A Year For Christian Hip-Hop (Part 2): Suddenly in the Spotlight
I grew up in a household that, at least on paper, dictated that I listen only to “Christian” music. What this meant, functionally speaking, is that I could only listen to music sold at Christian bookstores, or the oldies station that my Dad would tune into on the radio. Those were my options, musically speaking, until I left the house. I was a bit of a rebel and had a couple of ‘secular’ albums, but for the most part I listened to and enjoyed Christian music, hoping to find those bands that sounded as good as the snippets I heard when friends listened to the radio.
But this was difficult, to be honest. Sure, when I first got into nearly any genre, I was easily impressed. Who isn’t, when they don’t have any sort of critical or comparative framework from which to judge? When I started to branch out and listen to genres more broadly, however, I found that often Christians were pretty bad at what they did, musically speaking. Lyrics would either be so vague that they sounded like they were ripped directly from the competition, or they would be so forward and explicit that they sounded forced (Relient K’s first album feels this way). Some bands in the ‘Christian’ market are absolutely excellent (Gungor, Thousand Foot Krutch, Skillet, P.O.D.), but there seemed to be a lot of bands who simply made it because they were willing to mention Jesus or write a worship song.
It made me sad, for a long time; to some extent, it still makes me sad. I want to see Christian produce excellent and God-honoring art, because there is an intrinsic goodness to both beauty and hard work. I’d love to see Christians raise the bar in everything they are involved in, but especially in music.
And then, just a few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Christian hip-hop. I’d heard a few tracks prior to this, but the genre didn’t appeal much to me. The ‘secular’ version didn’t interest me, why would I want the rip-off version? But this friend is someone I’ve known since I was five years old, so when he told me I would love this song, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. The track, for those of you who didn’t click the link, is “The Godhead” by veteran hip-hop artist Flame. It goes through the doctrine of the Trinity, both historically and in the present day, and the moment Flame mentions by Sabellius and Athanasius, I knew I was hooked. I bought the album, and branched out from there.
The lyrics were what drew me in—how could someone do hip-hop and write about something like the Trinity?—but when I began to compare the sounds of Christian hip-hop to its secular counterparts, I heard what I had always feared: we had weaker sounds, less interesting beats, and sometimes pretty poor mixing. Often our wordplay was on par, at least with our best artists, but we lost a lot on the sound.
In the last few years, however, that’s been changing. Reach Records, Lampmode Recordings, Humble Beast, Clear Sight Music, Collision Records; these guys have been stepping the game up release after release, and this last year has been no different. All of the albums I recommended in my last post came out within the last year. I could certainly recommend some older releases (from each of the artists listed there, save Beautiful Eulogy, though their individual members have excellent releases), but there really has been a shift lately.
This shift has led to some mainstream appeal. We’ve seen artists top iTunes charts, and not just in Gospel sections; multiple artists from Reach Records have landed in the top 5 on the hip-hop section of iTunes. Lecrae’s release this year with DJ Don Cannon was a big deal, but it followed on the heels of his other mainstream moments: appearing in the International cypher at the BET awards and being featured on Statik Selektah’s Population Control (interestingly, Lecrae’s track is the only one that iTunes does not list as explicit).
It’s been a big year, and we’ve still got a few months left. In my last post on the topic (coming soon), I’ll talk about the future of Christian hip-hop, and tie it in to what I think we can all learn from this particular movement.
James F. Arnold is the lead editor and a contributing writer for Evangelical Outpost. He’s also the music editor and podcast review extraordinaire for The Christian Manifesto. You can usually find him thinking about technology, philosophy, hip-hop, theology, and anything that finds a way to combine those topics.