"…people ask for God, 'til the day he comes/see God's face, turn around and run/God sees the face, of the man/God shakes his head, says he'll never understand…" ~ Dice Raw of The Roots, "Understand" ...and then you shoot your cousin
I'm not a fan of gospel rap. Well most of it anyway. I've listened to a few gospel rappers who I felt were decent in a rap sense but we'll get to that later. But in general, I'm not a fan of gospel rap. Now this isn't to say that I am anti-religion in hip-hop. To the contrary. I actually think that some of the best "gospel" rap has come from rappers we know and love…like DMX. And Tupac. They are rappers who spent a lot of time being introspective to the point where quite a bit of their music - particularly DMX, a man who clearly needs Jesus - had a very spiritual, religious bent to it. I'd even be willing to go so far as to say that DMX might be the best gospel rapper of all time.
OF ALL TIME.
Here's why: true religion (no jeans) requires a certain level of honesty, knowledge of self, and sacrifice. While many secular rappers are clearly looking to make significant coin from their work - as is anybody who puts music out for sale - there are certain rappers who used their music to exorcise some of their own demons via talk of the struggle in their lives. Which means theres a lot of discussion centering around pain and suffering and attempts at understanding. Mainstream rappers are no stranger to religious reference in their music. Seeing as most rappers are Black males whose mothers are significant factors in their lives, they probably all got dragged to church a lot as youth. Shoot, Pac Div named one of their mixtapes, Church League Champions. It's part of the fabric of Blackness. And it's impossible to spend a lot of time in church and not gain anything, even if you chose not to apply any of it.
I think a lot of rappers, and the verse by Greg Porn (ironically titled name given his verse) on The Roots song "Understand" is a perfect example of it, do a better job of speaking on religion because it feels like an authentic struggle most of the time. Many of us struggle with religion and our relationships with God; some for good reasons, some for good reasons to the them.
Which brings me to gospel rappers I actually like. There is no conversation about gospel rappers without mentioning Lecrae. He is by far the one who has received the most praise (no pun intended) and props from rappers and producers alike, to the point where Don Cannon hosted one of his mixtapes, the appropriately titled Church Clothes, Vol 2. He's got B.o.B. on the album and an interlude featuring Bun B. Boi-1da has made beats for him. And in the gospel rap world, dude has had a string of #1 albums. Lecrae can actually spit. Point blank. Period.
Yet despite the co-signs, his backstory (his life was a mess of epic proportions so he was a rapper waiting to happen, either for Jesus or mainstream America, though he clearly turned his life around), and despite his skill, I still find it hard to take him serious as a rapper. And its the problem I have with most gospel rappers. The posturing, though likely authentic to them as individuals, feels like posturing. It's the same problem that plagued the string of rappers-turnt-singers (of which my beloved Jagged Edge falls). It's hard to believe this intended-to-be-edgy persona you present with such aggression when you're singing about promises and bringing chicks puppies in videos. Even if you do it in a gaudy light blue faux-fur coat and are singing in ice, which is gangsta.
Same thing with gospel rappers. In Lecrae's song "I'm Turnt" he's at a house party, presumably getting "turnt up", but rapping about not smoking or drinking or having a woman twerk on him because it's a work night, etc. All very plausible. I have homeboys who don't smoke or drink or hang out on work nights. But something about it felt very Nick Cannon before he realized he might as well be ratchet because nobody was listening anyway. Lecrae attempts in many of his singles to keep the actual God-speak to a minimum, a smart move by the way, but you know what he's getting at. It's still preachy.
And that's the problem with most gospel rap, it's talking at us. It's preachy even if it's not supposed to be. The person at church that does the talking that's important is the preacher. He's giving you lessons for daily living. But he's not talking to you, he (or she) is talking at you. It's the gig. Same problem with Tyler Perry movies. It's all heavy-handed. There's no nuance. Instead of making a movie, he's making a message with a movie wrapped around it. Most folks would take a message out of things they do, even by accident anyway so no need to beat me over the head with it.
Lecrae has a song called "Church Clothes", and in the opening video montage he's getting cosigns from all of these rappers and producers that you know. And it's a song about about why folks make up excuses not to go to church because they think its full of hypocrites, how they'd rather be out sinning hoping Jesus isn't real, lest they find out they should really make changes in their lives. So he ends with what is a very poignant line:
"…and if God gon' take me as I am, then I guess I've already got on my church clothes."
Now, what I believe he was saying with this line is that many of those people make the excuse that if God is real, he accepts all sinners anyway, so I'm basically all good without doing the work of going to church. How I interpret that gets right to the heart of the gospel rap vs secular rap issue. You can get your message across without being heavy handed as long as you keep God first anyway. People will just know because authenticity is palpable.
It's the difference between somebody who is living life according to God's plan versus somebody who is always telling you how to live your life according to God's plan. I stop following all of those people on Instagram for a reason. This is why even good to decent gospel rappers struggle for relevancy and respect amongst the rap masses. Sure they sell lots of records - the church fan base is huge and if you want to still be hip-hop then it works for you - so maybe that's all that matters in the realm of success. Plus, there's no shame in being one of the biggest names in the gospel rap world. He's a legit talent even if I am being preached at.
But these guys all want the respect of their peers outside of the Christian rap world. It's why Lecrae is showing you that he has all these rappers and producers, like Kendrick Lamar, 9thWonder and DJ Premier co-signing him. He wants the people who listen to the Drake's and Lil Wayne's to peep him too. It's why he got on the BET Cypher. He wants that cross-over.
And until these guys realize why folks love DMX so much or Tupac or any other rapper, like Scarface, who infuse so much religion into their work (though I won't pretend these guys are saints in all of their work), they will continue to seek that respect that will likely never come. They're sharing their story. Not telling us what our story should be.
Oh, and the rest of them just plain suck. Substance is not a substitute for quality.