Ten years ago during highschool football practice, out of an old Honda Passport, I played Lecrae’s first album Real Talk. From their juiced-up stereo-systems, the defensive line played Lil’ Wayne (A Milli had just come out). Wayne’s bass was dangerous and crisp, and from my exasperated speakers came this rapper they hadn’t heard of. The defensive line came over to me and asked what I was playing. I said, “Lecrae.” They listened to the lyrics and walked away, not knowing what to do with it. This rapper could spit a million miles an hour, shout of “Jesus,” criticize rap, and ridicule lust for women and money. It was impossible to place this music.
I interviewed Lecrae on the recent Phoenix stop of his Anomaly tour, which finishes in November. To date, Lecrae has sold 1.4 million albums. He continues to perplex: he makes songs that one can listen to for the musical energy as much as for the lyrical precision.
Charles Carman: Rap is distinguished, in large part, due to its region of origin. East Coast, West Coast—Detroit claims Eminem; Brooklyn claims Jay-Z. These rappers begin their rhymes with streets and cities. What’s your street? Who’s on your street?
Lecrae: Yeah, I honestly think that there’s a conglomerate of believers and Christians around the world that feel like they have someone with whom they can identify, and then I think there’s people who really value substance in their hip-hop in a time where that’s unusual. So you have the Christians who love hip-hop and the people who love substance.
C: You have a growing number of intensely loyal fans. But it’s almost as if your early fan base wasn’t from any one place. How do you get “streets”?
L: Part of that is definitely out of my control. Similar to the guy who goes out and catches a bear, and everyone’s amazed: “How did you catch the bear?” And so he goes on a conference tour telling everyone how he caught a bear. But over the last five years he’s been telling everyone how to catch a bear, though he doesn’t catch them anymore. And then someone else catches a bear, and so then the whole mob moves over to this new guy: “How did you catch the bear?” So you have to stay in the forest catching bears for a season, and then come back and explain to people how you caught a bear, and back and forth. And I think that helps how people see me, having-fans-and-living-it-out-wise.
C: Do you find that you go back to Houston, the place where you grew up, to find a regional flavor?
L: Absolutely. I definitely have an affinity with Houston. I’m fortunate to have moved all around the country, so I’ve picked up different things from different regions, but those are definitely my roots. The South, when it comes to music, is all about the emotions, the soul, and that certainly bleeds through. As you move north, things get more into the technicality with the lyrics and the sounds, so I appreciate that as well.
C: You refuse to use the language of hip-hop, the violent metaphors and similes. That means, however, that you have to create a whole new language, which is something most hip-hop artists don’t have to think about. What’s it like to create lingo from scratch?
L: So sometimes, as a cultural curator of sorts—no pun intended—you have to double speak. I’m saying things that I think my tribe would understand and resonate with personally, but I’m also trying to say something that someone outside the tribe can hold onto and understand themselves. So I could say red bottoms, and everyone outside of my tribe would think I mean an expensive pair of shoes: “Oh, yeah, everyone talks about red bottoms.” But then I could say something to the effect of “covered in the blood when I’m rockin’ these red bottoms,” you know, and it’s like “double speak” to where my tribe understands what I’m saying, but then those outside can follow along, too.
C: A lot of rap is about the rapper responding to someone with, “I’m gonna spin some lyrical wit and attack you with it,” but that sort of personal attack isn’t in your work.
L: I don’t not acknowledge human emotions. It’s what I do with them: anger, guilt, shame, fear, hurt, and loneliness, gladness—those are all real emotions that everyone experiences. Anger is good, because that means you’re passionate about something, but when anger is toxic, it might lash out violently or irrationally. So you have anger, but what am I going to do with that anger? I am angry that the child was molested or mistreated but how I respond in my anger makes all the difference.
C: There are many songs critiquing America from MIA, Del Ray, Kanye. Your song “Welcome to America” controversially concludes with someone getting kicked out because they couldn’t find a green card. What are you hoping that the songs says?
L: I wanted people to empathize. So often we only walk life in our own shoes, our own perspective. Very rarely do we think about how the other person sees life. I have white friends who say, “Hey, man, how come you always talk about race?” And it’s because I experience it all the time. I would love not to think about it. But that’s a paradigm I’m having to see the world through, so I’m trying to say: here’s the guy on the street corner in Chicago, who’s an American, a soldierwho fought for his country, who you walk by all the time, and he fought for your freedom.
C: It seems that in every interview you’re asked, “What’s with being a Christian rapper?” Let’s reverse that. What’s up with rap that allows Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan, and Lecrae to claim the same genre? No one takes seriously Christian black metal, or gangsta gospel or shoot-em-up indie folk. What about rap makes it flexible as a genre?
L: Hip-hop is all about the disenfranchised. That’s how it originated—the disenfranchised in the Bronx. It started by welcoming anyone who had been marginalized and ignored to tell their story. I think it’s evolved over the years, so now we’ll probably be a lot more accepting than a couple decades back, but the message from the world is, “We want substance, things that will last,” and that’s what I’m trying to provide.
C: What does it mean to be a rapper but also to stand outside rap, to be an anomaly in the rap world?
L: It’s almost like being in a family where you want to address your brother or your sister. You don’t want to blast them out to the world. You may challenge them, but it’s because you want the best for them. And that’s what I’m trying to do now. I had to learn how to do that. I was kind of wagging my finger in a pious way—really wrong and ineffective, and what I had to learn to do was to challenge people to see themselves as more, that they’re falling short of what they’re created for. But how do I raise those kind of questions like, “How can I be more than what I am? What is more significant than the girls, and the money and the cars?” That’s what’s been my challenge.
C: Who do you listen to?
L: Pretty much everything—Eminem, Kanye, Neighborhood. I can appreciate form and craftsmanship, even with content that I don’t agree with. And then there are times when the content is so disturbing that I’m moved to question what I’m hearing because it’s viewed as acceptable. And that drives me and inspires me to write out of compassion. When there’s a song that thinks child molestation is acceptable, that grieves me and drives me to respond against it. At the same time I hear things about mundane, monotonous things done so well, I’m inspired to write.
C: Who are some of your favorite painters?
L: I’ve been going back to Rembrandt, just to try to understand [him]. When I was in Amsterdam I spent time in the museums observing the subtleties in his work. Every person’s worldview is communicated through their art. If you have a painter who has a cosmic explosion, it says a lot about what they think. They may think that the world is chaotic, without shape or form. But someone who takes the time to paint a shadow, the infrastructure and order and the form, that means something very different. That impresses me.
C: There’s a tendency amongst faithful artists to take something “cultural” and Christianize it. Christian rap is said to be like this, too. What do you think about this pattern?
L: Christians are known for condemning, critiquing, and copying culture, and not creating it. When you begin to create culture, you’re saying that there’s another way. I’m not telling you to conform or be a separatist, but that there’s another way, to use these resources and live and express through these art forms. There’s another way.