RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You may not know it, but something unprecedented happened on the Billboard charts last fall. One album topped the gospel charts and the Billboard 200 at the same time, pushing out Maroon 5 for the top spot nationwide. The man behind that album is Lecrae. He's a rapper and hip-hop artist. He is also a Christian who puts his faith in the center of his music. He was raised mostly by a single mom who loved Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And his earliest memories of music are the soul songs she played in the house when he was growing up. It was also his mom who inadvertently led him to hip-hop.
LECRAE: My mother was a - she worked at a halfway house. And one of the former inmates slid me a mix-tape full of different hip-hop songs. And so that was my first kind of experience with rap music.
MARTIN: Lecrae is now in the middle of a world tour. His latest album is called "Anomaly." And as the title suggests, one of the biggest themes on that album is the idea of feeling out-of-step with the mainstream. As a Christian in hip-hop and a rapper in the church, Lecrae has long felt like an outsider.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTSIDERS")
LECRAE: (Rapping) 'Til then we live on the outside, and it might storm, and we might die. But I'd rather go with my fist high standing outside of your inside. I try my best to fit in...
MARTIN: Was it ever a question for you about how much of your faith you would put into your music?
LECRAE: I've always been the type of person - you know, I kind of am extreme. So you know, I'm not, like, oh, let me get one tattoo. It's, like, my old whole arm has to be covered.
LECRAE: So if I'm learning something, that's all I want to talk about. If I'm experiencing something, it's all I want to talk about. So at the time of me really wrestling with kind of eternal and infinite truths, that was the center of everything I communicated. As I've grown, there's plenty of other things that I'm wanting to talk about, you know, the state of our country, societal issues, fatherlessness - all different types of things that now, I'm pretty passionate about and want to speak on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY WATER")
LECRAE: (Rapping) My family came here on slave ships - some herd cattle, some herd blacks. Know some of y'all didn't heard that. My kin was treated less than men. That's why we raised to hate each other 'cause we hate our skin. Lies you told about yourself that you don't realize. Must be a thief, she locked the doors when I was walking by. They must be whores 'cause the master rapes them and leaves the child. So deadbeat daddy was taught to me way before my time.
MARTIN: Did you get any flack for being the Christian hip-hop guy?
LECRAE: There was two sides of it. There's the church side who says, man, this guy is rough around the edges, and the people he's hanging out with look like thugs. And yet they're talking about God. And we don't have a category for this. And it was likened a lot to the Ray Charles and the Al Green 'cause that's what I consider myself. I consider what I do soul music. It's music that is concerned with the soul. And the church didn't know what to do with Ray Charles or Al Green. And so they were kind of ostracized.
MARTIN: But then on the other side, you had the people who were in mainstream hip-hop who also were giving you flak?
LECRAE: It wasn't a confrontational deal as much as it was just ignoring me. You know what I mean? Just kind of...
MARTIN: Sometimes that's worse.
LECRAE: Yeah. I mean, it reminds you a lot of high school, and there's the cool kids table (laughter) and you have your little sack lunch. And you've got to go sit over at another table.
LECRAE: And every situation is different. So there would be some times where people wouldn't know how to act around me. Does he drink? Can I cuss? What can I do? And then there was other circumstances where it was, I just don't respect what you're trying to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUTHIN'")
LECRAE: (Rapping) 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.
MARTIN: You have a lot of fans who listen to you because you talk about God. And then you have other fans who maybe listen to your music despite that. You clearly feel like you're balancing that tension in a way that feels authentic to you?
LECRAE: Yeah, I do. It's interesting because it's such a phenomenon for a hip-hop artist to fully embrace his Christian roots and his faith. And that becomes something that people almost need you to justify. But it's rare that we'll turn the tide, and say, hey, justify why violence and misogyny and drug abuse is OK within hip-hop. You know, and I think that's tragic to some degree.
MARTIN: Let's listen to another song from the album. It's a really personal song. This is called "Good, Bad, Ugly."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD, BAD, UGLY")
LECRAE: (Rapping) I remember back in the day, I was barely in the first grade. Got teeth missing, watching Tom and Jerry, trying to go outside so I can play. I was told to watch out for strangers. Keep my eyes peeled for danger. Folks working late, I had a babysitter. I ain't about to sit here and name her. I was almost 8 when she came in late, woke me up with a game to play. Did a few things that it's hard to say. Told me to keep that secret safe. Now how a young boy supposed to deal? I'm trying to act like it ain't real. Had my innocence just stripped from me, and I still don't know how to feel. And I'm wondering how to address it.
MARTIN: There's a lot happening in this song. You're talking about an experience that you've been public about. You were molested by a babysitter when you were just a kid. Elsewhere the same song, you talk about driving a woman who you were intimate with - driving her to get an abortion. Are you just that person who is transparent about that most intimate stuff, or is there something about the space of a song that lets you open up?
LECRAE: Yeah, I learned some years ago from a mentor of mine that leaders lead in vulnerability. I think we're all wounded, but some of us, when we experience the healing of those wounds, that they scar and scab over. And the scabs are not something that I have be ashamed of because the scabs are the evidence that healing has occurred. And there's a lot of wounded people out there who don't believe that there's any way they'll ever be healed from those wounds. And I think when you hear someone who's got this scar, and they're showing you their scar, it gives you a sense of hope.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD, BAD, UGLY")
BACKUP VOCALIST: (Singing) I'm talking the good, the bad, the ugly.
MARTIN: Your music has, obviously, a very spiritual element to it. But it is also grounded in the real world. And you were provoked to write an essay I want to ask you about. You wrote, last fall, an essay after the unrest that we saw in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. And you walked a really careful line in that piece. You were trying to understand what was happening between communities of color and the police by calling out biases - biases that we all have. What compelled you to write that, and why that message?
LECRAE: When I walk into the Reach Records offices every day...
MARTIN: This is your production.
LECRAE: ...Our studio in our office, yeah, our label. There are Hispanic faces, black faces, white faces, and we just had a moment after Ferguson. And we sat in the conference room, and we said let's just discuss it. And let's hear everyone's perspective civilly. And you really start hearing how all of us are right in areas and wrong in areas and biased here and biased there. And it challenged me to continue talking to different people from different backgrounds to understand why they draw the lines they draw. Everyone, when something like Baltimore or Ferguson happens, they need to draw meaning out of it. And in order to draw meaning out of a circumstance like that, you've got to create a narrative. And that narrative has to have a protagonist and an antagonist. And I think some people quickly say, oh, the police are the antagonist and the black community is the protagonist. Or the black community - they're thugs, and the police are - they protect and serve. And I think, you know, at the end of the day, the real antagonist is the brokenness of humanity. We're all - we're not good guys. None of us are the good guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN")
LECRAE: (Rapping) Ain't a soul on the planet that's better than another. And we all need grace in the face of each other. What's up?
If we can't come together, and have conversations and understand our biases and understand that hate, none of us are really the good guys here. And we're going to just pick bad guy. And that's where a lot of the problems come.
MARTIN: Do you see a place for your music in this?
LECRAE: Absolutely because artists have the unique ability to tell stories. It's not charts and graphs that get people to change. When you go watch "The Lord Of The Rings," you don't just buy a bag of popcorn, and go sit in the movie theater to watch where covetous people in our hearts deceive us, and then walk out the theater. That's the message that may be in that movie. But you want the story of Frodo and the chase and the quest for the ring. And that's how you end up getting that message out of it. And I think the artist has an ability to draw pictures for people to where they can process these messages that otherwise they wouldn't be open to hearing.
MARTIN: Lecrae, his most recent album is called "Anomaly." Thanks so much for talking with us.
LECRAE: Absolutely. It's a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU")
LECRAE: (Rapping) All I need is you. To keep me in my time zone when my mind's gone. And I'm flying home, and I'm stressed out. And I'm tempted to get that styrofoam, and go pour it up. But you what know what's up. And you know that ain't going to solve nothing. I mean, Lord forbid, I might fall or something. And I'm all or nothing 'cause all I need you.
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