2016 In Review

Word Is God: 2016 Was Rap’s Come-To-Jesus Moment

For more than a decade I carried a shame within me, a secret so embarrassing I kept it hidden from anyone new I met for fear of their ridicule. I was a cultural leper, lower than the lowest among us, including nu-metal-heads, fans of early-aughts emo, and Juggalos.

I was, once upon a time, in the days of my youth … a Christian rapper, in a group called, yes, Urban Connection — nevermind that this was in one of the whitest parts of the country.

Outside of the few dozen peers in my youth group, and the hundreds of bored, rural teens who flocked to our gymnasium-turned-sanctuary for semi-regular concerts, no one knew this about me. If they did — if I told them, or if they saw me opening for one of the touring bands coming through — I was usually met with snickers and questions based on the worst assumptions about rap: “What do you rap about? Not killing people? Getting high on life?”

Though I am neither a Christian nor a rapper now, I’m still surprised to find myself writing this confession, mostly because it appears cultural acceptance of my former condition is at an all-time high. Then again, as we’ve seen in the news this year, the end is nigh, so.

Three of the most popular and acclaimed rappers of 2016 have either released what could be considered gospel rap records, or have continued to express their Christian faith in both on records and on the record. I’m talking, of course, about Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance The Rapper, but the trend doesn’t stop at three.

In late September, Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins released his debut full-length, The Healing Component, wherein the titular THC is love. And not just sweet love, but agape love — the love of Jesus.

Throughout the album — possibly the year’s most explicitly Christian rap release to find a large audience aside from Church Clothes 3 by Lecrae, who we’ll get to shortly — Jenkins returns to this theme, continually expressing his desire to love like Jesus (“I’m just like, ‘Didn’t you see Jesus?’ / I mean I, never really seen him either / But I kinda try to follow in his footsteps.”). Because, Jenkins seems to say, what other option does he have: “When the real hold you down, you supposed to drown, right?”

Meanwhile, the soulful folk-rap of Raury might as well be 2016 hip-hop’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (“God bless the soul that believes all we need is love”; “Where you are / when Kingdom come”). There’s also the “emotional prosperity gospel” of Columbus rapper Correy Parks, and a promise by DMX that he’ll be a pastor soon. Hell, even Snoop has professed his love for Jesus this year.

In sound if not substance, new releases by Noname and Mac Miller are drenched in the warmth of gospel. There’s also Knxwledge and Anderson .Paak, the latter of whom told Rolling Stone earlier this year that gospel influenced their work together as NxWorries: “We’re both church kids — I listened to a lot of gospel with him.” And if you extend some liberties to include artists with one foot in rap, the influence of Christianity and gospel music stretches even further, all the way from Twenty One Pilots to Bon Iver to Frank Ocean.

Spirituality is nothing new to hip-hop, of course. Most prominently, there’s the Five-Percent Nation, which has reportedly counted Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and many other rappers among its members. And there’s been no shortage of spiritually minded albums through the years either, including, well, Spiritual Minded, the 2002 album from KRS-One, and 1992’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of … by Arrested Development.

There’s also something about rap that leads to Road-to-Damascus-type conversions, whether Christian or otherwise. Rhymesayers rapper Brother Ali has credited hip-hop with his conversion to Islam. While countless others have converted to one religion or another, as Complex pointed out in 2009 and Buzzfeed noted in 2014. Most famously, perhaps, Puff Daddy’s sidekick Ma$e left rap at the height of Bad Boy’s success to become a pastor.

But an open embrace of Christianity within hip-hop? The world will accept just about anything from rap — including, very nearly, a skinny white trap rapper from Hamilton, Ohio who calls himself Slim Jesus and a rap group made up of evangelical clowns — but not that. The question — “Why are hip-hop and Christianity mutually exclusive?” — has plagued others too, including Kanye, who famously rapped, “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus … But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”

Perhaps I can testify as to why Christian rap, as a genre in name and/or form, is so reviled. For one, Christian rap — like most Christian music, honestly — is awful. It’s awful primarily because it’s corny, goofy, and often blatantly rips off its secular counterparts.

Take KJ-52, an Eminem-wannabe whose “Dear Slim” was deservedly named by VH1 as one of the genre’s worst moments. Take BB-Jay, the “Pentecostal Poppa,” who cracked this MTV list as a Biggie Smalls rip-off. Or take Jeremiah Dirt, a Christian rapper who sounds like the Wu-Tang Clan if they were Left Behind-esque apocalyptic prophets.

For these reasons and more, Christian rap has largely been ignored by mainstream audiences, aside from a few minor ripples like GRITS’ 2002 track “Ooh Aah,” which was featured on three MTV shows and a Fast And The Furious movie.

That started to change with Lecrae, a Christian rapper who claimed a Billboard #1 album in 2014 with Anomaly. He practically prophesied on the opening track: “There’s plenty of people like me, all outsiders like me / And all unashamed and all unafraid to live out what they supposed to be.” But as we’ve seen from other Christian media properties, sales do not necessarily equate mainstream acceptance. Maybe that’s why Lecrae, despite going Platinum as a “Christian rapper,” has worked since to define himself as a rapper who is a Christian.

Historically, he’s not alone in this push; Nas, DMX, and Kanye have referred to themselves in the same way. And all three, in addition to Tupac, Biggie and T.I., have had success exploiting this Saturday night/Sunday morning divide to various degrees. There’s a fear of inauthenticity at play, I suspect — because who can relate to Ned Flanders, right? But there’s also a sneakily spiritual element here too.

The gospel accounts, for instance, repeatedly stress that to Jesus the most sincerely spiritual are often those outcast by the religious elite. Christ, you may recall, spent most of his time with tax collectors and prostitutes, and was ostracized for it — which is something Big K.R.I.T. might relate to, if you can believe this throwaway line suggesting the Christian establishment thinks he spends too much time with strippers.

So maybe rap and Christianity aren’t so much mutually exclusive as they are inherently entwined, at least below the surface. A 2013 article in The Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture suggested as much:

The religious rhetorical output of many gangsta rappers, both textual and visual, points to the religious ethos embraced by many marginalized inner city individuals who see the discourse of gangsta rap as containing a form of religious phronesis (practical wisdom). This output focuses on some telling characteristics: solidarity with Jesus formed through the common theme of suffering; a belief that the social order is to blame for much/most of the suffering; a strong hope that one day the suffering and marginalized will experience redemption; a mistrust of organized religion; and a psycho-social battle between good and evil.

For the most part this year, the link to Christianity hasn’t been subtextual, though. It’s bright, unavoidable, and joyfully alive with shouts of faith (“I won’t always be crying tears in the middle of the night … because he’s gonna be there for me.” -Kanye), prayer (“Just holla at me, I could pray for you.” -Mick), hope (“Get God on the phone / Said it won’t be long.” -Kendrick) and worship (“When the praises go up…” -Chance).

When the Sway In The Morning crew asked Lecrae for his opinion about mainstream rap’s newfound acceptance of Christianity, he responded similarly, suggesting this bizarro year almost requires as much: “I would like to attribute it to we’ve been going through a lot. A lot of turmoil, a lot of pain. When you face oppression, you gotta pause on the trivial stuff and figure out what really matters.”

This point was echoed in a late-February MTV News essay by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib about Kendrick’s “Alright”:

The truth is, once you understand that there are people who do not want you to exist, that is a difficult card to remove from the table. There is no liberation, no undoing that knowledge. It is the unyielding door, the one that you simply cannot push back against any longer. For many, there are reminders of this every day, every hour. It makes “Alright,” the emotional bar and the song itself, the best there is. It makes existence itself a celebration.

And NPR noted something similar in its review of Ocean’s Blonde:

I can’t help but note that some of the most potent recordings this year made by black men — such as The Life Of Pablo by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book — wade deeply, and even self-consciously, into impressionistic emotionalism and into gospel-influenced questions of existence. And they offer us existential musings at a crucial time, when far too many people still can’t seem to figure out whether black lives matter enough to change their own.

In so many ways, it seems, rap’s response this year was inevitable, from the near-daily suffering experienced by black people, to a culture that seems, finally, willing to accept the full black response to suffering, which includes joy and faith. Plenty of rappers, after all, have grown up in, and been heavily influenced by, church and Christianity, and now there’s room for them to express that influence in their music.

And yet, none of this would matter if the music wasn’t sublime. Credit, as Chance does, Kanye with this. “Jesus Walks” wasn’t just a landmark song because it talked about Jesus, but because it did so fearlessly (and sounded dope while doing it). It’s clear now that “Jesus Walks” was a triumphant and anthemic call-to-arms that’s finally being answered a decade-plus later.

Maybe it took these socio-political circumstances, and these particular fearless rappers. Maybe it took a year in which the only apparent direction left to go is up. Or maybe, as Ecclesiastes says, there’s simply a time for everything, and the time for gospel rap is now.

Maybe the reasons for this aren’t that important. After all, rap has folded just about every other cultural touchstone into its flock, so why not this one and why not now, when a shepherd, for many, is what’s needed most. It’s the one thing we have in abundance, praise God.

“I’ma make sure that they go where they can’t go.”
— Chance The Rapper, “Ultralight Beam,” 2016