A couple weeks back, Lecrae released a track exclusively through Rapzilla, one of Christian hip-hop’s top sites (if not the top site for the genre). In the track, Lecrae pits a version of his old self (“Mr. Rebel”, named after his third album) against his current views (“Mr. Gravity”, after his fifth album, released just last year).
If you’re not familiar with the debate Lecrae is having with himself, here’s the short version: “Rebel” spends time talking about the Gospel in extremely straightforward ways. Jesus is mentioned in nearly every track (if not every track). Lecrae has songs called “I’m a Saint” (where he mentions that scripture describes all believers as “saints”), “The Bride” (talking about the Church), and “Indwelling Sin.” The album doesn’t pull any punches, lyrically speaking, and you’d never listen to any song and wonder what Lecrae was talking about. In contrast, “Gravity” is an album that, in some people’s eyes, hides a bit behind the music. “Free From It All” doesn’t mention God at all, unless you make the jump from “Freedom from the frustrations of fame” to “Freedom in Christ.” While “Mayday” features explicit references to Christ (“Got a couple Scriptures from my Grandma/Sayings from a preacher/But can’t live out these standards that we heard it takes to reach ‘em/But when I look at Jesus/He lived the life I couldn’t/Suffered for my crimes so I wouldn’t”), it also includes Lecrae professing respect for secular artist Big K.R.I.T. (who also appears on the track). He respects K.R.I.T. for confessing, but it is still a far cry from the Rebel days.
Fans have been quick to point these truths out. They’ll push back every time Lecrae releases a new track. We saw it when he came out with the title track from his mixtape Church Clothes, we saw it with the BET Cypher, we saw it with his involvement with Statik Selektah’s album, and I’m sure we’ll see it again on both Church Clothes 2 and his next full length album. The controversy finally got strong enough that Lecrae felt he should respond to his old views, in the form of the rap above.
Christian music has fought this fight in many other genres. And we’ve even fought it in Christian hip-hop. We’re just seeing more mainstream success than ever before, so people feel the need to jump into the discussion.
A good friend of mine, Calvin Moore, argues that the real failure of Lecrae’s argument isn’t actually his current position, but rather in the way he relates to those fans who agree with the “Mr. Rebel” verse. If I follow his argument correctly, it’s relatively simple: Lecrae is in a mature place, but not everyone can be there. If Lecrae doesn’t work to bring people, he’ll only continue to face criticism, and possibly even tacitly harm those who don’t stand in the mature position with Lecrae.
If that’s the argument Calvin’s making, I think he’s right. But the whole discussion has a lot to do with a broader discussion of how Christians ought to interact with culture. I’m indebted to Brett McCracken for his thoughtful work on culture. His book has helped me articulate my position a bit more clearly. The broader discussion is this: how should Christians interact with art? Should every piece of art we make contain an expressive representation of the Gospel, of Jesus’ name, of God’s great love? The key word there is “expressive”, and you could easily substitute “explicit.” Can you make Christian art that doesn’t mention Jesus’ name?
If you answer the question with a “no”, you’ll be disappointed in the direction Lecrae is heading with his art. But if you believe that Christians can reflect their Creator without an explicit “Jesus” reference in every bit of it, there may be room on your iPod for Lecrae’s newest music.