Earlier this month, Nate “NF” Feuerstein scaled the upper reaches of the Billboard albums chart with Therapy Session. The rapper’s second full-length is an impassioned exploration of his faith, his childhood in a broken home, and his redemption as a rising star, and he hits each verse with a fervent delivery reminiscent of Eminem.
The success of Therapy Session would seem to warrant coverage in any number of rap-oriented websites, as well as some of the innumerable threads coursing through social media. But NF’s breakthrough has drawn only cursory attention.
A large portion of lot Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly centers on a religious awakening and his battle with “Lucy,” or Lucifer
The unintentional media blackout surrounding NF is indicative of the subgenre’s plight since DC Talk broke through to the pop charts with Jesus Freak in 1995. Christian rappers are Christian first, so goes the thinking, and what secular person wants to listen to religious music all day?
Never mind that much of popular rap is drenched in religious themes. A large portion of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly centers on a religious awakening and his battle with “Lucy,” or Lucifer. Andy Mineo has called Lamar the biggest Christian rapper of all time.
Macklemore has written several songs about being saved, including “St. Ides” from his most recent album with Ryan Lewis, This Unruly Mess I Made. One of the key tracks from Chance the Rapper’s new Coloring Book mixtape is the Christ testimonial “Blessings.” And of course, Kanye West has never been shy about trumpeting his faith. He has called his latest opus The Life of Pablo a “gospel album,” but whether it truly qualifies for that designation beyond the standout track “Ultralight Beam” is another question altogether.
As for actual Christian rappers, Lecrae may be the one person everyone knows. When his 2014 album Anomaly topped the Billboard charts, clueless rap fans (including this writer) struggled to learn more about the Houston rapper. It was his seventh album, and the prior one, 2012’s Gravity, had peaked at No. 3 on the charts. However, Anomaly captured the Zeitgeist in a way that his other full-lengths did not, and his newfound audience was pleasantly surprised at how adept he is as a stylist. Anomaly landed on a few year-end lists, and earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance, becoming the rare Christian hip-hop album to crack the mainstream consciousness. Last week, Lecrae announced that he has signed a deal with Columbia Records.
Prior to Lecrae, other Christian rappers have waded into the muck of secular music. In 2002, the Nashville duo GRITS scored an underground hit with The Art of Translation, and tracks like “Here We Go” and “Ooh Aah” appeared on MTV reality shows and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Christian rap hovers within the orbit of hip-hop culture, somewhat separate from the mainstream, but attainable
In the mid ‘00s, rappers with unapologetically Christian lifestyles flourished in the indie scene, including Northwest acts like Macklemore (who included testimonials to God in “As Soon as I Wake Up” on 2005’s The Language of My World), Lifesavas, and Lightheaded. One of the best albums of that era was the Southern rap trio Cunninlynguists’ A Piece of Strange, a dense parable about the temptations of sin. Meanwhile, Gotee Records, an imprint co-founded by Christian music star tobyMac, issued material by 4th Avenue Jones, L.A. Symphony, Mars Ill, Verbs and others.
Today, Christian rap hovers within the orbit of the wider hip-hop culture, somewhat separate from the mainstream, but attainable with a certain amount of effort. It has its own network of fan sites, including the authoritative Rapzilla.com. When Christian artists tour, they opt for youth gatherings, churches, and Christian colleges instead of nightclubs and bars. Much as churchgoing folk criticized soul legends such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin for going pop in the ‘50s and ‘60s, debates over spiritual asceticism, and the folly of collaborating with secular rappers, often roil the closely-knit Christian music scene.
“There is a sacred-secular divide that hinders us from impacting culture,” Lecrae said during a memorable speech at a 2012 Christian leadership conference.
However, connecting the two cultures isn’t just a one-way street. Secular rap fans will find plenty of quality Christian rap to enjoy if they bother to look. There’s New Orleans MC Dee-1, whose “Jay, 50 and Weezy” remains something of a cult classic, and the singer/rapper Mali Music, who just released the vital single “Digital.” Tedashii’s “Be Me” from his recently released This Time Around EP wouldn’t sound out of place on a trap playlist. More than just an outlet for self-described “Jesus freaks,” this oft-misunderstood genre has plenty of quality sounds for the adventurous rap listener.