Christian rap is so hot right now [op-ed]
Two weeks ago, Chance The Rapper was in the middle of a massive rollout for what he confusingly termed his debut album, despite having already won a Best Rap Album Grammy with 2016’s Coloring Book, which he called a mixtape. Stick with me.
Despite the feverish anticipation for the record, it was beaten to #1 on the Billboard 200 by a largely unknown rapper named NF.
The internet was alight with comments that took the general position of “who the MF is NF?”
It was quickly revealed that NF is massive in the Christian hip hop community, a movement seemingly big enough to propel an artist like NF to the top of the Billboard Albums Chart ahead of big players like Chance The Rapper. The Lord sure does moves in mysterious ways.
And so, with Chance sitting in second place, the real story wasn’t Chance being beaten, it was that, last week, we were in the curious position of having two Christian rappers occupying the top two spots on the US charts.
With another Christian rapper Flame in the news recently, after successfully suing Katy Perry for plagiarism, and Kanye’s Sunday Services drawing flocks of non-believers to church to worship, pray and sing (but mainly to see Kardashians and hear unreleased Yeezy tracks), it would appear that Christian rap is so hot right now!
Chance’s new album has received lukewarm reviews, largely due to criticisms surrounding the religious zeal dripping from every track. Chance’s positivity, once infectious, comes across as cloying, his preaching intolerable, and his wife presented as a token of his own maturity and redemption rather than as, you know, an actual person. Those are the criticisms only; many people have taken to this album, viewing Chance as a beacon in a genre saturated with materialism, and dark emotional dirges. Still, you need shade to appreciate the light, otherwise it’s just blinding.
I listened to NF’s record, The Search, this morning, and without the requisite back-story, there’s nothing overt to reveal it as a Christian rap album. Basically, it sounds like Eminem without the swears. It’s quite good. This is actually his second Billboard #1 record in a row, following 2017’s Perception. The Search doesn’t feature a song as fiercely gospel-sounding as ‘Ultralight Beam’, the opening salve on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, nor is there the heavy God-worship that drives both Chance’s The Big Day or Coloring Book (which is actually more religious, but less preachy, than The Big Day) but there are elements. Basically, the wrapper should read: ‘May contain traces of God’.
Maybe this is just a blip on the radar, a week that happened to turn out this way. It doesn’t seem like it, though. Church-born influences have been creeping into commercial hip hop for a while. Every time Kanye West releases a record, a slew of soundalikes follow, and with The Life Of Pablo in February 2016, much of which was built upon gospel sounds, samples of preachers, and church choirs, followed by Chance’s Coloring Book three months later, the stage was set for NF to hit the top spot in 2017, then again last week. His music sounds nothing like Kanye or Chance, but younger listeners had already been presented with the link between hip hop and religion by two of the most unassailable rappers around. Older listeners could argue that religion has been linked to hip hop for decades now, but in recent years, the Lord has been largely absent in popular rap music, outside of Kanye.
Kanye’s brand of Christianity has always been tortured and rooted in the secular, a battle between sin and redemption. He is wildly blasphemous, too, naming a song ‘I Am A God’ on an album titled Yeezus, while his forthcoming album, Yandhi, suggests, like a true deity, he is able to shapeshift through various Gods. Kanye promoted The Life Of Pablo as a gospel album, then opened the second track, ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ (which samples preacher T.L Barrett) with a rap about having sex with a model who had freshly bleached her arsehole. It makes Chance’s unwittingly anti-creationist reference to ‘Pangea’ in ‘Ultralight Beam’ seem like pure worship by contrast.
In Australia, we’ve often seen music unheard by the secular world suddenly jump to the top of the chart. Hillsong UNITED regularly land records in the Top 5 of the ARIA charts, due in part to the church’s practice of selling CDs at their massive congregations. Hillsong Church is officially accredited as an ARIA store, which means all the sales they make (and monitor, and report) at their own church services count towards the charts.
Speaking of Hillsong, there is one member of the megachurch who may be able to both capitalise on this recent boom in God-core, and propel even more of these artists to the top of the chart – Justin Bieber.
He, like Kanye, has a confused relationship with religion, but has recently credited Hillsong and Christianity in general with his return to grace.
Here’s a prediction: Bieber will be currently clocking how Chance has built his own flock of young worshippers, he’ll notice NF at the top of the charts, he’ll open up his fresh issue of Forbes (probably) and read all about Flame – whose own star is set to rise as curious listeners who compare his song with ‘Dark Horse’, the song he successful claimed in court that Katy Perry stole, start to get a taste for Flame’s music.
Bieber will then use his clout to collaborate with a few Christian rappers, shining the light upon them. It would be the quickest way for Bieber to find favour with the church, plus it’s a savvy commercial move for him. The spotlight will then be on these artists, who will drag other Christian rappers into the ultralight beam.
Bieber will bring God’s voice to the charts. He possesses none of Kanye’s erratic mysticism, nor Chance’s holier than thou attitude. If I am right about this course of events, it will turn out that Bieber was the saviour all along. The Beliebers were right. We were fools to ever mock their devotion.
This is a God dream. This is everything.