Lecrae’s Theology of Quality
Few know of my historical fascination and obsession with Christian hip hop. During my high school years, I was hooked by the confidence that comes with cadence, the quality beats that accompanied the poetry, and the opportunity to be incorporated into a community that grounds itself in the gospel. Much of this music, primarily under the label of “Reach Records,”1 contains solid rhymes such as these:
Since my conception I’ve been riddled with deception
Televised lies devised to lead a blind insurrection
Against the resurrection – and the greatest misconception
the world believes the Christian is foolish without direction2
However, I put up with a lot of “wack” music in those days, many times accepting low-quality music simply because it carried the label “Christian.” Lame stuff with lines like “get crunk for Jesus,” “get high on the Holy Spirit,” and “Jesus remixes” of popular secular rap songs were par for the course. Americans raised in Christian subculture can readily see parallels with generally bad quality Christian consumption and production: poorly directed and acted Christian films, the creation of “Christian” bookstores distinct from the mainstream (that sell these), and the very existence of Amish historical romantic inspirational fiction.
At the top of the Reach Records franchise lies Grammy award-winning Lecrae Moore (commonly known as Lecrae). Coming off of the first album (Anomaly) ever to top both the Gospel and the Billboard 200 charts3, Lecrae commands attention from those outside of Christian culture, wondering who this anomaly of an artist is. This article, looking at the many print and radio interviews following the release of his latest album, will develop Lecrae’s self-definition as an artist, seeing his calling for quality within all work to be emblematic of how all Christians should engage their Monday through Friday lives.
In her article on this site, “Books, Film, and Christian Propaganda,” Amanda Barber wrestles with being a Christian and an artist. She asks, “Am I an author who writes Christian fiction? Or am I a Christian who writes?” The former, she writes, puts one into a box, requiring you to “inject a story with the Gospel” rather than allowing you to “permeate a story with it.” Lecrae responds to the question in the same way, explaining, “Christians have…prostituted art in order to give answers [and promote an agenda] instead of telling great stories and raising great questions.” Speaking particularly of the problems within the Christian music industry, Lecrae castigates, “The exploitation of believers just to turn a profit—so you care less about making a quality product, you just want to keep telling the same stories and repackaging them over and over just to exploit people—I have a problem with that.” Lecrae’s succinct statement of “My music is not Christian—Lecrae is” thus allows him to create art that cannot be easily pigeonholed into a “Christian music” box.4
Having distanced himself from the tired Christian music industry (as my dad says, “Every song on the Christian radio station sounds the same and says the same thing”), one might believe Lecrae is then free to pursue normal hip hop. The problem with this side of the equation, however, is Lecrae views himself as flowing down a different stream than the prevailing nature of the hip hop industry. He critiques the ethos of the stereotypical rapper in his song “Nuthin”:
Let me guess you counting money to the ceiling
Difference ‘tween us like at least a couple million
It’s foreign cars, pretty girls everywhere you go
Yeah I heard it 30 times on the radio
But I know these people greater than the songs they created
It’s little homies in the hood regurgitating
And everybody watching thinking that you made it
The truth is for a few designer labels and a little bit of paper now you 12 years slaving5
Lecrae sharply criticizes the industry for hypocrisy, responding to hip hop’s outcry in response to Michael Brown’s death, “Dear Hip Hop, we can’t scream ‘murder, misogyny, lawlessness’ in our music & then turn around and ask for equality & justice.”6
Lecrae rightly labels himself an “anomaly,” neither existing within the preach-for-a-profit Christian music industry, nor the peddle-poison-to-people nature of the hip hop industry. Vibe writes, “The contrast between Lecrae and virtually every other artist thriving in the current commercial hip-hop space is overwhelmingly vast…Lecrae is basically alone. He exists in a singular landscape, mapping out uncharted territory in hopes of finding signs of life.”7
Much could be written concerning Lecrae’s self-understanding as a model for Christian engagement with culture (neither retreat into Christian culture nor assimilation into the sinful “world,” but rather faithful engagement; see Jacob Prahlow’s “Pagan Christianity”). Rather, within this space I want to develop Lecrae’s self-understanding as a theology of quality, one that calls Christians to faithfully authentic work in whatever stage or sphere they exist in.
Far too often, Christian theological engagement with the workplace assumes that real ministry takes place within the walls of the church. That which occurs Monday through Friday is thus a second-tier position that Christians perform on-the-side, if you will. To do “God’s work,” nearly always means “preaching the gospel” or “saving souls.” Rarely are the mundane details of bank telling, window washing, diaper changing, people managing, or paper researching seen as true work that reflects the glory of God as a worker. Lecrae’s self-understanding as an anomaly, contrary to the prevailing evangelical understanding of what “God’s work” is, gives Lecrae room to pursue quality work. Rather than falsely considering himself a “Christian rapper” within the tired Christian music industry or profiteering as another run-of-the-mill rapper within the hip hop industry, Lecrae calls Christians to faithfully authentic work. He says, “Everyone’s job, everyone’s vocation, is an extension of their faith and how they see the world. Every job is an act of service. If I was working at a call center collecting debts from people who have credits calls, I would call and try to help them, and try to serve them.”8 Asked whether he accredits God for his talent, he responds, “Providentially, I was placed in certain environments where hip-hop was prevalent, and that was the experience that I had. And then there was practice. So God put me in that place, but then there was a responsibility for me to practice and to work at it and to hone my craft. So I think they work hand-in-hand”.9
Lecrae thus promotes a theology of work that sees itself as 1) an act of service and 2) good craftsmanship. Outside of both a hip hop industry that serves the pride of the artist and a Christian music industry that tends to promote an inferior product, Lecrae calls Christians to see their Monday to Friday lives as an opportunity to live faithfully within whatever environment God has placed them. The workplace of the Christian–not a facade constructed for the real purpose of evangelism, nor a second-tier arena of human existence–is rather a site of and opportunity for real human flourishing, characterized by other-centerdness and authentic quality. Paul Marshall concludes, “When we engage in sculpture or auto repair, politics or child rearing, farming or baseball, our first intention is not to win people to Jesus Christ. Instead we do these things because they are good, helpful, and of service and delight to people, because they can be rewarding and fun, and because God has called us to do them in faith.”10