The top rap album on the Billboard 200 today isn’t from a known chart powerhouse like Kanye West or 2 Chainz. It comes from Lecrae, a 32-year-old Atlanta-based Christian rapper, whose new disc Gravity shifted 72,000 copies in its first week – enough to reach the No. 3 spot on the biggest mainstream chart in the country.
While Christian music has always maintained a viable niche in the music industry – just last week, Christian artist TobyMac topped the albums chart – until recently, Christian rap was often viewed as more of an oxymoronic punchline than anything else.
Lecrae has changed that. His 2008 disc Rebel became the first Christian rap album to Billboard’s Top Gospel chart, and it held the pole position for 78 weeks. His 2010 effort Rehab sold 27,000 copies in its first week, and its 2011 re-issue Rehab: The Overdose climbed to No. 15 on the mainstream chart.
Gravity has achieved a whole other level of success – easily the biggest sales week ever for a Christian rap album – and the trail Lecrae is blazing has helped fellow Christian rappers like Trip Lee and Tedashii find more widespread appeal.
EW chatted with the rapper about his growing fanbase, and how he navigates the secular market as a religious rapper:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve gotta be honest. I’m sorta scared to interview you because you say on the album that, “Them magazines ain’t on my page.”
LECRAE: (Laughs) That’s because I haven’t been getting interviewed. That’s all that is.
Have you noticed a change in media attention with this album?
Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. I think people are actually respecting the art, and it’s not as much the anomaly of someone who is adamant about their faith and doing it in music, but it’s actually good art. I’m hoping that’s the case this go round.
Do you feel like there’s been some spectacle of “Oooh, look, a Christian rapper!” in the past?
Definitely. Because of that, there’s a stigma attached that says, “Oh, the music’s probably not gonna be good, and all he’s gonna do is rap sermons,” so it’s been good for people even outside of the Christian faith to enjoy the music and to really appreciate the craft and the musicality of it.
Your fanbase has grown substantially in the last few years. Are you surprised by that?
I am. It’s always humbling. It’s definitely been intentional… I’m surprised in one sense – I’d say a better word is grateful that some of the intentionality has paid off.
What have you done to be intentional in building a fanbase?
When you exist in Christian music, the talent level around you is not as consistent, and so when I stepped outside of Christian music and said, “Let’s just work as if I’m competing against anybody who’s doing hip hop and not just Christians who do hip hop,” it made the music a lot better. Second has definitely been, Let’s talk about topics that everybody needs to know about, that everybody needs to hear a good perspective on versus just the church. You know, there’s topics like gun violence – all the murders that have happened in Chicago. Let’s talk about the reality of violence that I think everybody can resonate with, but I may have a unique perspective.
A lot of new listeners heard about you when Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow both said they were fans last year. To what extent are you aware of celebrity endorsements and to what extent do you value them?
I cherish them because I think they’re sincere. What people probably fail to think about when it comes to stars or professional athletes is that they’re people and they need inspiration and they enjoy music and it resonates with them as people. So for them to give those endorsements, it’s sincere. It really has nothing to do with me. I didn’t even know [Lin] at the time he said that. It just was him being genuine. I typically know if someone said something if my Twitter starts blowing up.
What’s inspiring you lately, then?
Artistically, in terms of music, I listen to a wide array of things. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the hip hop artists whose music has inspired me, at least to a degree, to keep going and keep pushing. One of them, I got to feature on my album, Big K.R.I.T. Also, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco – those are guys who I feel challenge themselves artistically. This group called Local Natives that put out one album just resonate with me very well, and another guy, Gungor, his music is just incredible.
I was actually going to bring up Gungor. He wrote a really interesting essay earlier this year about Christian contemporary music and the fake “sheen” he feels plagues that industry. Do you agree with him and have you encountered similar frustration?
I probably agree with him about 95 percent, and the other 5 is just because I don’t have all the same exact experiences. I think my music parallels any kind of hip hop you would hear on any radio station in terms of the content and the quality being authentic and real and not being this pristine show of Christianity. It’s just real life, real music. I think because I don’t polish it up so it sounds like all the other Top 40 music on Christian radio, it doesn’t get played there, and I’ve seen some love on mainstream radio stations that I haven’t seen on Christian stations. I’m about making real, authentic music that deals with real issues, and I think that sometimes, the faith-based market is scared to talk about certain things.
The production on Gravity sounds much better than former discs… Who’d you work with to achieve that sound?
A lot of great producers. Obviously DJ Khalil, who’s worked with Jay-Z and Eminem, and The Game. Also, Drew Castro, who’s worked with India Arie and Keyshia Cole. And then you have the Heat Academy and The Watchmen, who are just kind of groups of people who are my friends, but they are incredibly talented, but they like to use their gifts to make an impact in culture. Some of them have produced for bigger artists in the past, but they poured all their time and resources into me this time around, so I’m grateful for that.
Now that you’re getting more attention, do you feel a sense of duty to represent the church to the mainstream?
I don’t feel the weight to put the whole church on my back. If you’re looking for Lecrae to give you the full encompassed view of the faith, I think you’re putting way too much pressure on a person. I think that’s impossible. What I try to do is answer the questions. I don’t try to hide anything.
Hear “Mayday,” Lecrae’s collaboration with Big K.R.I.T. (and 13th place American Idol finisher Ashthon Jones) below:
Follow Grady on Twitter: @EWGradySmith