“I was the man in the third grade,” says Lecrae Moore. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and the Houston-born rapper talks between sips of coffee inside the offices of his Reach Records imprint in downtown Atlanta. He grins as he tries to recall the opening lines of LL Cool J’s 1987 hit “I’m Bad.” The song’s flashy braggadocio appealed to him when he first heard it at age 5, and he would go on to perform it as a kid in effort to impress his grade-school classmates. The lines come to him: “No rapper can rap quite like I can/ I’ll take a muscle-bound man and put his face in the sand.”
Often enough, Lecrae can sound just as impassioned as LL Cool J in his own songs. On his 2004 Real Talk full-length rap debut, he paraphrases a Bible verse and growls, “Romans 1:16 — I’m not ashamed. I ain’t ashamed.” And while many rappers turn to their faith and God for inspiration on their verses, Lecrae’s commitment went further. So far, in fact, that a mere four years later the MC’s devotion led him to become the first rapper to top Billboard’s Gospel charts.
The successes that followed started subtly shifting his association, tagging him to rap and gospel in near equal measures. Last year Lecrae’s sixth album Gravity won the Grammy for Best Gospel Album, making him the first rapper to do so ever. The Grammy recognition helped Lecrae gain mainstream ground in the rap community; he would go on to perform at Rock the Bells performance and release a Don Cannon-hosted mixtape, Church Clothes 2. Still, even though Gravity speaks on the corruption Lecrae sees from the government, police and even pastors, he often faces the same question from outlets like BET’s 106 & Park: How did he reconcile his Christian faith with rap standards?
While at Reach Records, Lecrae thinks before trying to answer that question again. “I’m hip-hop. I don’t even really listen to gospel music,” he says. “But why can’t I love Jesus?” he says. He later admits that Real Talk may have come across as overly preachy. “All I knew of hip-hop was this brash, in-your-face kind of deal,” he says. “So I took that same approach with my faith: ‘I ain’t no punk.’”
With that in mind, he now prides himself on being able to forge ties with hip-hop influencers like 9th Wonder, Statik Selektah and Sway. “There’s a lot of guys within the culture who feel the same way. They may not be as devout as I am, but we can talk about faith and life,” he says. Thanks to such conversations, Lecrae just released his seventh album Anomaly, to his biggest audience yet.
Weeks prior to Anomaly‘s release, Lecrae spoke to Wondering Sound about his childhood hip-hop influences, trying to redeem and move past haunting events from his past, and searching for a father figure.
Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?
My major influences were my uncles and cousins, and a lot of them were getting into trouble and part of gang activity. They were playing Snoop, Dre and Eazy E and shaped my identity, palate and my idea of what it meant to be a man. In elementary school I went to a performing arts class, so I started looking for people who could share my unique experiences; dudes from an urban context who were also expressive, creative, artistic and OK with that. OutKast were the first people to come on the scene and embrace all that.
People would call me Switch: “You just flip the switch. One minute you want to vandalize, and next you want to go to a poetry session. What’s up with you?” There’s this dichotomy in trying to find yourself, and I felt that OutKast wrestled with that well.
What was your relationship with religion back then? Your grandmother was Pentecostal, right?
It’s going to sound weird, but I’m not religious. I don’t like religiosity. I would research all kinds of organized religions, but God just felt like this tyrant: “Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” To think about God saying, “Listen, I’m going to live amongst you and help you,” that I can rock with. Atheism scared me; I was an agnostic at the least. I was like, “I’m a screw-up. I’m gonna mess my whole life up if no one is looking out for me.” And I didn’t really feel like hip-hop culture and faith were not married together. In the music I would listen to, I always heard references to spirituality. Lauryn Hill pushed that over the cliff.
When you were 22, cops caught you trespassing on a high school campus with weed in your car, but you were let go because a Christian cop also found a Bible — who gave that to you?
My grandmother did. I visited her and snagged that from her place. I desired to be sincere and flesh out my faith, but didn’t have the support system to do that. I was trying but failing, trying but failing. A lot of the male [role models] I had were like, “Here’s $300. Don’t eff it up.” They weren’t, like, “What does it mean to be a man? Do I believe in God? What is love?” I never had those conversations with any man, ever. So with God, I didn’t even know how to approach him. Is he a father? I grew up with my mom. She remarried, so I had a step-dad, but we were very distant. He didn’t grow up with his father, so it was just like, “Kids are seen, not heard.”
In 2003, you were in a few car accidents and required stitches.
I was in substance-abuse rehab. I got into multiple car accidents and a couple of altercations. One man threatened to kill me. I was driving with rage and just felt like, “I’m going to kill somebody, or myself, if I don’t get help.” I literally told somebody that. I went to rehab, and being in there was helpful. I saw people with way worst circumstances than I had, [who said] “I drink a gallon of vodka a day.” I had gotten into an altercation. I had my eye split open. I had to get stitches. I flipped my car over. I got out of treatment, and I was like, “My whole world is unraveling.”
I was always searching for significance. My father wasn’t here, so I was like, “Who am I?” Maybe my significance exists with women, so I should just go find somebody. Maybe it’s in having material possessions. I had my eye socked in front of everybody I respect. My nice car was totaled. My girl broke up with me — well, I found out she was sleeping with another dude. I was lashing out in pain and anguish. At that moment it was like, “God made you. He’s the only person who can give you purpose and significance.”
A lot of mainstream outlets are trying to figure out how you reconcile your faith with hip-hop even after you’ve won a Grammy and performed at Rock the Bells.
It almost felt like the Civil Rights Movement. “OK, get that rap out of here. You’re only drinking from the gospel fountain.” I’m hip-hop. I don’t even really listen to gospel music — but why can’t I love Jesus? There’s a lot of guys within the culture who feel the same way. They may not be as devout as I am, but we can still talk about faith and life.
I saw a comment last year on XXL saying, “He lost his true focus.”
You can’t peer inside my heart and see where my allegiance lies. That doesn’t bother me, because it just tells me that they don’t really grasp true Christianity. Jesus was in the middle of all the madness, hanging out with prostitutes.
Which song off Anomaly are you most proud of?
“Good, Bad, Ugly.” It’s about my own life experiences in dealing with abortion and molestation. I don’t think I’m less of a person for acknowledging what’s happened in my life. It takes a strong person to be vulnerable. When you’re hurt, you hurt other people, but when you’re healed, you try to heal other people.
I kept holding onto a picture of the mother of that [aborted] child. My current wife was like, “Why do you have this woman’s picture?” When we started talking about it, I really started to feel a pain about it all. I had to work through and talk about that. The molestation piece — I’m not ashamed of that, but I have never really confronted it. I always knew, though, that that was the root of my promiscuity. What other nine-year-old is trying to get into a girl’s pants? I’m supposed to be going to Chuck E. Cheese’s. I had to deal with that, especially to be monogamous.
This is like Oprah right now. What else do you want to know, Oprah?
Anomaly begins on a frustrated note and ends on an uplifting note.
If it was a movie, it would be The Matrix and Lord of the Rings together. The hero is frustrated: “I don’t see The Matrix!” He wants to embrace his uniqueness. He’s an unlikely hero, like a little bitty hobbit. I’m not perfect, like Frodo, so I have to constantly check my motives and my heart. You think about Iraq and Ferguson, and most people would be like, “This is the battle. That’s the mission — but I’m comfortable.”
I appreciate how your music increasingly acknowledged that there’s a world beyond the church.
If we’re about love, peace, care and compassion, but then no one sees that, what’s the point? “I gotta work on being more compassionate. The barista messed up on my coffee.” Really? That’s where you gonna aim your compassion? There’s a deadness amongst a lot of Christians to really uphold what they value. There’s a deadness among every group in the world, but I think Christians can be indicted because there’s a stance you’re taking on everything.
In “Timepiece” you wonder if God is actually watching over you. How does recording songs like that feel?
I think we spent too much time complaining. I have to remind myself of what I’m grounded in and what really matters. Be honest: Why did you buy that watch? I don’t need this to tell time. I just want everyone to look at this and be like, “Oh, he’s somebody who matters.” So if it feels like a sermon, it’s because I’m pulling myself out of that place.
Doing so still feels necessary.
Yeah, all the time. Every day.