Lecrae, Part I

In the past few weeks, I have listened to more rap than the rest of my life combined. You see, rap doesn’t make it onto my top 10 genres list – it’s probably not even on my top 50; I like melody, harmony, instrumentation, and a notable absence of vulgarity and oppression in my music. It’s not that I dislike rap, I just like almost everything else more.

This month, however, I have put all that aside (except for the standards on vulgarity and oppression) in order to examine Lecrae.

I’m studying Lecrae because he’s done several notable things. Early on in his career, Lecrae became the first rapper to receive such a high level of notoriety in the Gospel and Christian music scenes. Fast forward to this September, and his most recent album (Anomaly) hit #1 on the Billboard 200, causing quite a stir. You can read about it here and here and here.

Listening to his early work, it’s easy to tell what made Lecrae well received in the Gospel and Christian niches. His flow is smooth; his beats are easy to grove to; his songs have strong hooks; and his lyrics unapologetically address the issues his audience faces. We’ll talk more about Lecrae’s musical style in Part II.

The more I heard about Lecrae, the more I began to wonder: what about his music and marketing allowed him to transfer so seamlessly from these very specific target markets to the popular industry, where the content of his raps is not in line with the content of his peers?

It turns out that Lecrae isn’t just smart when it comes to crafting raps – he’s strategic about whom he works with and how he releases his music. For Part I of this study, I am looking primarily at these two components.

Lecrae’s first two albums were well received within the Gospel and Christian communities – Real Talk (his first album, released in 2004, then 2005 with a different label) reached #29 on the Gospel albums chart, and After the Music Stops (his second album, released in 2006) made it to #5. After the Music Stops also received nominations for the Dove Award and the Stellar Award in the Rap/Hip-Hop category, though won neither.

Album 3, Rebel, was released in 2008, two years after his second album. By then Lecrae had gained some traction in the Christian community, and debuted as #1 on the Gospel albums chart. Rebel made it onto a total of 8 charts, and represented his second nomination for the Dove Awards in the Rap/Hip-Hop category.

Real Talk, After the Music Stops, and Rebel represent the development of a steady following in a select target market – Lecrae marketed himself as a quality rapper to a market where rap was a rare commodity.

Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose (albums 4 and 5, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively) continued Lecrae’s slow and steady climb, topping Gospel and Christian charts, and even made it onto the Rap charts for the first time. His work received nominations (including another Dove nomination), but no awards. Rehab was even nominated for the 53rd Grammy Awards “Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album.”

Lecrae’s 4th album was also when he changes his tune a bit: Rehab contained more collaborations than any of his albums so far in his career.

Judging by what comes next, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he made it onto the Rap chart and earned a Grammy nomination… Rehab was a successful trial of a strategy that Lecrae moved on to implement more fully, thereby changing his audience group dramatically.

Four and a half months before Lecrae released his 6th album, he released his first mixtape, Church Clothes. This mixtape changed the game. Lecrae obviously learned the values of collaboration from his 4th and 5th albums, because almost every song on the mixtape features or collaborates with another notable DJ or artist – many from outside the Christian bubble. Church Clothes was preceded by a music video teaser a week before its release, and was downloaded over 100,000 times in the first 48 hours it was available.

The buzz off of this move was huge, and positioned Lecrae for his next big move. By collaborating, Lecrae strategically positioned himself in the market as someone who could not (and should not) be limited to the traditional religious boxes. Gravity, his sixth album, was released while Lecrae’s sound was still fresh in the ears of new audience members, and followed his new strategy of collaboration. He shot to #1 on the Christian, Gospel, and Rap charts, #3 on the Billboard 200, and even made it onto charts in Canada and New Zealand! Even more exciting, Lecrae won two awards that had been eluding him: the Dove award for a Rap/Hip-Hop Album, and the Grammy for Best Gospel Album.

Lecrae maintained this magic formula for his second mixtape, Church Clothes 2, which he released in November of 2013. Although it was considered selling out by many in the Christian community (see here), it was generally well received and well ranked.

Finally, we arrive at September 2014. Lecrae released Anomaly, his seventh album, and shot to the top of almost every chart he made it onto – including #1 on the Billboard 200, as well as #1 on Gospel, Christian, Independent, and Rap charts.

Although I do not (musically) like Anomaly as much as some of his earlier works – which I will discuss in Part II – Lecrae is doing something daring: he is moving away from collaborations, and back toward independent work. Until he did this, there was no way to tell which audience members were listening because of him, and which ones listened to his work because of one or more of the artists he partnered with. By stepping out on his own again, Lecrae learned that people would listen to his music, and he regained a platform for the powerful messages he wants to send. You can read about it in his interviews here and here.

It’s a ballsy move, but knowing how strategic Lecrae is, I’m confident that it is wise. Lecrae has some powerful things to say, and he wants to speak his own voice. He has an ever-broadening audience that primed to listen, and going back to solo work gives him the freedom to bare his soul on his terms and uncompromised – what he as always circled back to as an artist.

In Part II, we will be examining the evolution of Lecrae’s music. We’ll see if there are any parallels between the development of his content and his changing audience… or perhaps what stays the same.

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