Rappers love giving props to God. Regardless of content, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop album of the last 20 years that hasn’t shouted out the Big Guy in some form or another. Even Lil Wayne, a rapper who has turned from one of the planet’s most promising wordsmiths into a sort of horny Frankie Boyle figure (typical line: “Suck this dick… and call it penis colada”) – yes, even Lil Wayne claims to be a devout Catholic.
So the fact that the album currently perched atop America’s Billboard Chart is Anomaly, the seventh album from Christian rapper Lecrae, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Except that the rapper in question isn’t merely paying lip service to scripture between bars about bitches and Bugattis; he’s the leading light of America’s huge Christian rap scene. Lecrae never swears, rarely drinks, and is more likely to have a song about being a good dad than loving good booty. He’s also just made one of the strongest hip-hop albums of the year.
Inevitably, the term “Christian rap” conjures up images of Ned Flanders in a snapback. However, the 34-year-old Lecrae is winning over the secular world. Starting from a position of faith, he crafts lyrical complexities that address wider global realities.
“I don’t like being regulated to just the Christian box because I have a lot to say about a lot of things,” he told The Breakfast Club, New York’s trial-by-fire rap radio talkshow. “If you just say, ‘Well, we’ll bring him in when we want a church service’ then you’ve eliminated my perspective on a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with salvation.”
Anomaly tackles heavyweight topics absent from mainstream radio, meditating with wit and verve on sweatshop labour, hollow materialism and rampant misogyny. If it wasn’t for their shared Christian fanbase, chances are Fox News would label him a raving socialist.
In itself, conscious rap is nothing new – MCs from Michael Franti to Immortal Technique have long been trying to get hip-hop heads to eat some greens with their beef, and Christians have been attempting to win kids over by getting “street” since Rapper’s Delight first bam-bam-boogied its way across the globe. Lecrae’s innovation is to Trojan horse his wholesome messages using the same kind of bass-heavy beats you’d find rattling an Atlanta strip club. From sampling Luniz’s I Got 5 On It, to interpolating lines from southern Bone Crusher’s crunk hit Never Scared, Anomaly is an album as steeped in hip-hop doctrine as it is chapter and verse, and the rap world is lapping it up. Kendrick Lamar and DJ Premier both appeared in 2012’s Church Clothes video, and Lecrae’s recently recorded collaborations with B.o.B and Clipse member No Malice. It transpires that the most radical thing a rapper can do in 2014 is prove that it’s not just the devil with the best tunes.