You’ve probably seen this meme over the weekend — a katana-wielding titan, “Kanye West,” trudging through the ocean as a group of children, “whatever the hecc Christian rappers have been doing this whole time,” build sandcastles on the beach.
However, it’s really Kanye West, whose ninth album Jesus Is King came out last Friday, standing on the shoulders of giants. “Christian hip-hop” may trigger flashbacks of tone-deaf, corny “outreach” by people who belong nowhere near the genre. However, there is a rich world of “lyrical theology” in a range of styles and approaches, with production value that rivals the big-money beatmakers. West’s heartfelt and, thankfully, concise first entry is a welcome addition to this body of work, but if you’re craving something more, you have a lot of material to choose from.
So here we have, presented in reverse chronological order, a small sample of Christian hip-hop (CHH) labels and artists who are expressing their faith while transcending the hokeyness that often plagues the Christian pop industry:
Hazakim — Origins (Wrath & Grace)
I’m the type of person who sees the Bible come alive through apologetics, so Hazakim (Hebrew for “Strong Ones”) has become one of my favorite artists. These Messianic Jewish brothers have put out “hip-hologetics” records since 2001, often taking heat for their opposition to social justice co-opting the faith. Their most famous album, the sophomore LP Theophanies, centered on objections to Jesus from Muslims and orthodox Jews, and their latest project Origins similarly tackles the creation-evolution debate. And yet it’s nothing like the dorky lecture you’d assume; Origins is less about deconstructing a materialist worldview than inviting listeners into wonder at the elegance of God’s engineering, often taking detours into theology revealed by nature. The album isn’t an insecure rationalization, it’s an expression of triumph — impeccably timed with the release of Michael Behe’s third book, Darwin Devolves, and the academic community’s growing realization that the theory’s challenges are insurmountable — and a thesis that, until now, hasn’t really had a worthy artistic translation. A bonus tease for Breitbart fans: keep an ear open for samples of Ben Carson and Andrew Klavan.
Beautiful Eulogy — Worthy (Humble Beast)
Rap? As worship music? There’s no way, right? Well, tell it to these boys from Portland — Bryan “Braille” Winchester, Thomas “Odd Thomas” Terry, and producer Courtland Urbano — who achieved just that in their 2017 masterwork Worthy. These songs are downright liturgical, shifting from adoration to confession to thanksgiving to supplication back to a whole, whole lot of adoration. Urbano’s use of analog instruments (string bass, upright piano… that pipe organ sounds pretty real, but I could be wrong) makes the soundscape both celestial and accessible, and the singalong choruses bookend verses full of powerful couplets I’ve found myself incorporating into prayers. You may find the promotional materials of the Humble Beast label to be a little too artsy-fartsy, but the music itself hits the mark perfectly, and there’s no greater example of its quality than Worthy.
Sareem Poems & Terem — A Pond Apart (Illect)
Sareem Poems, a veteran of the group L.A. Symphony, is one of the best-kept secrets in this subgenre, blessed with an irresistible baritone voice and a compulsion for drastic genre hops on each new album. As his name implies, Sareem seems to relish the role of poet more than MC and shares top billing with his producers. From the jazzy funk of this year’s 88 to Now to the electronica of 2018’s Mind Over Matter and the soul sample smorgasbord of 2017’s A Pond Apart, this prolific artist is always striving to make high art and letting his collaborators pursue their most experimental impulses rather than just imitate what’s trendy.
Bizzle — Light Work (God Over Money)
But hey, you can sound like what’s popular while giving glory to God! Bizzle is the founder of God Over Money, a record label that leans into the 2010s’ catchy, hi-fi mumble rap style that could sneak into rotation at the club — but not to fit in with its meaningless, drug-glorifying culture. Bizzle has always been known for confronting famous rappers — Jay Z, Macklemore, and most recently Joyner Lucas — and calling on them to repent. God Over Money is about getting a seat at the table by speaking the lingua franca — then get some lost toes tapping while challenging the values of that culture.
Eshon Burgundy — The Passover (NFTRY)
Take the lyricism of Sareem Poems and crank up the theology tenfold, and you’ve got Eshon Burgundy — a Philadelphia rapper who likely could have gone on to some level of mainstream success, seeing as he caught the attention of producers like Jazzy Jeff before he fully committed to performing for Christ instead of being “subliminal,” a criticism he often throws at his contemporaries. Eshon just released For the Love of Money, a thrilling if overstuffed manifesto declaring his resolve to lift up Jesus’ name and “never fold” for wealth — but 2016’s The Passover remains his quintessential work. “My past over, I’m passed over,” he marvels in the virtually percussion-less “Intro,” leading to nine more songs exploring the folly of his old life that led to him getting shot and nearly dying on the streets, thanking God for his new life, and walking in faith through this world’s inescapable struggles.
Shai Linne — Lyrical Theology, Pt. 1: Theology (Lamp Mode)
In case you were wondering whether the Reformed/Calvinist wing of CHH takes its theology seriously, I present this LP from Philadelphia pastor Shai Linne, which works the word into its title — twice. While some of the songs skew a little too pedagogical (one is nominally and literally a “Theology Q&A”), Linne translates very deep concepts into simple language. Consider, for example, from “The Hypostatic Union,” this brief but profound explanation of God’s unified plurality revealed in the cross:
Only if you have the Holy Spirit’s antennas
Can you truly understand fallen man’s dilemma
See, only a human can substitute for human lives
But only God can take the wrath of God and survive
There’s a lot more systematic theology to chew on here: an exegesis of Psalm 110, a study (and praise) of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of regeneration seen in John 3 all hit the basics of the faith. And Shai tackles peripheral and controversial issues, too: spiritual warfare, predestination (dogmatically so), eschatology (more flexibly), and on his most famous track “Fal$e Teacher$,” he not only denounces the prosperity gospel but names and shames its biggest proponents.
Zae da Blacksmith & DJ Average Joe — The Mosaic Mixtape (Christcentric)
In case you were wondering whether the Reformed/Calvinist wing of CHH takes hip-hop seriously, I present this LP from Jose Cañas, aka Zae da Blacksmith, and DJ Average Joe. The Mosaic Mixtape is a crash course in the genre’s history and conventions, as well as a satisfying offering of praise. Zae’s gruff delivery over a stockpile of sublime crate-dug samples will get you hyped to look up the dozens of verse references he weaves into his lyrics, while Average Joe’s record scratches of sermons and voicemails from many of the featured players tie provide engaging interludes and transitions between songs — a sort of Greek chorus driving the narrative forward. And there is a meta-narrative to the song order, exploring God’s role as creator, his magnificence, and the greatness of the Holy Scriptures before heading into more practical concerns like marriage and singleness within the church, then a section of confession and praying for revival before an absolute tearjerker of an ending as Timothy Brindle joins Zae to thank God for the certainty He gives about forgiveness and belonging.
Lecrae — Rebel (Reach)
Before Kanye, the face of Christian rap was Lecrae, the biggest star to emerge from the “116 Clique” that also launched the careers of artists like Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, and Andy Mineo. Since 2012, he’s fallen out of fashion in hardcore CHH circles for — well, not denying Christ, because he continues to affirm that he is a Christian — but for shying away from the label “Christian rapper.” Quite a few people noticed the difference when Kanye responded to a similar question: “I’m just a Christian everything.” That contrast, plus some political disagreements, have made ‘Crae anathema to some reformed hip-hop heads, but art can certainly transcend disagreements with the artist, and the man still has a strong catalog from before his crossover attempt. 2008’s Rebel may sound a little dated to modern ears, but so does much of 2008’s chart-topping trap music, even from the likes of Lil Wayne or T.I.
The Cross Movement — House of Representatives (Cross Movement)
These are your favorite Christian rapper’s favorite Christian rappers. They’re not the first ones ever, but the Cross Movement’s MCs were pioneers of serious lyrical theology, flawlessly marrying artistry and ministry, plus inspiring or mentoring most of the other performers on this list. Their two ’90s albums hold up best, with these Philly boys shaped by the east-coast style of contemporaries like Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan. Moody, murky, slowed-down samples with those thick, slightly muffled kicks and hi-hats that sound like a real drum set. Thanks to hip-hop’s cultural dominance in America, the lyrical slang hasn’t aged poorly, and the timeless truth of the message makes Cross Movement both fresh and refreshing to the new listener.