it creates the space for other artists in CHH, including those at Humble Beast and Kings Dream, to say those things and continue to gain recognition for the excellence of their craft.
And Lecrae does all of this without ever overreaching. The album exudes confidence. Listening to Anomaly, it was clear that Lecrae knew he was making something that was going to be wildly popular and change the landscape of CHH, and there were shades of that on Gravity as well. But CC3 continues the understated artistry that has made the Church Clothes trilogy such a joy. This is as comfortable as we’ve ever heard Lecrae.
Many listeners, particularly in mainstream Christianity, will not like or appreciate CC3, and it is sure to make some people uncomfortable, especially since it is Lecrae’s blackest and most socially provocative album to date. But this is exactly what everyone needed from Thursday’s surprise release.
When Lecrae moves, Christian hip-hop moves, and thanks to Church Clothes 3, the subgenre is moving in a great direction.
The album is available on Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and select retailers. There is also an excellent short film that accompanied the album release, featuring “It Is What It Is,” “Gangland,” “Deja Vu,” and “Misconceptions 3.” All Humble Beast music is available for free download at humblebeast.com.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria