With his past two albums, hip-hop star Lecrae has gone where no other artist in the Christian hip-hop genre has gone.
His Higher Learning tour stops at Bell Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 4. Tickets are $15-$75 at georgialinatix.com, (877) 428-4849 and at James Brown Arena box office.
Lecrae’s 2012 album, Gravity, became the first hip-hop artist to win a Grammy in the Best Gospel album category. That album also established him as a presence in mainstream hip-hop, debuting at No. 3 on Billboard magazine’s album chart and setting the record for most copies of a Christian hip-hop album sold in a single week with 72,000 units moved in the first week.
Then with his 2014 album, Anomaly, Lecrae again broke a barrier, and proved he was now a force in mainstream hip-hop when that album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart with first-week sales of 88,000 copies. That made Lecrae only the fifth Christian artist to top the album chart – and the first from the hip-hop genre to reach that pinnacle. He also had two Grammy nominations from the Anomaly album.
As he explained in a late-February phone interview, Lecrae has tried to take the acclaim and notoriety in stride.
“I think in one sense I’m just honored that people would celebrate the gifts that I have,” he said. “But in another sense, I do it because I love to. I want to help people and I want to create great things. I’m a product of a great Creator and I want to create great things. So I just do it because I want to and I love to and not so much for the accolades. So it’s always like ‘Wow, I thank you. I appreciate it,’ but I’ll continue doing it whether or not it’s celebrated at the Grammys or not.”
Lecrae is well aware he is now a standard bearer for Christian hip-hop, and he’s reaching a level of mainstream popularity that no other hip-hop act in Christian music has achieved.
“Definitely in terms of blazing trails, you feel that because there’s a sense of loneliness, there’s a sense of just always having to knock down a wall or knock down a door, not really having any forerunners in a lot of ways to give you some examples,” he said. “So that’s definitely something I feel and recognize, and hopefully for every direction I go in, somebody can follow behind me and it will be a smoother path for them.”
Lecrae has been following pretty much an uncharted path since he started his career in hip-hop. Born 36 years ago to a single mother, Lecrae Devaughn Moore spent his childhood moving frequently, making stops in San Diego, Denver and Dallas.
He was not a Christian then, and in fact, was on a path to a troubled life as a teenager. At 16, he started taking drugs and was arrested in high school for stealing before becoming a drug dealer.
His grandmother, though, tried to steer Lecrae toward a better path, giving him a Bible and encouraging her grandson to find meaning in faith. It wasn’t long before this turned around life for Lecrae. Feeling his lifestyle was leading to a dead end, Lecrae started attending church. While there, he saw a high school classmate, who encouraged him to join a Bible study class. There, Lecrae saw peers that looked like him, dressed like him, liked the same music, but had positive values and character.
Lecrae had been developing his hip-hop and songwriting skills during his teen years, and after seeing the Christian hip-hop group, The Cross Movement at a conference during his college years, the idea of being a Christian hip-hop artist started to build.
In 2004, Lecrae partnered with Ben Washer to co-found a record label, Reach Records, and that year, Lecrae released his debut album, Real Talk.
Even at that early point in his career, Lecrae was blazing a new trail by starting Reach Records and releasing music through that label.
“Starting a label kind of was the only way to get things going,” Lecrae said. “We didn’t really have a full grasp of how all of these industries kind of worked. But hindsight being 20/20, it makes sense. There’s a traditional gospel route and there’s a contemporary Christian route, and hip-hop just was not visible in any of those two worlds. Hip-hop was just visible in the mainstream. So that was really the only option we had, was to kind of create something ourselves and hope that it worked.”
From there, his career continued a steady climb, as he released subsequent albums, After the Music Stops (2006), Rebel (2008) and Rehab (2010). Several months before he released Gravity, Lecrae made a significant impact in the mainstream with the mixtape Church Clothes. A video for the title track (featuring cameos from Kendrick Lamar and DJ Premier) was debuted on the XXL magazine Web site. The mixtape, hosted by hip-hop producer Don Cannon, went on to notch 100,000 downloads in 48 hours.
A second mixtape in the series, Church Clothes Vol. 2, arrived in November 2013, and now Lecrae has released Church Clothes Vol. 3 to open 2016. The new mixtape builds on the topical slant of the first two releases in the series.
“The whole concept is to engage people from all walks of life, all faiths and viewpoints and people lack thereof,” Lecrae said. “And Church Clothes 3 was something I didn’t really plan on doing. But just in traveling, going to Africa, going to Asia, going to the Middle East and seeing the issues here in the states and all of the interpretations of ethnicity and culture and faith, I wanted to make a project that would allow me to talk about some of that stuff in a round-about way.”
Lecrae’s success in mainstream hip-hop and his collaborations with artists such as Lamar, B.o.B., Paul Wall has created some criticism in Christian circles from those who don’t like Lecrae associating himself with artists whose lyrics sometimes include obscenities, are viewed as misogynistic, celebrate sex and drugs and reflect the gritty realities of urban life. Some question whether Lecrae is compromising – even selling out -- his Christian values in the pursuit of popularity and money.
Such criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed, but Lecrae said working with top artists in mainstream (as well as Christian) music is part of his efforts to grow artistically.
“Everywhere, within everything there are people who are going to create rules and laws, unspoken rules and unspoken laws,” he said. “For me, I’m an artist, and my faith is my identity, but not my genre. So there are no unspoken rules or laws written out as far as my art is concerned. I understand that there are some people who feel like there are, but you know, I’m really not confined by those (opinions). At the end of the day I feel the freedom to work with people and be a light in dark places.”
He hopes to continue to combine pure entertainment with some lyrical substance on his Higher Learning tour this spring.
“It’s fun filled,” Lecrae said of his show, which will include a segment devoted to his Church Clothes material. “It’s just some sincere moments, some thought-provoking moments. There are a lot of energized moments as well. And of course the (visual) production, we always travel with production, but at the same time we wanted to do something that felt intimate as well and create some intimate moments. But yeah, whether you’re a casual fan, a casual listener, or a super fan, I think there’s something for you.”