How do you critique someone who’s described by iTunes music as the Christian hip hop sub-genre’s “Bob Marley, Wayne Gretzky [or] Tiger Woods?” for his entrance into the mainstream music world? Lecrae’s Church Clothes—the promotionally groundbreaking mixtape that introduced him outside the devoted yet segregated Christian hip hop scene—has made it difficult to produce satisfying assessments of his music. Is he credited for being a “game-changer” regardless of the artistic end result? Do you demerit the record down for falling short of preexisting standards of Christian music or hip hop music? Is Christian even a sufficient category to engage his art with, and, if so, what do we make of his alleged crossover appeal—what is Lecrae crossing over from, anyway?
While some of us are still trying to figure out how to gauge Lecrae’s overall contribution to hip hop, Anomaly is a step forward in grasping what his music is achieving and how he can take the next step. That challenge makes Lecrae a pop culture anomaly, the descriptor that serves as a perfect title for his seventh LP.
The first track, “Outsiders,” addresses this idea head-on by rallying listeners who are growing comfortable with being true to themselves and ultimately to their faith. Those who don’t grasp the isolated path he walks are reminded that he’s not truly lonely:
If you wanna exclude me for being the true me
I already found my home!
“Say I Won’t” works to advance the album’s theme as Lecrae and Reach Records label-mate Andy Mineo trade clever verses (notwithstanding Mineo’s Action Bronson bite, “just a White man excelling in a Black sport”) about being comically weird (but in a cool way!). The production is intentionally discordant, wrapping a frequently interrupted chime melody with a drumline that gets interrupted as the track progresses. It’s one of the few production risks Lecrae takes on the album, and a worthwhile one.
Lecrae hits home on the brooding “Fear,” creatively shifting the speed of his flow and intensity of his rapping to communicate the degree of anxiety he faces about the opinions of others. Equally poignant is “Good, Bad, Ugly”—a reflective piece on Lecrae’s past experiences with aborting his child and sexual abuse. These tracks succeed because Lecrae roots his call to wholeness and health in an accessible way, pointing to his pain before prescribing a solution.
As Lecrae distances himself from the evangelical audience that perpetually fails to understand why he doesn’t neatly tie up his songs with an altar-call, much of Anomaly ironically remains, well, preachy. “Dirty Water” and “Welcome to America” are Lecrae’s reality rap. Lecrae sermonizes his targets, making an overt indictment of the spoils of Western excess, from American exceptionalism (both tracks) to Christian hypocrisy (“Welcome to America,” behind a great chopped vocal loop).
They’re good, necessary subjects for the hip hop community to wrestle with, but nothing that the cut-rate “conscious” rappers haven’t tackled before, often with similarly excellent cadence and even better wordplay. “Runners,” a condemnation of lust and the male gaze, is even cruder in its presentation of the message, featuring a call and response hook of “don’t do it” to every protestation given by the male in the accompanying skit. Lecrae’s approach here isn’t quite moralistic in the context of his album, but it is more of the same we’ve heard elsewhere (even from him!).
Anomaly at its best is a fascinating exploration of his desire to challenge the failures of both hip hop and Christian establishments alongside his increasing resolve to walk a lonely road, revealing his most personal battles along the way.
Yet at times, Anomaly reminds me of Bill Cosby’s classic illustration of the importance of presentation: a tasty meal served on the familiar plastic sporks and styrofoam plates of past Lecrae records. His messages are holistic, insightful, interconnected, and true. His presentation is clean, mostly safe, occasionally dated, and a little too predictable. When reflecting on the album’s peaks alongside the more redundant cuts on Anomaly, a lyric of his own from the lead-single “Nuthin’” provides the best call—it’s clear that Lecrae’s potential is “greater than the songs [he’s] creating.”