Proving Rap is Sinful: A Quick Guide

If you’ve found the recent debate in some circles of Christianity about hip-hop to be a bit overwhelming, I’d recommend focusing here. I suspect that Scott Aniol represents some of the best arguments out there against the rap as a musical genre, while Shai Linne is not only a successful Christian rapper, but also a devote believer who has interned with pastors, and has released albums centered around theology (The Attributes of God was fantastic, and his most recent album, Lyrical Theology, Pt. 1: Theology is pretty solid, as well). It is always good practice to read and represent the best possible position, and I commend their thoughts to you.

I gave my thoughts on the topic shortly after the panel that sparked the whole thing. It’s a little odd to me to watch scholars who have spent very little time looking at hip-hop disregard it so quickly, especially when confronted with solid Christian brothers and sisters who so strongly disagree with them. This isn’t something like pornography, which can easily be dismissed as sinful; there aren’t huge groups of otherwise righteous people devoting their lives to it. But media, broadly speaking, has devotees among Christians–rap music is no different. While this is far from enough to conclude that rap is holy (after all, some cultural realities may be sinful), it should at least give us pause.

Here’s why you should care about the debate, no matter where you currently stand (and why I’m eager to follow along): if rap is inherently sinful, it ought to be avoided, plain and simple. At all times. Vigilantly. Let us not sin that grace may abound. If, however, rap is not intrinsically sinful, but only made sinful by some other quality (whether content, some particular style of beat, or something else), then we have to be careful about shutting out something that has apparently helped many people draw nearer to the face of God. There are reports of people who have been saved by rap music; I myself have been convicted and encouraged by Christian rappers, including Shai Linne.

If there were no good to be saved here, we could give it up. In fact, it might be wise to give it up, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

From utility, it seems that we can’t quite discount rap on the suggestion that it might be sinful. After all, it is putting Scripture into the hearts of many listeners, both believers and skeptics. Even if sin plays a large part in rap music, isn’t the light worth preserving?

To convince me that hip-hop is not worth investing in, an opponent would need to address a number of issues: first, I’d need to see evidence that something about the musicality of hip-hop (the drum, the synths, the bass, the samples, or something else entirely?) is somehow universally going to result in sinfulness. If someone could genuinely explain how the beats of hip-hop universally encourages lust in people, or hatred, or any other sin, I’d be pretty quick to drop it (at least) in front of others, if not personally.

Second, if someone could prove that the the majority of those who are brought to Christ through rap music are somehow hindered by rap, rather than helped by it, then I’d be happy to sit and talk about other evangelistic tools. This is a bit of a utilitarian view, but if you can’t convince people that it is a sin, you could at least attempt to convince people that it is harmful.

Third, I think if someone actually spent time with an album recommended by a Christian fan of rap (might I recommend Shai Linne’s The Attributes of God?), listening to the album all the way through more than once, I’d be a lot more likely to listen to them. Perhaps this is asking much of those who think the music is sinful (though Scott Aniol did post a YouTube link for his argument from Christian “Death Metal”, suggesting that perhaps just listening for the sake of discussion is not a problem). But if it isn’t, I think this should really be a prerequisite.

Finally, I think those who wish to claim rap is sinful should provide some metric by which all music may be judged. How did rap (and death metal, apparently) end up on the short-list for sin, while many other genres have not (country, rock, folk, etc.)? Other than plain assertions, this hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

I don’t throw these challenges out to be trite, nor do I intend them to be rhetorical. I’ll listen to any responses, either sent to me personally or otherwise. My bias shows through, I’m sure, and I won’t pretend otherwise.

But I really do believe that the debate is important, and I wish to see it advanced. If the conclusion is one I don’t like (and, frankly, am skeptical we will be led there), so be it. May God be honored in all we say or do, whether we listen to hip-hop, debate hip-hop, or abstain from hip-hop. And may we all learn which way to best serve God.

Additional Thoughts: Giving Grace to “Crossover” Artists

Last week I penned an article for Biola’s new Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. You can read the article here, but I’d like to expand on my conclusion. Here’s how I ended the article (yes, spoiler alert):

Here’s the principle we all ought to keep in mind: grace should govern our every move. We may disagree with certain decisions that No Malice, Brian ‘Head’ Welch, P.O.D., Lecrae, or whoever may make, and we should seek to encourage the Christian scene to carefully consider its actions, but we have an obligation to extend grace, especially to those who are seeking to glorify the Lord. Correct gently, remember that all truth is God’s truth, and pray that these brothers will only get better as years go on.

I stand by the principle, but I was afraid of just one question. A friend of mine asked me the one thing that I knew I hadn’t really touched on: “How do you define grace?”

The question is deeper than the article could hope to cover, and I won’t come close to exhaustively answering it here. I could examine grace in terms of salvation, in terms of interpersonal relationships, in terms of sin, or any number of other options. The core of the question, though, is more pointed. How do we give grace to artists that we don’t really know? What does it actually mean to extend grace to a celebrity? Here’s how I answered the question to my friend:

Let’s remember that some language won’t be viewed the same by all listeners. [No Malice] is a guy whose album is absolutely steeped in redemption language. He has a straight-up altar call at the end of the album (“If you want to follow Jesus, pray this prayer with me”). It’s absurdly Christian. If any other artist did this album, we’d be fighting the cheese, occasionally. But instead, we’re fighting four to five swear words.

The point I’d like to drive home is just that we should carefully look at an entire work, rather than a few missteps; we shouldn’t lose the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. Most of us (hopefully) already practice this when we interact with fellow believers: you see their sin, but you stay friends with them.Mostly, it is best to look to what is good in someone when you can. Correction is important, of course, but easiest and most effective when enacted or encouraged in those we know very well. If you don’t know someone’s story well, it is much more difficult to speak to their personal lives.

So when a public artist makes a decision that doesn’t make much sense to you, or possibly seems wrong, stop and pray. Consider if you have all of the facts. Was their decision absolutely sinful? Or did it just rub you the wrong way? Did it fly in the face of God or in the face of man? Do you know what position that artist was in when the song was recorded?”

Public figures, whether they are rappers or bloggers, politicians or pastors, should be careful with their words. We all should be, but public figures especially so. Our responsibility as listeners is to seek the best–all truth is God’s truth, after all–even as we discern good from evil. While we need not condone clear and obvious sin, we would be wise to remember that those who create art, write words, or otherwise live publicly are, in fact, not perfect.

Lecrae Answers the Questions Many Have Asked: “Rebel” or “Gravity”?

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.

“Yeezus” and Pushing Boundaries

If you’re a hip-hop fan like I am, you’ve already listened to and absorbed Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus. If you’re not a fan of the genre, I really doubt this album will convince you. Perhaps some of Kanye’s older works would have a better shot (808s and Heartbreak or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Kanye writes vulgar music. Not just language (though I’ve already written about my thoughts on that issue), but right down to the actual content itself; this is R-rated stuff, easily. I actually think that’s what makes the album tricky to digest as a Christian (more so even than tracks like “I am a God”), but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The other thing you already know about Kanye, most likely, is that he’s really arrogant. I mean, just listen to what he said in an interview with The New York Times:

I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.

But none of this is news. It really isn’t. If you’ve followed his career at all (who could forget this?), you’re aware that Kanye thinks Kanye is a god. So the title Yeezus wasn’t really even that surprising.

Maybe an album called Yeezus sounds like an odd thing for an evangelical to spend a significant amount of time listening to and thinking about. And for many evangelicals, it certainly would be. But as someone who is concerned about the genre, I’m really fascinated by the sorts of things that Kanye consistently does. He’s the sort of artist who sets trends for years to come. He may be arrogant to say he’s the “Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture,” but he’s definitely often taking hip-hop and pushing its boundaries. And Yeezus is no exception. The problem, ultimately, is that it doesn’t work.

When judging media–music especially, but that has more to do with my reviewing experience–I’m often thrilled to praise artists who are willing to try something different. The other side of the experimentation coin, however, is the increased potential for poor music. For example, I love the experimenting Tedashii did on his last album, Blacklight, in the sense that I love that he experimented; tracks like “Riot” and “Can’t Get With You” are different for him, but ultimately fall flat (though “Riot” performs better live than on an album).

There’s something intrinsically stretching about experimentation. Sometimes writers are told to try writing something completely different (I was once told that I should try my hand at fiction writing; I got through two short ‘chapters’ before realizing it wasn’t for me, but I learned a lot about the unique problems of fiction writing through that little experiment), and with good reason. It is far too tempting to fall into the same rhythm, time and time again, especially musically. After all, Kanye must know what sells. He’s proven that he can release album after album of high quality music.

So what happened with Yeezus?

Well, he’s experimented too hard, in this reviewer’s opinion. Kanye’s focus on this album seems to be split two ways: first, he’s interested in attempting to flesh out some new and experimental sounds; second, he appears focused on marketing. While Kanye’s strength has always been production, his lyrics have never been as weak as they are here. The album feels thrown together haphazardly, rather than constructed to bring the listener through some sort of experience.

What lessons can Christians learn from Kanye West, a man who actually says “I know [Jesus] is the most high/but I am a close tie.”? We can learn three things.

1. We can learn to seek excellence in our respective fields, even if it means making mistakes. While Kanye may not be quick to admit to his mistakes (I refer back to the interview linked above), he’s certainly willing to act in ways that others never would (remember his skirt kilt?). By taking risks, by stepping out, he’s trusting that he will survive to the next day. While Kanye may fall flat (see: Yeezus), we can put our faith in something higher.

2. If nothing else, Kanye is honest and confident about who he is. You’d have to be to say and do the sorts of things he does. There’s a lot of talk right now in Christian hip-hop about what it means to be authentic: should Christians rap about their sin (which may imply a glorification of that sin), or should we purify our lyrics and rap sermons? I think Kanye reminds us that sometimes being honest works well, even if that honesty is brutal or difficult or unpleasant. Lots of people relate to Kanye’s music–far more people than most other artists–and this is in large part due to his presentation of both himself and his story.

3. We can learn where self-idolatry leads. Kanye may be rich, and he may be living a sweet life in many respects, but he doesn’t seem content whatsoever. Even in his interview he says he simply isn’t happy. While happiness shouldn’t be the great determiner for the state of our souls, we should be capable of having joy regardless of our circumstances. That’s something we don’t see in Kanye, even when he proclaims his status as a god, and the reminder can be important. People relate to him for a reason: many people live every day unsatisfied. Kanye’s music can be a stark reminder of this, but we can also see the answers that don’t work before attempting them ourselves (note: money, fame, sexual gratification, and traveling the world do not solve the problem).

So do I recommend you listen to Yeezus? Not really. If you weren’t planning on listening to it already, there’s no real need to change your intentions. But as you listen to the latest album from whoever you like, as you watch Man of Steel or any other Hollywood film, consider this: how is Jesus the answer to the question this work asks? I suspect you won’t need to look far to find the answer.

Propaganda Doesn’t Have an Answer, and Neither Do I

Last week, Humble Beast artist Propaganda released his latest album, Excellent. You can snag it here for free, or you can support Propaganda and the label by purchasing it on iTunes, a physical copy from their website, or at a show. The album lives up to its title, and is definitely worth a listen. Most people who’ve heard of Propaganda prior to this release know him from his now-famous G.O.S.P.E.L. video. He’s a great poet and an energetic performer who considers his words carefully; this is not only something I appreciate deeply, but that I’m quick to point people towards when I get the chance. Continue reading Propaganda Doesn’t Have an Answer, and Neither Do I

A Quick Hip-Hop Recommendation

Alright, alright. I know I’ve written a number of posts about hip-hop already. I spend a good amount of my time consuming the genre, considering it, and even writing on it. One thing that has always been tricky when discussing hip-hop with those who will listen is suggesting a starting place. This year has proven pretty handy for that, fortunately. Continue reading A Quick Hip-Hop Recommendation

Lecrae Clears Up Church Clothes

Last week, Reach Records artist Lecrae dropped what has been his most controversial release yet, Church Clothes (you can download it here). It has reached nearly 200,000 downloads in about a week, which I wouldn’t say is anything to be scoffed at, particularly considering the messages Lecrae is adamant about. I wrote my thoughts about the release before it came out, and then added some reflection after listening (and, of course, did a review here). Continue reading Lecrae Clears Up Church Clothes

Desiring a Tattoo: A Case Study

This post may seem a little strange, so allow me to say a few things to start. First, this post is something that’s been brewing in my head for a few years, but I hadn’t formalized it. As such, I’m not quite as set on my thoughts here as I am for other posts. I request a bit extra grace should my thoughts be less rigorous or ill-explained. Continue reading Desiring a Tattoo: A Case Study

Lecrae, Church Clothes, and Mainstream Attention

[Update: My Audio Review for The Christian Manifesto]

Over at XXL Mag, a hip-hop oriented magazine, Lecrae was interviewed about his mixtape Church Clothes, which is set to release today, May 10th. I’ve watched a couple of debates on the topic already. People tend to land in one of two places: either Lecrae is doing God’s work by making music that will reach more people, or he has lost touch with the Gospel and forsaken the name of Christ. Continue reading Lecrae, Church Clothes, and Mainstream Attention

“Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop

Yesterday, Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne released a much-awaited album called The Attributes of God. The album can be purchased on its own (either via iTunes or Lampmode Recording’s website) or, at least during the pre-order period, alongside A.W. Pink’s book of the same name. Continue reading “Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop