Leading up to the release of 2014’s Anomaly, Lecrae was on top of the world. He was appearing on TV, selling out shows and quickly establishing himself as one of the biggest names in hip-hop.
Then Ferguson happened. In the following months, nine African-American churchgoers would be shot by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. Philando Castile would be shot to death during a routine traffic stop. Alton Sterling was killed by police outside a convenience store. Across the country, dozens of unarmed black men and women were either killed by police or died while in police custody.
Though he’s always been vocal about injustice, Lecrae’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and his renewed calls for Christians to speak out against racial violence, struck a nerve amongst some of his fans. The backlash was fierce. It took its toll on hip-hop’s raising star.
Now, with his new album, Lecrae, also a co-founder of Reach Records, says he’s over it. He’s done worrying about outcomes. They say you can’t please everyone. You can, however, go mad trying to do so.
Nowhere can you see this new Lecrae more than in his new album, his first since Reach partnered with mainstream powerhouse Columbia Records. His new songs—the first single became a top 10 mainstream hip-hop chart hit—ooze emotion and vulnerability and, now, contentment.
We sat down with Lecrae to talk about this new season, the direction he sees his career and music going today, and how this last year changed him forever.
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You’ve been public about your exhaustion from the past year or so.
I think as a Christian, people expect you to be desensitized, and that’s just not reality. We’re not a bunch of sanitized people; we’re people with issues and struggles, people with addictions. You can’t talk about those types of issues because they’re extremely taboo.
Beyonce creates a whole album about the pain of an affair, be it real or not, and there were many women across the world who related to that. Why aren’t we writing those songs? Why aren’t we telling those stories? Why can’t I talk about what it’s like to be a black man in America? Because people say, “Oh, no! That’s too black.”
If you suffocate my blackness, you’ve got to realize that’s supremacy. … But because of the tension within American history with blacks and whites, you talk about blackness too much and in some people’s minds, it means you’re anti-white or if you talk about police brutality, you’re all of a sudden anti-police. We don’t do well with complexity.
On top of all that, you’ve been facing internal issues, too, right?
It’s a collision of stuff from all the way back in childhood, to losing my good friend DJ Official, to the scrutiny or social criticism—feeling like you’re in some ways a slave to an audience, because it feels like, “We’re not buying your music or supporting you at concerts if you don’t line up with what we want you to line up with.”
Part of it is having to sit in a counselor’s chair and have people unpack that stuff for you. I strongly advocate for that—let professionals work with you through stuff. Whether you think you’re jacked up or not, we’re all broken people and until we can admit that, we’re not going to progress.
How have things changed since your last album, Anomaly?
So much has to go on to get you to where you’re very comfortable in your own skin. It’s kind of like you have your uncles or grandfathers and they have no problem just being themselves, because they’re like, “Listen I’ve lived enough life. I’m fine. I’m taking my teeth out and putting them on the table and I don’t care what you think.” I think that’s where I’m at. I’m OK with my dentures now.
Long story short, I was bred with such insecurity from not having my dad around. You don’t realize you’re vying for the approval of everyone so much until being yourself is not approved of. You’re like, “Oh wow, you guys don’t like me unless I’m what you want me to be.”
OK, awesome, I can’t do that.
It’s just me saying I’m going to make music that’s as authentic as it can possibly be. I’m going to talk about issues that everybody may or may not want to hear. I think now it’s really saying, “Look, this is me.”
What does that look like creatively—lyrics or sound or what?
When I’m in the studio this time around, it’s me saying, “Let’s say some hard things. Let’s say some stuff that is difficult and needed, and then let’s go back and say it again and again until we find a song where it’s done in the way we wanted it to be done.”
I think more than anything, there are songs on the album that are explicitly about love and relationships. There are some songs like “Can’t Stop Me Now” where I said, I’m glad that Jesus ain’t American / That’s the reason I care again.
I don’t know what kind of reaction that’s gonna get, but that’s where I’m at.
Some people wondered if you were done with evangelical Christianity. You say it’s more complicated than that.
I’ve never been in a box. It’s really the irony of it, but publicly I didn’t realize how much of a box I was in. Personally, I was able to navigate in a million different spaces, but I remember [author/theologian] Christena Cleveland challenged me by saying I was an evangelical mascot. I said, “Wow, is that really how I’m perceived?”
When I saw that, it really made me do some internal soul searching and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that was the perception.” I had to ask friends. I was in the dark. By placating people so often in certain circles, you’re viewed as an advocate. If you hang out at the biker club so many times, people will say, “He’s a biker.”
I’m way more complex and nuanced than that. It’s not to say that I hate that world or anything like that; I have great friends over there and everywhere. Now I’m just content with saying I’m just a follower of Jesus. That’s it. I don’t belong in any camp.
Is that really something you can avoid, being put in boxes?
I guess to drive it home for me, it’s not being worried if I disappoint the box people thought I was in in the first place. Because it’s like, “Oh, you’re hanging out with this person? You must be liberal. No, wait. Why are you hanging out with this person? Are you conservative?” It’s like, “No, because I’m nuanced and complex and I like both of them.” I’m not going to worry about the way people perceive me because if you meet me you’ll say, “Oh, OK, I didn’t realize that there was this lane in the middle here that people could run in.” But that’s what you’re going to have to deal with.
Have you changed as a person?
I think we’re all growing. I’ve definitely grown as a person. I haven’t switched or anything like that. I think I’ve just come into a freedom of being complex, and people are going to not agree with me on everything. Every team is going to say, “No, he plays for us now” and they’re all going to be sorely disappointed at times.
Right now, where are you on the spectrum of the Lecrae journey?
I’m definitely on the other side of it; I’m totally liberated.
I went to Egypt; sometimes getting out of your own backyard reminds you America is only 500 years old. It’s not the only country in existence. There are so many issues all over the world that people are wrestling through. You just realize there’s so much more going on and it gave me perspective.
When all you can see is the problem in front of you, it’s like you tell your kid they can’t have any ice cream and they think the world is coming to end. Not to belittle my issues, but, like, I just couldn’t have ice cream. It was just really helpful for me to see that there was a 3,000-year-old civilization that survived in some kind of way. I’ll be fine. God’s got me, and I’ll be fine.
I’m on the other side of it. I’m full of great joy, great liberation. I’m in a very comfortable place, and some of that comes from the shackles of not having to be what people want you to be.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury