Lecrae, Part II: Laying the Groundwork (albums 1-5)

Today, we are examining Lecrae’s musical development in his early career. I’ve picked one song from each album as a representative of Lecrae’s style for that album.

We’ll be listening to:

Take Me As I Am (Real Talk)

Prayin’ for You (After the Music Stops)

Don’t Waste Your Live (Rebel)

Just Like You (Rehab)

Battle Song (Rehab: The Overdose)

Lecrae’s first two albums, Real Talk and After the Music Stops were his introduction as a rapper to the Christian community. Released in 2005 and 2006, they maintain solid technique and his lyrics demonstrate the elements Lecrae held most valuable: his faith.

Let’s listen to “Take Me As I Am” from Lecrae’s first album, Real Talk:

As with many of he songs on this album, “Take Me As I Am” is autobiographical, and is themed around a biblical message. His beats are comfortable, though not particularly exciting; and his songs are primarily rhythmic with very little melodic or harmonic work (there’s a basic underlying chord structure, and a brief reoccurring melody in the synth).

Lecrae’s biggest selling point on Real Talk is the style and content of the rapping itself. He has an enjoyable flow and presentation, and manages to take the style of rap where it hand never been successfully exploited before: the Christian and Gospel audience. Because Lecrae raps about deep struggles he remains authentic to the themes of rap, even though the struggles his lyrics allude to are spiritual as opposed to more common themes.

Lecrae’s style doesn’t change very much for his second album, After the Music Stops. The main differences you can note by listening to “Prayin’ for You,” are the inclusion of a female vocalist in the background, as well as a few extra instruments.

“Prayin’ for You” from After the Music Stops:

The first remarkable stylistic change doesn’t come until Lecrae’s third album, Rebel. When you listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life,” you’ll notice something new: the chorus is sung. In addition, the underlying beats have a much more robust harmonic structure and instrumentation – Lecrae is expanding and developing his musical style. I believe that his expanding musical style is what helped him to be well received in the 8 different charts he made it onto (see Part I).

Take a listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life” from Rebel:

In Rehab, Lecrae makes a huge stylistic change, which I enjoy. We’ll listen to “Just Like You” first, then discuss.

“Just Like You” from Rehab:

I love what Lecrae has done with the introduction of this song… he’s incorporated a beautiful instrumental, then a sung melody. It is expressive and musical. He still raps for the bulk of it, but he is intentional about using his rapping style to control the mood of the piece.

Even though his style is growing in harmony, melody, and instrumentation; and even though he us making different artistic choices about how he uses his voice when he raps; Lecrae holds true to the autobiographical and religious themes he has aligned with since the beginning of his career.

To me, this development is a sign of artistry. It is one thing to be good enough at rapping (or any skill, for that matter), but it is true artistry when you are able to alter how you use that skill in order to more effectively communicate through your craft. With the huge artistic strides Lecrae made in Rehab, is no surprise that he was nominated for a Grammy, or that he topped 3 charts (Gospel, Christian, and Independent). It should be noted that Lecrae collaborated with several other artists for Rehab.

These musical styles and collaborations continue to grow Lecrae’s follow up album, Rehab: The Overdose. Check out “Battle Song,” featuring Suzy Rock as an example.

Tracing back to Real Talk (Lecrae’s first album), you can hear a dramatic shift in the harmonic and melodic elements, as well as Lecrae’s developing artistry as a rapper. In Part III, we will examine the albums to follow.

To be continued…

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.