The Week In Pop

Everything’s Coming Up Christian Rap

Christian rap is having a mini-moment.

Don’t laugh! Maybe it seems impossible in this post-Christian era, but the facts are indisputable: From the album chart to the court of law, MCs who love Jesus have been racking up wins and seizing the public’s attention these past two weeks.

Thirteen days ago, Chance The Rapper — who established himself as one of hip-hop’s preeminent Christ-followers throughout 2016 with a head-spinning guest verse on Kanye West’s futuristic gospel track “Ultralight Beam” and his own jubilantly churchy Coloring Book — released The Big Day, an album defined by reverent marital contentment. Three days later, a jury found Katy Perry and her “Dark Horse” collaborators liable for copying the beat from Christian rappers Flame and LeCrae’s 2008 track “Joyful Noise,” ultimately awarding $2.78 million in damages. And this past Sunday, Chance’s album was denied a #1 debut by yet another Christian rapper, NF.

Yes, the two biggest albums in America this week are by Christian rappers — or, as they’d prefer to be identified, Christians who rap, or rappers who happen to be Christian. The two of them certainly demonstrate how flexible that designation can be. NF, aka Michigan native Nathan Feuerstein, came up through the Christian music scene before crossing over to a mainstream audience. He is white, he is depressed, and he raps with the emotional rawness of latter-day Marshall Mathers, the world’s most famous white MC from the Great Lakes State.

In comparison, Chance emerged from Chicago’s teenage underground with a buoyant, frenetic style informed by gospel, jazz, and juke. He caught on with tastemakers, spent a bleary-eyed interim in LA, and rededicated himself to Christianity upon moving back home. There, he became a father, got hitched, and followed in his father’s footsteps as a black political organizer, all while carving out a unique career path that spurns traditional label deals but not corporate support.

However different they may be, two distinctively Christian rap LPs at #1 and #2 is a reality I never would have believed in the early ’90s, when my cassette copies of DC Talk’s first three albums were among my most prized possessions — those and Carman’s Addicted To Jesus. Or circa Y2K, when my local Christian alternative station RadioU had John Reuben and GRITS in rotation. Or in 2002, when GRITS had a minor MTV moment. Or in 2004, when Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” succeeded where so many youth pastors have failed — in reframing Christianity as a transgressive counterculture. Or even earlier this decade when Kendrick Lamar dropped the sinner’s prayer into good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Lecrae began to cross over with Kendrick’s cosign.

Christian rap clogging the upper reaches of the album chart would have been most believable in 2016, when Kanye and Kendrick and Chance were making Jesus a mainstay of the rap mainstream, but we’re a long way away from that cultural moment now. Chance sounds washed, and the increasingly sloppy Kanye has worked overtime to alienate a portion of his fan base (while still retaining the feverish hypebeast core who believed him when he rapped, “I am a god”). Three years ago, Lecrae speculated that rap fans were becoming more open to the gospel message in the face of so much social injustice. But Evangelical Christianity as a movement has been diminished thanks to its continued association with that not-particularly-Christian president Kanye adores so much. SoundCloud rap’s demonic posturing is pervasive, even infiltrating the highest reaches of the pop mainstream via Billie Eilish.

Then again, the depressive, soul-baring rawness of SoundCloud rap isn’t so different from what NF is serving up on The Search. The album is 76 minutes of nonstop personal crisis with only fleeting catharsis, NF intensely unpacking his internal turmoil over dark, often epic production. If you’ve heard “Let Me Down,” the NF song that took over pop radio last year, you are familiar with the post-“Love The Way You Lie” template he’s mining. He raps frequently about therapy, and it’s easy to imagine the songs themselves as eruptions across the couch from a psychiatrist. Eminem of course looms large, especially when NF shifts into hyperspeed or voices multiple characters. But there are also strong traces of Eminem’s rappity-rap descendent Logic, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, and especially Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph, who himself emerged from an Evangelical background to recast his mental health struggles as an epic saga, an us-against-our-demons battle we’re all in together.

Given that mental health is one of the defining battles of this generation, it’s easy to see why a rapper like NF would catch on. The Search does not fit most people’s conception of what a hit Christian rap album might sound like — it’s closer to Lamentations or Ecclesiastes than a worship service. One refrain: “Pray to God with my arms open/ If this is it, then I feel hopeless/ And I wish I could help/ But it’s hard when I hate myself.” Another key lyric: “I don’t do drugs, I’m addicted to the pain though.” God is present in these songs, but the struggle is real. The album’s gothic heaviness sometimes suffocates its considerable pop acumen, but it’s easy to see why legions of hurting kids gravitate to this music, especially those who reject the nihilism and hopelessness that defines many similar alternatives.

The reasons NF has clicked are the same ones that make Chance The Rapper feel so out-of-step with this present moment. The Big Day is overbearing in its own way, overlong and overstuffed and lacking emotional urgency. Rather than a tour de force, he’s given us a tour de fulfillment. Yet the dazzling skill set and fascinating stylistic palate that made Chance famous remain on display. If you’re favorably inclined toward the guy, it’s a fun world to exist in — closer to his standard of excellence than most of its detractors want to believe but not good enough to justify a 77-minute investment. It’s not as if he’s any more corny now than he was when the world was rhapsodizing over him, it’s just that he’s lost a step. He used to steal the show on other people’s albums, and now his guests are repeatedly doing it to him. He’s Wizards Jordan when his career arc says he should be first-threepeat Jordan.

One consistent knock against The Big Day is that Chance’s happiness is oppressive, that his zealous love for his wife doesn’t make for compelling entertainment. Some critics have even openly wished his life would take a dark turn like the ones that have often pushed his hero Kanye into new creative frontiers — an understandable sentiment on some level, but one that feels more hellish the more you think about it. While not as overtly churchy as Coloring Book, The Big Day is sprinkled with references to Ephesians and “the body of Christ.” But the most Christian thing about it may be the suggestion that people can find peace in a world defined by suffering, that it’s actually possible to outrun your demons and find healing. As a contented Christian family man myself, I resonate with that, even if it’s admittedly not as captivating as the sound of a soul in crisis.

Truthfully, The Search and The Big Day clash so violently in mood, perspective, and ethos that their convergence on the charts feels more like a freak coincidence of timing than evidence of some Christian hip-hop groundswell. It will be interesting to see whether NF or Chance’s albums can linger in the top 10 the way true blockbusters do these days, by tallying an insane number of streams week after week. It will be even more interesting to see if either record yields a hit as pervasive as “Dark Horse,” the playfully pagan Katy Perry single that, according to a jury of her peers, jacked its swag from Flame and Lecrae. Most of all, it will be interesting to see if these unrelated storylines actually do congeal into some kind of trend. It seems impossible, but as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

CREDIT: Noam Galai/Getty Images for BuzzFeed

CHART WATCH

A week ago, when “Old Town Road” broke the record for most weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, the great music critic and Central Ohioan Rob Harvilla wondered whether Lil Nas X and his glorious viral country-rap novelty hit would ever face backlash. For me, the backlash begins now. “Old Town Road” spends its record-extending 18th week at #1 this week, and despite my love for the song and especially its resplendent Billy Ray Cyrus remix, I’m ready for something else to be #1.

Maybe that song will be Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” which spends its eighth week at #2 this week. As Billboard points out, that’s just two weeks shy of the record for most weeks peaking at #2, trailing only Missy Elliott’s “Work It” (10), Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” (10), Shania Twain’s “You’re Still The One” (9), and Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever” (9). It would be nice to see “Bad Guy,” another song I very much enjoy, finally get over the hump. But it’s also somewhat disconcerting to see such a lack of turnover atop the chart. It’s weird to say given how young Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish are, but isn’t it time for some fresh blood?

After Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” at #3, Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” reaches a new #4 peak, bumping Khalid’s “Talk” down to #5. Similarly, Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” reaches a new #6 peak, which knocks Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” to #7. Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes” falls to #8, followed by Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” at #9. And rising to a new #10 peak is 16-year-old rapper Lil Tecca with “Ran$om,” his first top 10 hit.

As covered above, NF’s The Search debuts atop the Billboard 200 with 130,000 equivalent album units and 84,000 in pure sales, per Billboard. It’s his second #1 album following 2017’s Perception and by far his biggest week in terms of units and sales — big enough to relegate Chance The Rapper’s “debut album” The Big Day to a #2 debut with 108,000 units and 27,000 in sales. The Big Day is nonetheless Chance’s highest-charting release, surpassing the #5 peak 2013’s Acid Rap reached when it was released to streaming platforms this year.

After Ed Sheeran (#3), Billie Eilish (#4), Chris Brown (#5), Lil Nas X (#6), and Lizzo (#7) comes a #8 debut for Key Glock and Young Dolph’s collaborative album Dum And Dummer on the strength of 36,000 units and 2,000 sales. It’s the first top 10 album for both rappers. Debuting at #9 are Of Monsters And Men with 34,000 units and 30,000 in sales for Fever Dream, the group’s third top 10 effort. And closing out the top 10 is the J. Cole-led Dreamville comp Revenge Of The Dreamers III.

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande & Social House – “Boyfriend”
Sonically “Boyfriend” feels a bit like a “thank u, next” retread, but both the song and its video are so much fun that I don’t mind the repetition. Glad to see Grande enjoying herself.

Labrinth & Zendaya – “All For Us”
I have not seen Euphoria yet, but all the buzz around it suggests Zendaya’s musical offerings will be getting a stronger push in the coming months. If they’re as interesting as “All For Us,” that’s totally fine with me. “All For Us” puts throwback R&B vocals over heaving dystopian computer music that somehow builds into a high-drama marching band number. It’s the kind of daring track that has Beyoncé’s past decade so richly rewarding.

Tove Lo – “Bad As The Boys” (Feat. Alma)
A narrative conceit about experimenting with same-sex romance only to discover women can be as heartless as men is very on-brand for Tove Lo, and “Bad As The Boys” is a decent pop track. But sometimes I feel like she’s living out the pop version of that old Onion article about Marilyn Manson going door-to-door trying to shock people.

Lauv – “f*ck, i’m lonely” (Feat. Anne-Marie)
Not bad, but shouldn’t a song called “f*ck, i’m lonely” be sadder than this?

RAYE – “Love Me Again”
That beat! That organ! That hook! That vocal! A jam if I’ve ever heard one.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • El Paso native Khalid is planning a benefit concert for families affected by the mass shooting at an area Walmart this past weekend. [El Paso Times]
  • Taylor Swift held a Lover listening party for London fans, one of whom reported the album contains “amazing bops” and “hardcore bops.” [Twitter]
  • In other Swift news, she will perform at the MTV VMAs. [Us]
  • Ed Sheeran’s cat died after being hit by a car. [Billboard]
  • Katy Perry is teasing a release titled “Small Talk.” [Inquisitr]
  • Members of Pink’s crew survived a fiery private plane crash in Denmark. [TMZ]
  • Bad Bunny will perform at the second annual Pornhub Awards. [Pornhub]
  • Drake’s new loosies comp Care Package features some changes to original versions of the tracks, including censoring a J. Cole line from “Jodeci Freestyle” that was insensitive to the autistic community. [Genius]
  • The season 3 soundtrack for 13 Reasons Why will feature new songs from 5 Seconds Of Summer, Charli XCX, and Yungblud, along with tracks by Frightened Rabbit and Health. [Billboard]
  • Normani teased a new track with Ariana Grande. (Like “Boyfriend” collaborators Social House, Normani was an opener at recent Grande shows.) [Instagram]
  • Speaking of which, Grande and Social House did “Boyfriend” live for the first time at Lollapalooza. [YouTube]
  • Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie shared a snippet of a new metal song he was working on. [YouTube]
  • Logic released a video for Gucci Mane collab “Icy.” [YouTube]

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